Interview with President Jimmy Carter: Hail To The Chief

Jimmy Carter, the 39th President of the United States, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. He and his wife of 64 years, Rosalynn, still make their home in their birthplace, Plains, Georgia, a predominantly African-American town with a population of just 637. However, the inseparable, peripatetic couple continues to travel around the world together on behalf of causes advancing peace, healthcare and a number of other humanitarian concerns.

President Carter is also a prolific writer, and the author of over two dozen books. Here, he discusses his latest bestseller, White House Diary, an annotated version of the private journal he kept during his tenure in office.

President Carter. Thanks for the time. I’m honored to have this opportunity.

It’s my pleasure. I’ve been looking forward to this.

I actually got to shake your hand at a campaign rally in Newark in 1980. So, when I started to read White House Diary, the first thing I did was to look at your journal entry for that day to see whether you mentioned receiving words of encouragement from a bright, young black man with red hair and freckles who stood out in the crowd and made a lasting impression on you. But no such luck.

[Laughs] Well, thank you for coming out. I appreciate that very much.

You have been on missions to North Korea and to Palestine to visit the leaders of countries that traditional politicians and philosophers shun and have discovered that negotiation is possible. What would you say is the biggest lesson you’ve learned from meeting with these leaders?

Well, first of all, it’s important to meet with the people who can shape future events, and who might be causing a current problem. And to ignore them means that the problem will continue. Secondly, I’ve found that they really appreciate it when someone who is responsible will meet with them, and they really go out of their way to try to be accommodating.

On both of my major trips to North Korea, the leaders of the country made it plain that they want to make progress towards doing away with nuclear weapons and towards ending the longstanding, official state of war which persists between North Korea and the United States and South Korea, a war which has continued since the ceasefire over 50 years ago. That sort of thing happens quite often when we meet with people who are kind of international outcasts with whom the government of the United States won’t meet. So, when I get back home, I always give a thorough report to the President and Secretary of State to make sure that they know what the possibilities are.

Of your many accomplishments, which one is the most meaningful to you?

I think maybe the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, which ended a long series of very challenging wars threatening the very existence of Israel. That would be one. Another that comes to mind right offhand is the peace treaty turning control of the Panama Canal over to Panamanians. The profitability and effectiveness of the Canal is now five times as great as when the United States was in charge of it.

What do you think of the housing crisis here in America today, given the escalating number of foreclosures and your work with Habitat for Humanity?

It just shows the desperate need and desire of people for homes. But it is also evidence of the greed of those banks which made loans knowing that borrowers wouldn’t be able to repay. The lenders then sold the bad mortgages to unsuspecting investors so that by the time the foreclosures transpired they caused a great deal of distress to all the folks who had been taken advantage of.

What is your assessment of the current Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Do you feel that he’s laughing at us?

Ahmadinejad is just a buffoon, sort of a clown on the international scene who tries to be provocative so he can get his name in the paper and his face on television.

What did it mean to you to win the Nobel Peace Prize?

It was a great honor for me, and for the Carter Center, which has concentrated its efforts on alleviating suffering among the poorest people in the world afflicted with disease, particularly those from 35 nations in Africa. So, it was a great tribute to the great work of the Carter Center.

How do you finance your humanitarian work?

Well, we have about a quarter-million contributors who make modest donations every year to the Carter Center, and we get some large ones as well. So, we are always looking for private donors who believe in what we’re doing to make sure that we have the funds available to carry out our programs.

Do you think about how much less dependent on fossil fuels we would be if you had been reelected in 1980?

[Laughs] I think about that often, as a matter of fact. While I was in office, we were able to cut down the imports of oil from foreign countries by 50 percent, from about 8 to just 4 million barrels a day. Now that figure’s up to 12 million. So, yes, David, I often think about how much better off we’d be.

Given the lower than expected popularity rating for President Obama, what strategy do you propose to increase the ratings and to get a feeling of confidence back on track in the Obama administration?

I believe his popularity’s going to increase over the next two years as he comes out swinging after the Republicans take charge of the House of Representatives. I think he’s going to be much more of a fighter in taking his case directly to the people than he has been.

How would you want those people who weren’t yet born during your administration to think of your tenure as president?

I would say two things: One would be human rights, which we’ve already covered. The other would be peace. We not only brought peace to many countries and people around the world, but we never dropped a bomb, we never launched a missile, and we never fired a bullet while I was in office. Yet we protected the interests of the American people in a peaceful, but strong way.

Many African nations are celebrating a half-century of independence. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about those countries’ ability to deal with matters of poverty and self-governance?

[The] Carter Center spends every day in Africa, and I go over several times a year. We have helped conduct many elections there. For example, in Ghana, just recently, which had a wonderful election process. We also did the election in Liberia when the only African female president [Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf] was elected. So, I’ve witnessed a very strong move towards democracy since leaving the White House.

But unfortunately, some of the African leaders employ various nefarious means to remain in office far beyond what their constitutions permit. I’d say it’s a mixed bag, but in general the 53 countries on the continent of Africa have made great progress towards freedom and democracy, and in terms of electing good, sound administrations.

You have made progressive statements about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Do you think that the parties will sign a meaningful peace agreement on the proposed Two-State Solution within the next five years?

They will, if Israel would agree to withdraw from the occupied territories. I don’t think there’s going to be peace as long as Israel is occupying land that belongs to the Palestinians, to Lebanon and to Syria. So, that’s a decision that Israel will have to make.

Was being President worth it?

It was. For one thing, I enjoyed being President. Secondly, I believe we accomplished a lot of good things while I was in office. We maintained a very good working relationship with both Republicans and Democrats during my tenure. Consequently, we had a very high batting average in dealing with Congress on some very controversial issues. Plus, we kept our nation at peace,

we obeyed the law and we told the truth.

What is the most critical issue facing America today?

I’d say the growing chasm between rich people and poor people not only in this country but all around the world. That difference between the rich and poor is growing every month. Giving people equal access to enjoying the benefits of this great country is the biggest problem that we’re not making any progress in resolving.

What was the last book you read?

Right now I’m reading Washington Rules, a book which points out the serious problem which America faces because we are constantly involved in unnecessary wars.

What music do you like to listen to?

I listen to Willie Nelson pretty regularly on my iPod.

What is your favorite dish to cook?

I’m an expert cook when it comes to preparing the quail, ducks, geese and wild turkeys that I hunt on the farm.

If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?

Peace for Israel and for Israel’s neighbors.

What is your earliest childhood memory?

Moving into a new house, when I was four years old. The front door was locked and we didn’t have a key, so my daddy let me climb through the window to open the door.

Who’s at the top of your hero list?

Among Presidents, I’d say Harry Truman, because he was courageous enough to command that racial segregation be ended in the military. I was serving in a submarine in the U.S. Navy at the time he issued the order.

What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

Always tell the truth, and take an interest in serving the people around you as much as possible.

How do you want to be remembered?

I’d like to be remembered as someone who was a champion of peace and human rights.

To donate to or to get involved with the Carter Center, visit Jimmy Carter’s book, White House Diary is available now wherever books are sold.