AUSTIN, Texas -- For those interested in high points in the history of Bad Manners, there was rather a breathtaking moment last week when columnist and television pundit Bob Novak chose to use the occasion of Jimmy Carter's winning the Nobel Peace Prize to trash the man.

"It's one of those inevocable (that's what the transcript says) signs of autumn," said Novak on "Crossfire." "Year in and year out, we get the inevitable boomlet to give Jimmy Carter the Nobel Peace Prize. The admittedly incompetent president, who is supposed to be a terrific ex-president. Well, this year they slipped up and actually gave him the Peace Prize. So we are giving the peanut man from Georgia something else: our 'Quote of the Day.'"

(They then run a clip of Carter being modest and amusing about getting the call from Norway that morning. "I thought it was some joker who was calling," he says.)

Novak continues: "You know, James, the Nobel Peace Committee's been making mistakes on that prize, giving it to people like Yasser Arafat and Le Duc Tho. But Jimmy Carter's one of the biggest mistakes. He's the guy that was for the communists in Nicaragua and Fidel Castro in Cuba."

James Carville, rendered speechless for once, finally stammered: "You know ... I ... It's stunning that you would sit there -- here's a man who's one of the most deeply religious people, goes around building houses for poor people, goes all over the world on his own time, monitors elections, tries to resolve disputes. I mean, what is it about people getting along that so irritates and aggravates you?"

"Ask Bill Clinton," Novak replied. "He couldn't stand him because he was bothering him all the time he was president."

"Maybe he's irritating to some people, but he's a great man," said Carville. "This guy, he gives his heart. He believes in these things. And I don't understand what's wrong with Jimmy Carter."

Novak: "He screws up everything he touches."

Maybe the exchange was worth it, just to hear Novak cite Bill Clinton as an authority on anything. Clinton and Carter have had a famously cool relationship ever since President Carter dumped a bunch of Cuban Mariel refugees on then-Gov. Clinton, who lost his next election largely because of all the trouble they caused.

Jimmy Carter needs no defense from me. The man is enough to give Christianity a good name. Following the Christian doctrine of works as well as faith, he has done immeasurable good in the world, and no mean-spirited attack from a petty pundit can diminish him.

The only reason I bother to note Novak's nastiness is because it left such a bad taste with me. I was traveling on the West Coast that day, and all through the airports and in cabs and hotels, people were saying to one another with real pleasure: "Jimmy Carter got the Nobel Peace Prize. Isn't that nice?" A genuine piece of good news in a world with little of it lately. It isn't necessary to agree with Carter on everything to think he deserves the Peace Prize. Even the right-wing Wall Street Journal managed a negative editorial on what it feels are the inadequacies of Carter's approach without demeaning the man or his accomplishments.

The implicit criticism of President Bush in the Nobel Committee's selection (made explicit by the chairman) should not detract from this recognition of how long and how hard Jimmy Carter has worked for peace and human rights. I think he is an invaluable asset to the nation. Like Nelson Mandela, he has unique stature, and wherever he goes to help with an election or to try to work out a problem, he is welcomed and listened to. In this season when the dogs of pre-emptive war are running loose, it is good to hear Carter pointing out the obvious: that we would be better off working with the rest of the world to disarm Saddam Hussein rather than annihilating his whole country.

Not only do we still not have answers to basic questions about invading Iraq -- why now, how are we going to pay for it and what do we do when we win? -- but it also seems to me the tragedy in Bali is further evidence that we need to concentrate on Al Qaeda. We're sure not finished with them, and it's dangerous to take our eye off that ball.

Now that President Bush has submitted to the formality of getting a resolution through Congress and urged action in the U.N., apparently we are all supposed to forget that he announced initially he didn't need to do either one. It's as though administration officials think they're characters in the "Men in Black" movies: All they have to do is take out one of those little silver jiggers to zap our memory.

To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2002 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.