LEESBURG, Va. — It was hardly coincidental that the Carter Center opened its annual discussion of human rights — the issue that most exemplifies the 39th president’s legacy — to C-SPAN viewers and some journalists who covered America’s longest-living chief executive.
And the message of the issue’s continuing relevance was underscored by the fortuitous scheduling of last week’s session, which featured a trio of feisty nonagenarians — Carter, his wife, Rosalynn, and his vice president, Walter Mondale.
It came just days after President Donald Trump’s disdain for human rights was exemplified by a heart-wrenching picture of a father and toddler daughter who drowned while seeking freedom on the nation’s southern border — and on a weekend where Trump hobnobbed with autocrats at a global conference in Japan and in Korea.
“Every day, we send a disgraceful signal around the world that this is what this present United States government stands for,” declared the 94-year-old Carter, his mind still lively though his gait was slowed by his need for a walker after hip replacement surgery. “I hope it will soon be ended, maybe not until the 2020 elections,” he added.
Though human rights occupied most of the hour-long session, Carter created an unexpected headline by questioning Trump’s legitimacy. Without citing any specific new evidence, he contended a full investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election “would show that Trump didn’t actually win the election” but “was put into office because the Russians interfered on his behalf.”
Mondale, equally unrestrained, said “doctors tell me they think they recognize symptoms of psychiatric-psychological problems,” adding “there’s something deep inside him that’s detestable.”
(Their comments came soon after Trump, again showing his refusal to take seriously the considerable evidence of Russia’s 2016 interference, joked with Vladimir Putin about their mutual disdain for “fake news” at the G-20 economic summit in Japan. When a reporter asked if he would press Putin to refrain from meddling again next year, he pointed at the Russian president and, with a slight smile, twice told him half-heartedly, “Don’t meddle in our elections.”)
Carter’s comments about Trump’s legitimacy provided something of a side show to a session the Carter Center’s managers — its chairman is the former president’s grandson, Jason — intended to send a message about the continuing relevance of human rights though the former president’s legacy is widely ignored by autocrats abroad and a disdainful president at home.
During his lone term, Carter established a Human Rights Bureau in the State Department, signed the United Nations Human Rights Treaty, reached out to dissidents in the Soviet Union and repeatedly criticized repressive governments around the world.
“Jimmy Carter was the first president to make human rights a central feature of his foreign policy, and all other presidents since are measured by his standard,” declared Stuart Eizenstat, Carter’s domestic policy adviser and author of “President Carter: The White House Years,” the definitive biography of the 39th president.
Asked by moderator Jon Meacham to provide “an example…or a case study of how we should be doing this (today),” Mondale cited Carter’s decision to give sanctuary to thousands of Vietnamese “boat people” expelled by their country’s Communist government in the late 1970s.
“The first thing these poor people in the boat saw was the American Navy trying to help them,” he said. “I don’t think these people will ever get over that.”
Left unsaid was the sharp contrast with the way Trump’s policies reject Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States, both illegally and legally, partly by tarring them as criminals and gang members, though statistics show those represent but a small percentage.
That’s not the only way Trump is a miserable failure by Carter’s human rights standard.
Since becoming president, he has shown no interest in disparaging human rights abuses abroad and has embraced such brutal dictators as Putin, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In Tokyo, Trump had kind words for Putin, Erdogan and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, considered the mastermind of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Then, he crossed Korea’s Demilitarized Zone Sunday to meet Kim, calling it “a great honor.”
Still, the worst part of Trump’s anti-human rights policies is his persistent disparagement of racial and religious minority groups at home, while dismantling governmental efforts to help them. His words and acts not only stir domestic divisions, but diminish America’s historic standing as a beacon of freedom for oppressed people.
The immigration issue has many complexities, but human rights is one of the major aspects playing out along the southern border. Rather than process refugees in a way that determines which of them are legitimate candidates for asylum, Trump has made them political pawns. His policy of separating children from their families in hopes of discouraging the influx has only made things worse.
As the United States celebrates our national holiday this week, the Carter Center seminar was a useful reminder of some things that helped make America great. Trump, typically, will celebrate the holiday primarily by celebrating himself.