“This is the first time I’ve ever been called a liar,” said former President Jimmy Carter during his much-ballyhooed foray into the lion’s den of Brandeis University this week.
This, of course, is a lie.
The most talked-about article to appear during the 1976 presidential campaign was “Jimmy Carter’s Pathetic Lies.” Appearing in Harper’s, it contained Steven Brill’s account of several days spent accompanying Carter on the campaign trail, in the course of which Brill discovered that most of what Carter told audiences about himself was simply false.
Invariably Carter introduced himself as a “nuclear physicist and a peanut farmer.” He was neither: he held only a bachelor’s degree, and he owned a peanut warehouse. He invited listeners to write to him. “Just put ‘Jimmy Carter, Plains, Georgia’ on the envelope, and I’ll get it. I open every letter myself and read them all.” But Carter’s press secretary admitted to Brill that all mail so addressed was forwarded to the campaign staff in Atlanta. Carter boasted that at the completion of his term as governor he had left Georgia with a budget surplus of $200 million, but Brill discovered that the true amount was $43 million, which was all that remained of a $91 million surplus Carter had inherited when he took office. Carter described an innovative program he had pioneered, employing welfare mothers to care for the mentally handicapped. “You should see them bathing and feeding the retarded children. They’re the best workers we have in the state government,” he enthused to audiences. But there was no way to see them–they did not, in fact, exist, as Brill learned from state officials. “I guess he was mistaken,” conceded Carter’s press secretary. Brill’s piece contained much more in this vein.
In Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, his recent book on the Middle East, Carter repeats the egregious lie that he set out twenty-odd years ago in his previous book on the subject–namely, that in the 1967 war Israel preemptively attacked Jordan. This is no small matter: it was from Jordan that Israel took the West Bank, the focus of most of today’s controversy. But the record is abundantly clear that while preemptively attacking Egypt and Syria, Israel pleaded with Jordan (through American intermediaries) to stay out of the fray. King Hussein felt he could not do that, so he ordered his forces to attack Israel, and the Israelis fought back. Both Carter’s old book and the new one are replete with countless other outright lies as well as less outright ones (as others have pointed out).
Whatever the subject, Carter makes a specialty of exploiting grammatical ambiguities to leave listeners or readers with the impression that he has said one thing, while a precise examination of his words shows them to mean something else. In a 2003 op-ed in USA Today on the North Korean nuclear crisis, he wrote: “There must be verifiable assurances that prevent North Korea from becoming a threatening nuclear power.” The average reader might think that the word “threatening” is merely descriptive. But, in fact, Carter had fought to allow Pyongyang to have some nuclear weapons, because he believed that was the price of an agreement. The word “threatening,” as Carter used it, actually meant that North Korea could have some nuclear weapons–but not so many as to be “threatening.”
This raises an obvious question: how many nukes, exactly, would that be? Carter hasn’t told us yet, but if he ever does, make sure to read his words carefully.