WASHINGTON - The shock of white hair, the depthless blue eyes, the soft Georgia accent are all the same. But the venom pouring from former President Jimmy Carter as he peddles his 20th book is new.
"I wrote this book with trepidation reluctantly," the 81-year-old former president said to reporters over breakfast at dawn yesterday before going on another round of TV talk shows.
Mr. Carter says his new volume, Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis, is his first "political" book. Its publication this week has become the occasion for him to attack the current President, George W. Bush, for "arrogance" and using his "fundamentalism" to justify taking the country in a direction Mr. Carter believes it does not want to go.
Mr. Carter defines that direction as pre-emptive war, abandoning human-rights agreements, blurring the lines between church and state, and chipping away at civil liberties. He is outraged, he said, that the administration has secret prisons abroad and has been arguing against a congressional ban forbidding torture of all foreign prisoners.
"I never dreamed we'd ever even consider that," he said, shaking his head.
Mr. Carter's lowest job approval rating was 28 percent, far lower than Mr. Bush's, currently in the mid to upper 30s, depending on the poll. After leaving the presidency in 1981, Mr. Carter won a Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian work through the Carter Center which he founded.
He is, he says with a laugh, a better ex-president than he was a president.
Although he often quarreled with former President Clinton over his trips to North Korea and Haiti and vigorously opposed the Iraq war in 2003, he has chosen to speak out harshly against Mr. Bush this week, breaking an unwritten rule that past presidents do not publicly criticize current presidents.
On every major TV network, he has argued the Bush Administration is abrogating "almost every international agreement" the United States has signed and leading a "transformation" of American values. "I have been reluctant to criticize this President," he said yesterday. "But this President has radically departed from [the policies] of all previous presidents."
Mr. Carter's previous books have been on aging or faith or fly fishing or life after the White House (painful, for him and his wife, until they found their bearings). One was a children's book. One was a novel.
The 39th president has never been shy about speaking his mind. But, this week, he has become far more forceful about it.
His new book argues passionately that civility is gone from government, replaced with unyielding partisanship.
He complains that all efforts to rein in deficit spending have disappeared. He is angry that there is a new policy of invading countries not a direct threat to national security. He argues long-term peacekeeping commitments have been dumped. He frets that separation of church and state is nominal only, that civil liberties and personal privacy are in jeopardy, that the nation is no longer in the forefront of protecting the environment.
But it is his criticism of the administration that is jarring from a man long-thought to be mild-mannered, even, according to his critics, to have been an ineffectual president. He will not apologize. His administration, he said, had a "strong defense. We sought to balance the budget. We kept the country at peace. We worked hard on human rights."
Mr. Bush, he said, is indicative of a new trend in politics - a leader fueled by his own religious beliefs who believes that only his way is correct. He said that while he is convinced Mr. Bush is sincere in his Christian faith, the President's "fundamentalism" makes him rigid and unable to admit mistakes, ready to attack those who disagree with him.
Asked what he thinks motivates Islamic radicals, he says they are burdened by a belief that God hates those who think differently than they do, and wants them dead.
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