During a telephone interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Mr. Carter said that the Bush administration "has been the worst in history" in terms of international relations. Lots of folks inside and outside the Beltway were surprised. They weren't surprised that he has this viewpoint (Mr. Carter has been consistently opposed to the war in Iraq and other elements of the current administration's foreign policy), but rather that he breached one of the unwritten rules of presidential etiquette by coming right out and saying it.
I know that great athletes have historically made some pretty disparaging remarks about succeeding generations. In 1959, Mr. Carter's fellow Georgian, baseball great Ty Cobb was asked how he would fare against the current crop of pitchers. Cobb had retired from the game in 1928 with a lifetime batting average of .366. He responded that he thought he'd hit only .300. When asked why, Cobb responded "You've got to remember, I'm 73." I got the sense while watching an interview with Wilt Chamberlain during the 1997 NBA All-Star Game that Wilt the Stilt still felt that he was capable of a 100 point night if someone could just find him a jersey and a pair of shorts.
Ex-presidents are apparently held to a higher standard.
I can see the reasons for this. These guys belong to an incredibly elite club. Only 43 men have held the office. Of those 43, only 4 remain among the living. We all know that these guys do not march in ideological lock-step. In addition, we're aware that there are all sorts of personal rivalries at work. The Carter-Mondale ticket was defeated by a ticket that included President George H.W. Bush. Bush 41 was defeated by Bill Clinton. Clinton's veep, Al Gore, was in turn defeated by Bush 43.
Although we usually have to read between the lines or learn the information third-hand, it's not as if former presidents have never sniped at current ones. Teddy Roosevelt was not shy about making derogatory remarks about Presidents Taft and Wilson. Of course, TR didn't use phrases like "worst in history" he just called Taft a "fathead". Then again, TR didn't try to "clarify" his remarks either. I wonder what TR would have called that sort of backpedaling.
Mr. Carter appeared Monday on "Today on NBC" to try to add some context to his comments. He denied that he was talking personally about President Bush. He further stated that his remarks were "careless or misinterpreted."
I was a little bit disappointed by this semi-retraction. I found his initial honesty refreshing, and not just because I think his statements were accurate. No, I like the notion of a former president adopting the role of the curmudgeonly retired superstar, not hesitating to say that the current crop of players couldn't carry his jockstrap in a suitcase. I think that a feud between Bush 41 and Bill Clinton would be a whole lot more interesting than Rosie O'Donnell vs. Donald Trump.