Unfortunately, I was only able to attend one session of the University of Georgia's The Carter Presidency: Lessons for the 21st Century. But I did catch earlier sessions from Saturday and also Sunday morning's session live on C-SPAN. For those that missed the conference but would like to see it, C-SPAN will re-air several portions of the conference this week.
First of all, for all of the criticism that he receives (sometimes, but not always deserved), UGA President Michael Adams and those involved with the planning of the event deserve a lot of credit for putting on a rare, first class and comprehensive look at a presidency that also included the general public. Dr. Adams, himself a former Republican fundraiser and Bush supporter, was extremely gracious and positively participated in all aspects of the conference. As many books as I've read, as many documents as I've reviewed at the Carter Library, and as many videotapes of speeches and appearances of the former president and first lady that I've either purchased or borrowed, I learned a lot from the weekend's panelists and discussions.
As the title suggests, the conference was a 3 day retrospective of Carter's term in office, its eventual affects on later presidencies, and drawing from those experiences what could be useful today. The conference was a bipartisan look that included former President Carter and Mrs. Carter and former Vice President Walter Mondale themselves, along with representatives from the Carter and Clinton administrations, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, former US Senator from TN and former Reagan chief of staff Howard Baker, and various members of the news media that covered the Carter administration including Chris Matthews, Brian Williams, and Judy Woodruff.
I have yet to see any of Friday's sessions. But from what I've seen, the highlights for me were the sessions on the Middle East and foreign policy and the session on the press and their relationship with the Carter administration as compared to subsequent administrations.
I saw Mondale, but never got a chance to hear him speak on any of the topics. But I did get to see and hear the thoughts of another key figure that I've long wanted to meet - Carter's National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski.
I've seen interviews on tv with Brzezinski, and I've read his 2004 book, "The Choice: Global Domination or Global Leadership." Although Brzezinski's writing style was a bit hard for me to read, I think it's an incredibly important book when trying to consider and gage our country's place in the world, particularly post fall of the Soviet Union and post 9/11. His book hits on a few similar themes as Noam Chomsky's books do, although in a way that is more academic and less offensive (some take Chomsky's view of America offensively), yet similarly critical.
Brzezinski still looks and sounds menacing with his Polish accent. But he comes across to me as more of a grandatherly type that's no-nonsense, but wise and hopeful for the future. He doesn't see a bogey man around ever corner. He remains optimistic about the future, even though he's clearly not an admirer of President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and the direction they are trying to lead the country.
As a southerner, discussions about how the Carters and people like Jody Powell, Hamilton Jordan, and Bert Lance were treated in Washington and by the press was very interesting. When I travel (to the northeast in particular) I sometimes get strange looks and a bit of condescension based purely on my accent. Apparently, it doesn't matter if you're the president of the United States. A southern accent brings up negative stereotypes for some people.
The townhall meeting for the general public, was largely like the ones they reguarly put on at the Carter Center in Atlanta. However, coming on the heels of Carter's book, "Palestine: Peace, not Apartheid," there were some pointed questions from a few Jewish or pro-Israel people in the audience. One described himself as a member of the Polish resistance during WWII and one was a holocaust survivor. Considering the racism that Israelis have faced and continue to face, people like the ones asking questions have taken offense at Carter's use of the word "apartheid." Those moments were tense considering the emotions involved. But I thought Carter handled it well. Ultimately, I believe that Carter is trying to do for disenfranchised Palestinians what he previously has done for Jewish dissidents in countries like the former Soviet Union.
Since Ronald Reagan is often times given full credit for the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of the Soviet threat, I enjoyed the personal story that Rosalynn Carter told about visiting the Soviet Union after Carter had been defeated for re-election in 1980. Because of Carter's contact with dissidents and political prisoners like Andrei Sakhorov, a group of students took her to a secret meeting of people who gathered to speak out against the Soviet government. Ultimately, these people credited Carter with doing his part to weaken the Soviet Union from within.
Carter ended the meeting with a rarely told personal story about how he persuaded Egyptian President Anwar Sadat from leaving the Camp David peace negotiations. His voice cracked as he described the tense, nose to nose, standoff as Sadat waited for his helicopter to take him back to D.C.
I know this won't be everyone's cup of tea. But I do recommend catching this on C-SPAN. Given President Carter's age, the next time such a conference on his presidency takes place, he likely won't be there to participate.
Here are some links to the Athens Banner-Herald's excellent coverage:
changing role of first lady
inflation and Carter's re-election hopes
During the week, I may go more in depth with some of the items I found interesting.