Spectator on Jimmy Carter

Although I don’t budge, my day begins at 5:30am with Farming Today. I remember when it was a Balzacian account of rural life, complete with the market prices of feeder cattle, lean hogs, pork bellies and Cornish daffodils. Now it focuses on EU legislation, epic flooding, fruit crops lost, feral hogs, dying bees, pestilence and plague. I wake up every morning in the Old Testament.

By the time the Today programme takes over, I’m drifting back to sleep. It takes a seismic blast to penetrate the fog, such as James Naughtie’s interview with Jimmy Carter a few weeks ago. Mr Naughtie asked the 39th President of the United States how, in the twilight of Tony Blair’s premiership, he would judge the Prime Minister’s support of George Bush. An audible pause preceded Carter’s reply: ‘Abominable. Loyal? blind. Apparently subservient. I think the almost undeviating support of Great Britain for the ill-advised policies of President Bush in Iraq has been a major tragedy for the world.’ It was the word ‘subservient’ that woke me up. I’ve been trying to think of it for the past four years.

I don’t think Oxford University decided to bestow an honorary doctorate on Mr Carter last week based on that interview these things take years to plan but the remarks added lustre to the occasion. By the time the 82-year-old youthful President stood up to address his audience, the frenzy of devotion in the Sheldonian felt more like First Ebenezer Church. But Jimmy Carter is no ordinary former President. He is a rare politician who believes that the priority of politics is justice.

I confess I have a soft spot for Mr Carter. Not because he was a farmer who made it to the White House, but because every morning he was there he listened to half an hour of Mozart or Beethoven. He’s in the history books as the only president who ever went to New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. The opera that evening was Aida. And I get touchy when he’s called a religious fanatic. The most truly Jeffersonian president since Jefferson, he held firmly to the separation of Church and State. Unlike all his successors, Carter never held a prayer service in the White House.

I get touchier still when Carter is called ‘the best ex-President’. True, his achievements since he left office are impressive 27 books, Habitat for Humanity, a long war against deadly diseases in Africa, the monitoring of dubious elections around the world. But his achievements as President weren’t small: the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel that has lasted unbroken for 28 years. The Panama Canal treaties. Relations with China. The foundation for the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The first energy policy. Millions of acres of Alaskan wilderness preserved as a national park.

In the Sheldonian, the young men, some with their academic gowns still slung over their shoulders, looked so young. They weren’t even born when this man was President. Now, they are ‘draft age’. When Mr Carter was elected, the war in Vietnam had ended, but wounds were still raw. The day after he entered the White House, Mr Carter granted amnesty to the young men who had dodged or evaded the draft. He believed that only when the hundreds of thousands of America’s young men could come back home would the country begin to heal. It wasn’t a political decision, it was a moral commitment. And now that’s history.