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Carter looks good compared to Bush

Is President Bush unwittingly rehabilitating Jimmy Carter's reputation?

It's hard to say, but the perception of Carter is surely changing. A year or two ago, mentioning the Carter presidency, especially in Jimmy's native Georgia, was certain to evoke derisive guffaws. In recent months, the snickers have subsided.

Is it possible that Carter is right about war in the Middle East? Does talk beat bullets every time in an international crisis? Is it really more fun to be loved than hated by our global neighbors?

Don't get me wrong. No one I know is forming a Jimmy Carter fan club. The fellows down at the Legion Hall will still tell you that Carter was a girly-guy in the White House.

It took forever to free American hostages in Iran. In fact, the Iranians thumbed their noses at the 39th president of the United States. They didn't release the hostages until Ronald Reagan was ready to move into the Oval Office.

"President Peanut," as some called Carter, had to beg and beg and beg Egypt's Anwar Sadat and Israel's Menachem Begin to make peace. "Any way you cut it, Carter was really a wimp president," says one Carter critic, and many agree.

Carter's immediate successors didn't enhance his presidential reputation.

Reagan was a larger-than-life actor. Sure, we lost the lives of 240 military personnel in Lebanon on Reagan's watch, but don't forget this: We rescued a bunch of stranded medical students in the invasion of Grenada.

George Bush the elder was a master statesman who made friends everywhere for the United States.

King Democrat Bill Clinton was a different sort. You didn't hear any of that "lust in my heart" stuff from him. When it came to lust, Clinton didn't waste time on talk. America's first rock 'n' roll president also ushered in an era of prosperity that the Carter team could only long for.

Some historians began to rate Carter among our worst presidents. Kinder writers insisted on referring to him as "our most accomplished former president."

Then along came George W. Bush and the Sept. 11 attacks. For a few weeks, Bush's popularity eclipsed even his father's after Desert Storm. When W took us to war in Afghanistan, almost no one objected. After all, Afghanistan offered shelter to those who wanted to destroy us.

Next we invaded Iraq to rid the world of Saddam Hussein and the ever-elusive weapons of mass destruction. Now we are bogged down in a murderous civil war in Iraq.

More than 2,500 American soldiers have died in combat. Thousands of others have been maimed for life. The Muslim world, incensed at reports of repeated atrocities, has come to despise us as never before.

Our most loyal remaining ally, Israel, is locked in a war with Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon. Civilians, many of them children, are dying in the fighting.

Bush's popularity sags nationally. Even a few Georgians are beginning to question the administration's record, though most of our congressional delegation remain loyal members of W's amen chorus.

So how do Bush's problems help Carter's legacy? For one thing, relatively little American blood was spilled during the Carter years. None of the hostages in Iran lost their lives or were seriously hurt. No American GIs died in combat, though several were killed accidentally in an aborted hostage-rescue attempt.

Carter's Camp David accords achieved a lasting peace between Egypt and Israel. If Egypt were arrayed against Israel today, the Middle East would be on its way to total war.

In an op-ed piece in the Washington Post last week, Carter warned of the destabilizing effect of delaying peace talks in the Israel-Hezbollah conflict.

"Failure to address the issues and leaders involved risks the creation of an arc of even greater instability running from Jerusalem through Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Tehran," Carter wrote.

Hardly anyone outside Washington picked up the Carter article. Many Israelis believe Carter is pro-Arab. The ex-president does not enjoy wide popularity among American Jews. Carter also has been roundly criticized across the country for opposing Bush's policies.

Nevertheless:

•While civil war expands in Iraq and Americans continue to be killed and bombs and cannon shells rain down on Israel and Lebanon,

•While gas prices soar in the U.S. and illegal aliens swarm across our borders,

•While the cost of health care spirals, New Orleans lays in ruins, our education system rots, our trade deficit skyrockets and China and India overtake us,

•While all of the above and more are happening, President George W. Bush announces he's going on vacation again.

Now tell me that Jimmy Carter doesn't look better by the day.

Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. Write him at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30160, or e-mail bshipp@bellsouth.net. His Web site is www.billshipp.com. His column appears on Wednesday and Sunday.