Atlanta Magazine :: November 2009 :: Jimmy Carter
November 2009

Unfinished Business

Jimmy Carter kicks off yet another new life phase—at age eighty-five
By Rebecca Burns

In case there was any doubt what a bully pulpit the presidency presents, consider the case of our interview with Jimmy Carter. We’d been scheduled months in advance with the admittedly soft focus of previewing his newly renovated museum and library. As coincidence would have it, the Q&A fell on the day after Carter gently suggested that Joe “You Lie!” Wilson and other detractors of the current Oval Office occupant might be motivated by a twinge of racism.

But Carter has done more than use the mantle of his former position to leverage pronouncements on the state of political discourse. Since leaving office, Carter has observed more than seventy-five turbulent elections, spearheaded efforts to eradicate guinea worm disease, helped build many Habitat for Humanity houses, and won the Nobel Peace Prize—an honor presented almost a quarter century after he left the White House. As recently as August of this year, a poll of U.S. voters ranked Carter the best of the living ex-presidents.

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Read the full transcript from the interview with Carter
So it’s no surprise that his revamped museum focuses on the post-presidency. A visit to the center offers such standard presidential-library fare as a replica of the Oval Office, a film of a “day in the life” of the chief executive, and displays of official gifts, proclamations, and whatnots. But the departure comes through the exhibits that focus on global human rights and the connection between health and public policy.

Just days before turning eighty-five and embarking on a trip to Hispaniola to combat lymphatic filariasis (elephantiasis), Carter proved to be spry and unnervingly bright-eyed. An excerpt from our chat:

ON HIS JOE WILSON COMMENT Most people didn’t react to what I actually said. I distinguished very strongly between any opposition to a healthcare proposal or legislation [and animosity]. 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.”

ON RACISM When I became governor and made my inaugural address in 1971, I made a simple comment that the time for racial discrimination is over in Georgia, and it was so newsworthy that [a few months] later I was on the cover of Time magazine. So since then, obviously we’ve come a long way in this time 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.

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.

ON HOW THE PRESIDENCY IN THE 1970S COMPARES WITH NOW I don’t see how it can be more intense. That presentation [in the new museum] will arouse doubts that any person can address so many disparate issues in one day. I would presume that modern electronics, e-mails (which we didn’t have), computers (which we didn’t have), all those things might make it possible for the president to address each individual item, but more briefly. The heterogeneous, diverse nature of those subjects would still be impossible to be addressed in depth by the same person in one day.

Photograph by Caroline Kilgore