Former President Jimmy Carter is reportedly in a snit, after being excluded from the official U.S. delegation that will attend the funeral of Pope John Paul II.
The "official" account of the travel imbroligo (printed in today's Washington Post), suggests that Mr. Carter asked to attend the funeral, as part of the delegation, then withdrew his request after being told the U.S. contingent would be limited to only five seats. Those chairs will be filled by President Bush, his wife Laura, former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, and Secretary of State Condolezza Rice.
However, some Democrats (and Mr. Carter's friends in the MSM) are suggesting he was snubbed by the Bush Administration, perhaps for his strident criticism of U.S. foreign policy-- including the War in Iraq--during the run-up to last year's Presidential election.
Republicans counter with another version of the story. On Sunday, barely 24 hours after the Pope died, a Carter aide brazenly informed the White House that "Mr. Carter would be happy to lead the U.S. delegation, if President Bush did not plan to attend." The former President subsequently learned that yes, Mr. Bush would attend, and no, his services would not be required.
We may never know exactly what transpired, but I tend to side with the latter version of this episode. Mr. Carter's post-presidential career has been largely devoted to rehabilitating his image, which was thoroughly tarnished by the myriad failures of his administration. This process dictates frequent public exposure, allowing Mr. Carter to assume the mantel of elder statesman. Whether he actually deserves that status will be left to the judgement of history.
On a more practical level, there are plenty of reasons to leave Mr. Carter back in Georgia. During his Presidency, he had the opportunity to attend not one, but two, papal funerals (Pope Paul VI and John Paul I), but for some reason, he elected to stay home. One wonders if the Vatican felt "snubbed" by those presidential no-shows.
More importantly, Mr. Carter sometimes espoused positions and policies that ran counter to those of John Paul II. While the Pope backed pro-Democratic forces behind the Iron Curtain, President Carter was urging better relations with the former Soviet Union, which expanded its influence during the late 1970s. Mr. Carter and the Pope offered an interesting dichotomy; the American President embracing Soviet leader Breznehv, while John Paul told his fellow Poles "be not afraid."
Mr. Carter also declined to establish full diplomatic relations with the Vatican, a situation corrected by his successor, Ronald Reagan. Under Mr. Reagan, the U.S. forged a close working relationship with Pope John Paul, working toward the common goal of ending communism in Eastern Europe. During his first meeting with the pontiff, President Reagan reportedly asked John Paul when communism would fall. "In my lifetime," the Pope replied. Reagan and his advisers recognized that John Paul was serious, and represented a powerful ally in the fight against the "Evil Empire." We can only speculate why Mr. Carter didn't make similar overtures during his presidency, particularly after the Pope's dramatic 1979 visit to Poland that helped spark the Solidarity movement.
Additionally, Mr. Carter enjoyed a chummy relationship with the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, a regime that tried to embarass the Pope during a visit to that country. During an appearance in Managua, Sandinista technicians used a back-up sound system to drown the Pope's remarks with pro-regime shouts and slogans. Clearly agitated, John Paul shouted "silencio" to the crowd, as he tried to finish his sermon. The Sandinistas were upset because the Pope opposed "revolution theology," the virulent philosophy that endorsed insurgent violence, and placed bishops and priests in league with Marxists. Sandinista leaders saw the Managua event as an opportunity to humiliate the Pope and score cheap political points. To my knowledge, Mr. Carter never repudiated the Sandinistas, nor their shameful treatment of Pope John Paul.
From my perspective, Mr. Carter's actions provide plenty of reasons to keep him out of the official delegation. Friday's funeral will honor the life of a true leader and visionary who had the courage of his convictions. It is not a photo op or an image builder for a failed former president. Leaving Mr. Carter at home was the right call, at the right time...