Carter and Blair: two tales of post-power hope

When President Carter addressed a crowd of well-wishers in London, the unavoidable comparison was with the post-leadership of Tony Blair
Tony Curzon Price
Tony Curzon Price
6 October 2011

President Jimmy Carter was in London yesterday and addressed a crowd of over 2,000 at Royal Festival Hall. The audience had paid a hefty ticket price - £15-£40 - for the event - it was held in aid of the Carter Center (and, disclosure, was put together by Intelligence Squared for whom I work part time).

There were three marking impressions from the evening for me. The first quite general, and the other two related to highly specific points of detail.

So first, the very general: 2,000 people had gathered to hear the wisdom of an elder. There was something ritualistic and tribal about it - the tribe that evening being the kind of diverse, urban collection that is one of the pleasures of London: well-dressed mid-Atlantic, middle-aged couples, earnest students, all sorts of diasporas, gay couples, precocious children taken out to see a piece of history, as if to the museum. The tribe clapped President Carter's suport for a Palestinian state, clapped when he said that he criticises and continues to criticise Tony Blair for his decision to go to war in Iraq, laughed when he wouldn't say which Harry Potter character he identified with ... Everyone was charmed. All the Hope that President Obama had aroused beyond his borders found a new home for that evening. A decent America that has a clear belief in its manifest destiny but which really does put human rights, sovereignty and international law at the heart of its world view. The kind of military super-power that one feels one really could live with ... if it ever had a chance of holding sway in the day-to-day reality of imperial might.

For a moment that evening, the tribe believed that this world was possible. President Carter was careful not to criticise his current president, but I imagine that many will have remembered the Hopes they had pinned on Obama. How much easier it is to embody those hopes when you do not wield ultimate power, perhaps.

Carter ended the evening with a film about his campaign to eradicate Guinea Worm. Thanks to his efforts, the number of cases have fallen from 26m to 1,000 in 25 years. If the last 1,000 cases can be treated, he will have eradicated a disease - only the second time this has been achieved. When the enemy is literally a worm, victory really can be unambiguously good. The last worm will not doubt be preserved in a laboratory, its DNA sequenced, its potential to redeem its position in human history ever present. President Carter talked about his Evangelical Baptist vocation - he teaches Sunday School whenever he is at home on a Sunday in Plains, Georgia (600 inhabitants when he moved there, according to the President). Jon Snow - charming interviewer - did not press him on the question of theodicy, on why a benevolent creator had made the Guinea Worm or made it necessary for the Carter Center to raise another £17m to undo the creation.

But enough generality; now for the two details that stood out from the tapestry of well-meant hope. First, a reflection on power. Jon Snow wanted to know whether President Obama was right to have authorised the execution of Osama bin Laden. Carter was rapid, unambiguous and firm: "Yes". He hardly elaborated. One might have expected - in an evening in which he showed complete respect for the sovereignty of others, for the importance of international law - a response that paid lip-service to all of that. But one felt that in answering the question, he was back in the position of acting President. Law goes so far. This was his vicariously Schmidtian moment - the President could trample on his cherished principles in that one imagined decision. For the audience, this in a way underlined the seriousness of all the President's answers: he was not talking cheaply as an activist, but as if he were President. The moment underlined the extent to which he still thinks as a man of power.

Which brings me on to the second detail. As I have already said, the audience clapped when the president criticised Tony Blair. But there was also another, unspoken way that Blair hovered in the conversation. Jon Snow raised a laugh when he told the audience that he knew how modestly the President continues to live because he had been outside Carter's bungalow in Plaines, Georgia (and here was the laugh: he added, sheepishly, "as a journalist", as if he had admitted to a bad habit).

Carter picked up the conversation explained that he lived very well - he sold books, held a professorship and made speeches. He made enough money to put funds into the Carter Center rather than take them out. So here was the ex-leader, the statesman, the man of power who could unblinkingly justify ordering an assassination in a foreign country, but describing a life consistent with his moral authority. That is the power of an ex-leader. Who in the audience could avoid thinking of Tony Blair? Peter Oborne's investigation into Blair's post-leadership empire (see "On the desert trail of Tony Blair's millions") shows the other path - personal gain, not public service; enrichment, not moral authority; office whose main function is to house a revolving door rather than symbolise legitimately bestowed authority...

President Carter seemed to genuinely sympathise with the pressures that Obama faces in trying to turn the American super-tanker. It may be that we are in a world today that is impossibly hard to lead in the way that Carter intimated might be possible. The realism of idealists may require trimming. But what we can neverthelss do, in thinking about the leaders we make today and the political systems they emerge from, is to consider what sorts of post-leaders we are making: Carter, or Blair?

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