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White House doesn't turn the other cheek

May 21, 2007|James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writer

CRAWFORD, TEXAS — Perhaps not since Herbert Hoover took issue with the blame heaped on him for the Great Depression by Franklin D. Roosevelt have two presidents or their spokesmen feuded quite so publicly -- and angrily -- as former President Carter and President Bush. On Sunday, the White House fired a new salvo.

Carter kicked off the war of words by declaring that Bush's tenure in the White House was "the worst in history" in terms of international relations.

Then Bush spokesman Tony Fratto, who had shrugged off the comment Saturday, returned fire. Responding to a question Sunday, he said Carter's criticism had been "reckless" and "out there."

"It's unfortunate," he added. "He has proven to be increasingly irrelevant with these sorts of comments."

The exchange broke the unwritten code of the presidential fraternity -- that members treat each other gently.

For a Democratic former president to find fault with the conduct of a GOP president was not surprising. Nor was a White House decision to respond.

But the vehemence of the language was unusual -- especially in contrast to the friendship that Bush's father has developed with former President Clinton, who tossed him out of office after one term in the bitter 1992 campaign.

So against that recent history of cross-party fraternization, Carter's broadside was surprising. Speaking to BBC Radio, he said, "The almost undeviating support by Great Britain for the ill-advised policies of President Bush in Iraq have been a major tragedy for the world."

In a telephone interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Carter was quoted as saying, "I think as far as the adverse impact on the nation around the world, this administration has been the worst in history."

Bush, spending the weekend at his ranch in Crawford, had no public comment Sunday.

Lloyd Gardner, a professor of American history at Rutgers University, said, "Hoover had some pretty harsh things to say about his successor," but "Carter has gone beyond anything Hoover has said."

Then again, he added, Carter prides himself "in being different" and "a lot less concerned about pleasing everybody," and the White House is less receptive to criticism these days.

"There's a feeling there of very much being cornered and wounded, and they're going to strike back," Gardner said.

james.gerstenzang @latimes.com

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