Jimmy Carter Q&A
Transcript of the full interview from our November 2009 story.
By Rebecca Burns
You’re a big news story today [September 16, 2009]. Have you been surprised by the reaction to reports quoting your statement at a town hall meeting that congressman Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” interruption of the President Obama is rooted in racism?
Most people didn’t react to what I actually said. I distinguished very strongly between any opposition to a healthcare proposal or legislation. I was referring exclusively to vituperative personal ad hominem attacks on the President, calling him, you know, a liar or calling him an animal or equating him with Adolf Hitler, or the signs that I saw on the streets in Washington this week saying “We should have buried Obama with Kennedy,” things of that kind. That’s exclusively what I was talking about and I hope that explains it.
As a former governor of a Southern state and a former president, how much progress do you think we have actually made as a country when it comes to race and politics?
Since I was a child, we’ve come a long way. When I became governor and made my inaugural address in 1971, which is a long time ago, I made a simple comment that the time for racial discrimination is over in Georgia, and it was so newsworthy that two weeks later I was on the front cover of Time magazine. So since then obviously we’ve come a long way with school integration and with the breakdown in official segregation or discrimination against African American people. But there’s still a latent inability on the part of some people to accept African Americans as equals, and particularly when they achieve a very high office like President.
What it is going to take for that acceptance to happen? Or is that latent racism going to always be there?
I think it’s going to change. Obama’s qualities, his intelligence, his resilience, his political acumen, will prevail. And I think that there will be an increasing aversion on the part of responsible leaders in our society to resort to these personal attacks of a very damaging and embarrassing and vituperative nature.
Your museum is opening after a redesign and expansion. Is there a particular display or item you are most excited about?
I think that in addition to the extremely modern and innovative electronics the most significant change is the emphasis on the post-presidential years, which is unprecedented in any presidential museum or library, and this will comprise about 30 percent of the total presentation in the new arrangement. It will also give a wonderful history lesson to visiting citizens, scholars, and students about the continuum that exists between the time that a person is in the White House to the years subsequent to that. So I think that’s the part that all of us find most intriguing.
One of the new exhibits focuses on a day in the life of the president, and it shows how stressful and high-paced that can be. How do you think a day in the White House now would compare with when you were President in the 1970s? Would all the technology make it even more intense, or do you wish you’d had some of today’s tools back then?
Speaking from a personal, subjective basis, I don’t see how it could be more intense. When you see that presentation it would be literally overwhelming and arouse even doubt that any person could address so many disparate issues in one single day of work. But I would presume that although the modern electronics and that sort of thing, email, which we didn’t have, computers, which we didn’t have, all those things might make it possible for a president to address each individual item more briefly, I think the heterogeneous nature, the diverse nature, of those subjects would still be about the same.
You were president during a particularly difficult time, at home and overseas, just as the current president is. How do you think the periods compare?
As far as energy is concerned it was much more serious. Because we had long gasoline lines, we had boycotts against America from the Arab oil nations; we had secondary boycotts from Arab countries against any corporation in America that did business with Israel, and so forth. And we addressed it assiduously and successfully, and were able within five years, 1977 to 1982, to cut imports of oil down by 50 percent, from 8.6 million barrels a day to 4.3 million barrels a day. We’ve now gone back up to 13 million barrels a day.
There is an additional factor though that was first detected while I was president and that is global warming. I had some reports from my scientific advisers that this was occurring, but it’s become increasingly obvious to scientists ever since that it’s an accurate assessment. The other thing that has happened since then is that almost overwhelming, the scientific community has decided that this is caused by human beings. That’s a new issue.
As far as the Mideast peace process is concerned, it was at least as hopeless or more so when I became president. In the previous twenty-five years, there had been four major wars where Israel’s existence was actually threatened by the power of the Egyptian military force combined with other Arab nations like Syria, and so forth. The peace treaty that I negotiated removed that threat from Israel, and now there’s no Arab country that could possibly threaten Israel. And not a word of that treaty has been violated in the last thirty years. This treaty was signed in the springtime of 1979, so it is now thirty years old. So I would say that the challenge of bringing peace to Israel and her neighbors would be equally important and equally possible now as it was then.
