Sunday, December 3, 2006

He Comes in Peace (and Controversy)

Jimmy Carter Interview

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CHICAGO – He has just spent the last four hours on the telephone, talking with twenty different news outlets about everything from North Korean nuclear missiles to his homemade furniture. At exactly 11:00AM, the eighty-two year old is whisked away to another appointment that, for him, has become quite a busy morning.

But he shows no signs of slowing down, as a camera crew in the middle of his Secret Service detail traces his every move through a whirlwind, cross-country book tour. My interview, should it not end up on the cutting room floor, will join hours of other footage from this hectic week. It's part of an effort by film Director Jonathon Demme (Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia) to document the life of America's most traveled ex-president in the upcoming film "He Comes in Peace."

Enter former President and Nobel laureate Jimmy Carter, here in Chicago to talk about his controversial new book "Palestine: Peace not Apartheid" with the Voice of America.

The book has ignited controversy for the use of the word "apartheid" in the title. U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross has also accused President Carter of using maps in his book that Ross developed for his own book. Amid those accusations, Emory University Professor Kenneth Stein resigned his position as a fellow at the Carter Center, saying that the book contains "factual omissions."

The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights organization, has also weighed in on the book, and says President Carter "abandons all objectivity and unabashedly acts as a virtual spokesman for the Palestinian cause."

Despite all the negative news and controversy that surrounds the book, Carter sympathizes with the Palestinians.

"They are horribly persecuted by the Israelis to deprive them of their basic human rights and this is a fact that is not known and is not debated in this country. In Israel it is debated intensely every day. In Europe and in other parts of the world the whole issue is known and understood and at least discussed. In the United States, this discussion is almost completely absent, and that is why I wrote this book."

It is the 21st published work by the former President, who has also long advocated the state of Israel's right to exist in the Middle East. Peace in the region was a hallmark of his presidency in the late 1970's, and since that time he has watched those prospects evaporate into a continuing cycle of violence. He partly faults the Bush administration for not taking an active role in promoting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

"In the last 6 years, since Bill Clinton left office, there hasn't been one single day of negotiations or peace effort made between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And the whole world, particularly the Muslim world, feels that the United States has taken a completely biased attitude towards circumstances and do not and does not care as a government about what happens to the Palestinians."

Carter also has the distinction of being the only U.S. President to visit North Korea. In 1994, with permission from the White House, he successfully negotiated a nuclear deal with North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung that ultimately avoided U.S. military action. He believes that his efforts are an example of one successful way to deal with the reclusive communist nation.

"My going there with the approval of President Clinton shows that even when you have the most horrible, terrible, threatening disagreements with another power, you ought to talk to them."

He has volunteered his services once again, should he receive permission from the White House, to travel to North Korea to reach a settlement on the current impasse over North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

But when he isn't traveling the world monitoring elections on behalf of the Carter Center, or weighing in on the war in Iraq (he supports most of the findings of the Iraq Study Group and hopes that the findings will be implemented), he's at home behind his keyboard, typing away at yet another two books that should hit stores next year.

One is on the 25th anniversary of the Carter Center. The other? A coffee table book about the furniture he has created with his own hands throughout his life.

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