How touchy is the Bush administration about criticism?
Very touchy, indeed, especially if the source of that criticism is a certain former president.
When Jimmy Carter, whose approval ratings dwarf those of George Bush these days, gets to talking about what's wrong with the current president, the White House spin machine goes into overdrive.
And Carter has been talking.
He told the conservative Arkansas Democrat-Gazette newspaper Saturday that, "I think as far as the adverse impact on the nation around the world, this administration has been the worst in history."
Suggesting that the president has presided over an "overt reversal of America's basic values," Carter drew a clear line of distinction between the current Bush policies and those of another Bush who has occupied the Oval Office, former President George Herbert Walker Bush.
With his misguided approach to the war in Iraq, Carter said, Bush made a "radical departure from all previous administration policies," including those of the president's father.
"We now have endorsed the concept of pre-emptive war where we go to war with another nation militarily, even though our own security is not directly threatened, if we want to change the regime there or if we fear that some time in the future our security might be endangered," explained Carter, who has long been a critic of the Bush administration but whose comments in recent days have been particularly pointed.
In another interview late last week, with the BBC, Carter effectively referred to outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair as Bush's poodle.
Carter criticized Blair's "blind" support of Bush's war in Iraq, suggesting that the British prime minister had been "subservient" to the American president. Noting that Blair's "almost undeviating" allegiance to Bush's Middle East dogmas had done much to legitimize them at precisely the time when they should have been challenged, Carter argued that the prime minister's promotion of "the ill-advised policies of President Bush in Iraq had been a major tragedy for the world."
Lest there be any doubt about his assessment of Blair's contribution to global stability, the Nobel Peace Prize winner termed the prime minister's failure to counter Bush's messianic march to war "abominable."
It is difficult to argue with Carter, not just on the basis of his stature but on the basis of his astute read of the current circumstance. And that's what scares the Bush White House. When a well-regarded former president gets specific about the current president's dramatic failures — and about the damage that is done when foreign leaders align with Bush — this embattled White House gets tense.
So the president's aides are hitting back, with all the muscle they can muster, at Carter.
"I think it's sad that President Carter's reckless personal criticism is out there," griped White House spokesman Tony Fratto, as part of an unusually bitter and specific response issued Sunday from Bush's compound in Crawford, Texas.
In what The Associated Press correctly referred to as "a biting rebuke," Fratto said of Carter's observations: "I think it's unfortunate. And I think he is proving to be increasingly irrelevant with these kinds of comments."
The irony is that there is nothing unfortunate about Carter's remarks for the United States. By making it perfectly clear that Americans are unsettled by their president's reckless disregard for the rule of law and common sense at home and abroad, Carter helps to separate Bush from America in the eyes of the world, which is a very, very good thing for the American people.
Of course, then, the Bush White House is not attacking Carter's comments on their merit. Rather, the attack boils down to a suggestion that, even though they represent a rare example of a former president bluntly criticizing a sitting president, Carter's remarks of a little or no consequence.
What is fascinating is that the White House is claiming that Carter is "increasingly irrelevant" by going out of its way to attack him on one of the current president's many days of rest.
It seems that, if Carter really was as "irrelevant" as the Bush White House would have us believe, the president's aides would not be attacking the former president in such immediate and aggressive terms.
The truth is that Carter is relevant, perhaps more so now than ever. Even as Bush's fortunes decline, the need of dissenting voices is great. And Carter's dissents go to the very heart of the darkness that this administration has brought down upon the United States. For a body politic sorely in need of the tonic of truth, Jimmy Carter's comments are not just relevant, they are an essential to the renewal of a country and a planet badly battered by the madness of a 21st-century King George.
By John Nichols
Reprinted with permission from the The Nation