The most significant difference between those days and now is we were in the midst of the Cold War and we had a constant threat of annihilation of a major part of the world with a nuclear weapon exchange between us and the Soviet Union. That was a preoccupation for me and prime minister Callaghan in Britain and Helmut Schmidt in Germany, a preoccupation for all of us, as well as the folks in China. That part of a threat has been alleviated, but not completely eliminated since the weapons still basically exist.
One of the other transforming changes that has taken place since I was president is that almost all of the countries in South America were military dictatorships, Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, Peru, and so forth. And we initiated a human rights policy that over a period of several years finally brought about a change so that now all the nations have democracies of some kind. That was another challenge. For us to confront those existing regimes was quite different from what my predecessors had done because former presidents had basically been in bed with the dictators to provide stability. Any threat to those dictatorships from indigenous Indians and others was looked upon as a Communist threat. That’s changed as well.
Africa has now been opened up more to America. In fact it was surprising that I was the first president in history that went to sub-Saharan African. I visited Liberia and Nigeria. Since then, of course, presidents to go those regions of Africa habitually.
China was a different thing. When I became president, we only had diplomatic relations with Taiwan. We had alienated China for thirty-five years. Thirty years ago this year, we shifted our relations away from Taiwan, which was very difficult, to China.
It’s hard to say. I had a worse problem with Iran then with the hostage problem than exists now; it was more pressing on me. But the threat of Iran developing nuclear weapons is a different threat and a very serious threat. So both Obama and I had to deal with Iran, but for different problems.
I’m just trying to go down the list. But those are some of the differences.
How about at home? Thirty years ago you gave the “crisis of confidence” speech, which has erroneously been called the “malaise” speech even through you didn’t use the word malaise. It was a speech asking for Americans to conserve, to take responsibility. The speech now is regarded as prescient, there’s a new book out about it, but at the time there was political fallout for you. I know you’re a good Christian and you probably wouldn’t do it, but sometimes don’t you just want to say, “I told you so”?
I didn’t have any doubt then. I realized the speech would be a kind of a shock to America. The immediate reaction, for about a week or so, was overwhelmingly favorable. But it was a kind of stern speech. That was used by Teddy Kennedy and by Ronald Reagan and others to attack me. And they named it “malaise.”
It’s hard to look back on those years. We had just come through a series of tormenting crises. The defeat in Vietnam. The disgrace of Watergate. The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. The revelation by Congress that the United States had been involved in the assassination of democratic leaders in Iran and in Chile. Those things had shaken the confidence in the moral base of America. The thrust of that speech was that we could face any challenge. A test case of that, a very difficult one, was to have a comprehensive energy policy. We eventually got basically everything we asked for with that. But it was a profoundly important speech, as you have already said, many people have studied the speech, and books [have been] written about it. It was a very difficult time for the country and me.
During your post presidency, your work at the Carter Center has had an emphasis on human rights and health. Why those two things, versus say, human rights and poverty, or any other combination of issues?
The umbrella under which the Carter Center is organized is human rights in its broadest definition. One of the basic human rights a person can have is to live in peace. So my first concept was to have a place here at the Carter Center that would just be devoted primarily to bringing peace to people who had an ongoing war or the threat of war. Something like Camp David, here in Atlanta. And then we adopted a policy, my wife and I did, of addressing any difficult issue that was not being adequately resolved by anyone, by the United Nations, or the World Health Organization, or the U.S. government, or a major university. That kind of spilled out, to fill vacuums in the world.
We began to be inundated with ideas for addressing intransigent problems. We’ve adopted a platform, as you know, of six diseases on which we spent about three fourths of our time. We have now completed our seventy-sixth election, in Lebanon, every one of those elections troubled and with the outcome in doubt. If an election wasn’t seriously in trouble, we wouldn’t be involved in it.
