Reporting Carter comments, media repeat myth of “unwritten rule” against ex-presidents criticizing successors

On the May 21 edition of NBC's Nightly News, anchor Brian Williams teased a segment on former President Jimmy Carter's (D) recent criticism of President Bush by asking, "[D]id a former president break an unwritten rule when commenting on the current president?" Williams later asserted that "[t]he thought has been there are four guys alive who know the pressures of" the presidency -- “three former, one current president” -- and “there's kind of an unwritten rule about criticism.” Similarly, during the May 21 broadcast of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, Weekly Standard executive editor Fred Barnes asserted that “Carter's remarks were unprecedented,” and also claimed that one of the things “former presidents didn't do” was “criticize their successors.” In fact, as The New York Times reported May 22, “there have been several instances of 'when ex-presidents attack' over the years” and “presidential scholars roll their eyes at the notion that former presidents do not speak ill of current ones.”

From the Times article, headlined “When Former Presidents Assail the Chief”:

Nothing rattles Washington quite like a good violation of unwritten rules, especially when the violator and the violated are both presidents (past and present, respectively).


“I love how because of our short memories, we come up with these eternal rules that don't really apply,” said the historian Tim Naftali, the director-designate of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.

Indeed, there have been several instances of “when ex-presidents attack” over the years. As recently as a few months ago, former President Gerald R. Ford criticized Mr. Bush's Iraq policy, albeit from the grave. In an article in The Washington Post, Bob Woodward quoted from an interview he conducted with Mr. Ford with the understanding that he could only publish Mr. Ford's remarks after he died.

Eisenhower was critical of John F. Kennedy's domestic policies, the first President Bush pounded on Bill Clinton, now his pal, for his Haiti policy, and Nixon chided the first President Bush (for comparing himself to Harry Truman in his 1992 re-election campaign).

Theodore Roosevelt was brutal in his assaults on Taft and Woodrow Wilson, said Patricia O'Toole, author of “When Trumpets Call,” a book about Roosevelt in the years after he left office. She pointed out, however, that Roosevelt would run for president again, putting him in something of a different category than Mr. Carter (who by all accounts will not).

Still, Mr. Carter did not call President Bush a “puzzlewit” and a “fathead” as Roosevelt did Taft, according to “When Trumpets Call.”

Yet, despite this well-documented history, many in the media have regularly insisted, as Williams did, that an “unwritten rule” exists which prohibits former presidents from speaking out against current ones, often while discussing a former president doing exactly that. For instance:

