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The Scandal That Wasn’t

Okay, I admit it. Everybody’s got a weakness. For some, it’s Godiva chocolates. For me, it’s Jimmy Carter. How can one not like a man who says things like “Usually a president’s image is enhanced by going to war. That didn’t appeal to me?”

Okay, so he may surround himself with more controversy than secret service, but no one will ever accuse the former peanut farmer, and president of being a phony. He has antagonized just about every important political figure of our time, including his immediate successor Ronald Reagan. He alienated many by calling Israel an “apartheid state.”

Remember that it was then President Carter who refused to go along with pagan chants to bomb Iran when those 52 American hostages were taken, a move that may have cost him reelection.

As a form of timed release as Mr. Carter’s “White House Diary” comes out, Jimmy Carter sat down for an interview with Leslie Stahl (no relation) and, true to form, shocked yet again by saying that it was he who had what he called “comprehensive” health reform legislation first, and that his then political rival, Senator Ted Kennedy, “killed the bill.” He portrayed the lion of the Senate as “abusive,” and Stahl read selections from Carter’s “Diary” that suggested Kennedy had been kicked out of college, and other scurrilous things.

Disclosure number two: I’m also a big fan of Ted Kennedy’s.

This is not about liking or disliking. This is not about defamation of character. This is not about speaking ill of the dead. In his book, and during the interview, it was pointed out that Mr. Carter roundly criticized Ronald Reagan, suggesting that a renaissance in racism happened on Reagan’s watch.

But, the obvious is often the most elusive element in the equation. Jimmy Carter was being interviewed about his newly published diary which he wrote while he was president of the United States. Ostensibly, each day he was in office, he recounted his experiences, his ruminations, events of importance, any trials and tribulations.

Forget location, context is everything. Should his “Diary” be an autobiography, or a memoir, it may be fair to question the judgment of a president, and a man, who would speak poorly of a former colleague, but no one should be expected to redact, or bury any personal complications that arose with one of his peers.

At the close of the 60 Minutes interview, correspondent Leslie Stahl made sure to note that whatever enmity may have existed between Carter and Kennedy was resolved, and the two worked closely and amicably after Carter left the White House.

Ultimately, it comes down to this. If you don’t want to hear what he really thinks, don’t ask Jimmy Carter. That’s one of his great virtues. He calls them as he sees them as did Senator Kennedy. Ted Kennedy was no stranger to speaking his mind. That is what I respect most about both men.

Mr. Carter’s outspokenness on the subject of Ted Kennedy is not the stuff from which a scandal emerges. They are the reflections of a man who maybe resents having the four years he presided over a peaceful country seen as a failed presidency. These are the words of a man who wants to set the record straight more than to demonize any past political rivals

Should Jimmy Carter be made to retract, or recant his statements about Ted Kennedy or anyone else, it would be a huge disservice to history, and one that Mr. Kennedy himself would abjure.

JAYNE LYN STAHL is a widely published poet, essayist, playwright, and screenwriter, member of PEN American Center, and PEN USA.

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JAYNE LYN STAHL is a widely published poet, essayist, playwright, and screenwriter, member of PEN American Center, and PEN USA.

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