We’ve had a decision to make, that has been beneficial to us and to others, of actually going into the most remote villages and homes in the world, in the jungles and in the desert areas, where no one else has ever really gone, and to treat literally millions of people each year. In fact for River Blindness last year we personally treated 11.7 million different people, and you have to put the medicine in the people’s mouths, you can’t just mail it in.
So that’s what we have evolved over a period of time. The first concept was to negotiate peace, and to have freedom and democracy, and then to alleviate suffering. But I would say all of those things fall under the broad umbrella of human rights.
Some successes have been remarkable, like the virtual eradication of Guinea Worm disease. More than 10 years ago, I worked as a freelancer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution covering the Atlanta Project, your effort to connect wealthy Atlanta and the business community and churches to work to help poor Atlanta. How do you think that compares to your other projects?
I think that was one of our most difficult and I think one of our most successful programs. We identified in the Atlanta area 500,000 people who were quite separated from the rest of society. They didn’t have much hope for alleviating their neglect. Teachers and welfare workers and health workers and policemen who worked in those areas didn’t live there. They lived in better places and they would commute in and out. So we did a thorough analysis of those areas, I did personally. We divided it among, as you may remember, 20 what we called “cluster” communities, each about 25,000 people. And we had the idea of assigning to each cluster a major corporation, which we did. So a major bank would get one, and Coca-Cola would get one, and Delta Airlines would get one, and IBM would get one, and they would kind of adopt those 25,000 people to help them with organization and putting in applications for grants and things like that. After a year of that, we assigned a major university or college to each one. In each case, 25,000 people who had been living acquired not only the Carter Center, but a major corporation and a university. And I required each corporation to assign one full-time person at the vice presidential level.
We planned for it to only last five years. We started in 1991, and planned for it to end when the Olympics came to Atlanta. When that time arrived, we felt adequate progress had been made in some, but carried on three more years with others, then turned the program over to Georgia State University. But it was a difficult but gratifying thing. We made sure all the children were immunized and things of that kind.
From covering the Project, I recall that the immunization program was one of the most tangible successes.
It was. Michael Jackson came and volunteered his services. He put on a concert at the Omni for every family that had all its kids immunized. About 300 other communities in America came in here, and they covered us up with requests, we started the America Project.
Was it more difficult doing something right in your backyard versus, say, going to a remote village?
I came back from a trip overseas. Dr. Jim Laney [then president] at Emory, where I am getting ready to start my twenty-eighth year as a visiting professor, was kind of my partner and each succeeding president has been my partner. Jim Laney said, “Mr. President, you come back from Africa and South America. We’ve got problems in our own community. Why don’t you do something about it?” That was the origin of it. And I made a speech to the Atlanta Chamber, or one of the major organizations Downtown, and called on the whole Atlanta community to get behind me.
Then I looked at a map, this was right after 1990 Census. I had the Census Bureau put the data on screens. I decided that two of the criteria would be the number of families with just one parent and the number of births to teenaged girls. We just arbitrarily picked those two factors and they projected them on the same screen and they overlapped. It just made a big red blob all down on the southern part of Atlanta. I said, “That’s the Atlanta Project.” And subsequently, I was amazed that there were 500,000 people living in that area.
Do you think the expectations were too high, that you would come in as an ex-president and fix all those problems the way you tackle something like one specific disease?
At first the people in those communities had no expectations. They didn’t expect us to do anything. They didn’t expect themselves to be able to do anything. We went to Washington, got the first president Bush involved, the vice president got involved. They passed special legislation to simplify the forms for Head Start education, for housing applications. We got all the banks to open up accounts for all the women, and they would go to a banking course on Saturday morning. We got jobs for people. We accomplished a lot. Not as much as anyone would dream about, but a lot more than anyone expected.