  • A November 16, 2005, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial on Carter's book, Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis (Simon & Schuster, 2005) asserted that Carter had violated "[o]ne of the great unwritten rules of modern political life" which “is that former presidents do not publicly criticize the policies of a sitting successor.”
  • Similarly, a November 4, 2005, Post-Gazette news article on Carter's book and publicity tour asserted that “Mr. Carter has chosen to speak out harshly against Mr. Bush this week -- breaking an unwritten rule that past presidents do not publicly criticize the current one.”
  • A November 4, 2005, Christian Science Monitor review of Carter's book stated that "[i]t is decidedly unusual for a former president to publicly castigate the policies of a sitting president." The review also noted that Carter “saved some criticism for his own Democratic Party” by noting his opposition to some members' allegedly “overemphasizing the abortion issue.”
  • On the September 19, 2005, edition of Fox News' Special Report, host Brit Hume claimed that Clinton, in an interview on ABC, did something that President George H.W. Bush “did not do, and that is criticize the sitting president and his administration.” In fact, as Media Matters for America noted, former President Bush repeatedly made comments critical of Clinton, while Clinton was in office. Hume later issued an on-air correction.
  • In his September 11, 2005, column, Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Jim Wooten stated of Carter's criticism of the federal government's slow response to Hurricane Katrina: “The willingness of a former president to stand on foreign soil and criticize a sitting president, as Jimmy Carter did, redefines the presumed rules of political engagement.”
  • A September 14, 2003, Los Angeles Times article discussed the alleged “unwritten rule” while reporting on Clinton's criticism of “President Bush's tendency to discount longtime allies and such organizations as the United Nations in making foreign policy decisions.” In making such judgments, according to the Times, “Clinton carefully tested the unwritten rule against former presidents criticizing the current officeholder.”
  • On the May 29, 2003, edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes, columnist and former Rep. John LeBoutillier (R-NY) claimed, unchallenged, that “both before it [the Iraq war] and during it, Bill Clinton was very critical of the Bush administration, violating an unwritten but usually honored rule by ex-presidents not to criticize their immediate successor.”
  • A November 3, 2002, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial again claimed "[t]here is an unwritten rule that former presidents and secretaries of state don't criticize current foreign policy."
  • An October 15, 2001, Daily Oklahoman editorial stated of Carter's criticism of “President Bush's Iraq policy”: “Carter, as he has done before, broke the unwritten rule that former presidents do not criticize the current chief executive.”
  • In an August 1, 2002, article on a “Rose Garden ceremony” in which Bush accepted “the recommendations of a blue-ribbon election reform commission” of which Carter was co-chairman, the New York Daily News reported that "[n]o mention was made of Carter's" recent criticism of Bush's “policies,” which “violated the unwritten rule that former Presidents don't bash their successors.”
  • Another Daily Oklahoman editorial, this one from July 30, 2001, claimed that Carter's “comments” critical of Bush's “positions on global warming, missile defense and the Middle East ... broke a tradition of former presidents not publicly criticizing their successors.”
  • A June 8, 1999, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article stated of Ford's and Carter's criticism of Clinton's Kosovo policy: “There's an unwritten rule that former presidents refrain from criticizing the current occupant of the White House. But President Clinton's policies in Kosovo have prompted two former commanders in chief to speak out.” Ford had said “that Clinton 'miscalculated the potency, the potential success' of an exclusively air war with Yugoslavia, amongst other things, and, according to the Sentinel, Carter ”accused Clinton of failing to exhaust negotiations before using a bombing campaign that included cluster bombs that 'kill or maim' Serbian troops."

From the May 21 edition of NBC's Nightly News:

WILLIAMS: And when we come back here tonight, did a former president break an unwritten rule when commenting on the current president? We'll have the White House dustup when we continue.


WILLIAMS: And, David, while we have you, let's talk about Jimmy Carter. In one interview, he criticized President Bush. In another, in a BBC interview, he criticized Bush's relationship with Tony Blair. The thought always has been there are four guys alive who know the pressures of that office -- three former, one current president -- that there's kind of an unwritten rule about criticism. What has the White House said in return?

GREGORY: Well, the president tried to play all of this down. It goes back to the former president's comments about this administration perhaps being the worst in history because of its foreign policy and America's position in the rest of the world. Jimmy Carter appeared on Today this morning with Meredith Vieira, saying perhaps those words were misinterpreted or careless, he said. The president today said, “Look, I get criticized a lot, and I'm trying to do the right thing here.” But inside, there really is a feeling that this went over the line as Carter accused Blair of being subservient. They felt that was “sad,” and here -- and they think that Americans, frankly, Brian, are tuning out former President Carter on some of the other criticisms.

WILLIAMS: All right. David Gregory from the White House tonight. David, thanks as always.

From the May 21 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:

BARNES: Yeah, he didn't -- but I think he believed them, though. That's what he does think about Bush. Look, Carter's remarks were unprecedented. These are the harshest ones from him. They may be the harshest that an ex-president has aimed at his successor --

HUME: At a sitting president.

BARNES: At a sitting president. And there used to be two things that presidents -- former presidents didn't do: they didn't criticize their successors, and they particularly didn't criticize them when they were overseas.

HUME: Well, he wasn't overseas.

BARNES: He wasn't this time, but he has done that in the past.