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Jimmy Carter Calls Congressional Republicans ‘Completely Irresponsible’

December 6, 2010 at 4:43 PM EST
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Former President Jimmy Carter speaks with Ray Suarez about his new book "White House Diary," written from the daily journal that he kept as president.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Next: a personal account of a presidency.

In his four years in office, Jimmy Carter kept a daily diary of his life in the White House. When he left, he had compiled more than 20 volumes, some 5,000 pages. He’s edited those down for his newest book, “White House Diary.”

Last week, Ray Suarez talked to President Carter at a forum sponsored by the Smithsonian Resident Associate Program in Washington.

Here are excerpts.

RAY SUAREZ: The existence of the book at all is kind of interesting to me. And I want to know how your contemporaneous musings, at the end of the day, instead of being locked away until future historians could get at it, came out during your lifetime.

JIMMY CARTER, former president of the United States: Well, three or four years ago, I started reading over some of the diary notes for other purposes. And I realized that so many of the things that I had to deal with that were very serious are on the desk in the Oval Office now for President Obama to address. The Middle East continues, energy, human rights, environment, the Koreas, China, Afghanistan, Iraq, and so forth.

And I would say the main difference between 25 years ago and now is the polarization of the parties. I had tremendous support from Republicans in the House and Senate. One of my closest working allies in the Senate was Howard Baker, was a minority leader of the Republicans.

And, in the House, it was Bob Michel, who was a minority leader of the — in the House. And so they cooperated with me thoroughly. And that’s completely absent now, where the Republicans have been, in my opinion, completely irresponsible the first 18 or so months of Obama’s administration.

And, quite often, he can’t get a single vote in the House or Senate for a major goal. And I had good support. So, that’s changed.

RAY SUAREZ: Dominating these pages are the road to Camp David.

JIMMY CARTER: Yes.

RAY SUAREZ: And you, at some — some evenings when you’re jotting these notes down, you’re pretty steamed.

JIMMY CARTER: I know. Well, it was up and down. When I became president, within a week, I was already working on a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, because, for the last 30 years, I would say the number-one foreign policy prayer that I have had and commitment that I have had is to bring peace to Israel and Israel’s neighbors.

There had been four wars in the previous 25 years against Israel, all led by Egypt, the only Arab country with enough heft to really challenge Israel. And I wanted to bring peace between Israel and Egypt. That was my preeminent goal.

The secondary goal which I and Sadat worked on was to bring justice to the Palestinians. So, those were the two issues that were faced at Camp David. And we left Camp David believing that we had completely resolved both issues.

The treaty was signed now 31-and-a-half years ago, and not a single word has ever been violated in those years between Israel and Egypt. Unfortunately, though, the commitments made concerning the Palestine territory has not been carried out. And that’s still the major issue, I think one of the most difficult and challenging issues that the world faces today.

RAY SUAREZ: One of the more striking entries comes on November 4, 1979.

“I spent hours on the phone talking to political leaders around the nation, but, early in the morning, was quite disturbed to learn that Iranian students, with the subsequent encouragement of Khomeini, had taken over our embassy and captured 50 or 60 of our people. Without the protection provided by the host government, it’s almost impossible to do anything if one’s people are taken.”

And, on November 4, you then go on to other business of the day.

JIMMY CARTER: Sure. Had to.

RAY SUAREZ: These eight lines ended up casting a shadow that would last the rest of your presidency.

JIMMY CARTER: That’s true. Then, of course, it lasted, as most people still remember, 444 days. So, the last three days I was president, I never went to sleep. I never went to bed. I spent all of that time negotiating the release of the hostages. And at 10:00 on inauguration morning, all the hostages were in an airplane ready to take off, and Khomeini held them until five minutes after I was no longer president. And then they took off.

But that was one of the happiest moments of my life. Every hostage came home safe and free.

RAY SUAREZ: As 1979 became 1980, this began to eat heavily into the political year of 1980, the year for which you had been planning to run for reelection…

JIMMY CARTER: That’s true.

RAY SUAREZ: … fighting off primary opponents from your own party.

JIMMY CARTER: There was one, yes.

RAY SUAREZ: And…

(LAUGHTER)

Well, two for a while, and then one.

JIMMY CARTER: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

RAY SUAREZ: And did you — was there a point where you realized: “They’re still there, and now this is really starting to be a problem for this enterprise; I want to stay president”?

JIMMY CARTER: Yes. That was the burning issue in the American people’s mind, is these hostages are still there, and President Carter has been unable to get them free.

And that was the major issue. The second major issue was one you almost mentioned before. And that is, for the last two years of my term, Senator Kennedy was running against me, and very effectively. And then the other thing was that Iraq invaded Iran. And, so, all the oil supplies from Iran and Iraq were lost.

And, so, the price of oil more than doubled in just 12 months. So, those three things combined to cause my defeat. But I have had a good life since then.

(LAUGHTER)

RAY SUAREZ: Well…

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

One issue that you had to tackle was energy consumption…

JIMMY CARTER: Yes.

RAY SUAREZ: … and not always in ways that made everybody happy. You didn’t tell them what they wanted to hear. You told them what you wanted to tell them.

JIMMY CARTER: I made — my best speech, I think, of all was when I went to Camp David and wrote a speech, and told the Americans that we were over consuming, that we had too much of an emphasis on material wealth and benefits, and not enough on the highest ideals of morality, like peace and so forth.

And it was the most popular speech I ever made for a couple days, and then my political opponents began to refer to it as the malaise speech, primarily Senator Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. And, eventually, it became an unpopular speech.

But it had truths in it, because America now has — is addicted to overconsumption, of not only fossil fuels, but also an aversion to efficiency.

RAY SUAREZ: You were president when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

JIMMY CARTER: Yes, Christmas Day, ’79.

RAY SUAREZ: Now we’re there…

JIMMY CARTER: Yes.

RAY SUAREZ: … and have just moved the date for beginning to withdraw from 2011 to 2014.

What do you make of our prospects there? And is this bound to be a place where great powers come a cropper, because they just underestimate how hard it is to get anything done there?

JIMMY CARTER: Anybody that has ever invaded Afghanistan has come out the loser. And I have serious doubts that we will prevail in Afghanistan, that is, to meet the present goals that we have set for ourselves.

My belief is that we will constantly reduce our expectations or our goals lower and lower and lower, until we can finally get out without serious embarrassment. But I don’t think we have the capability or the will to actually prevail militarily over the Taliban. That seems to me to be an almost hopeless case.

My hope and my prayer is that we will prevail, and that we can establish a permanent police force and that sort of thing that can keep order and protect the corrupt government that exists in Kabul. But I have my doubts about it.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you look at this guy who emerges from these pages and say: “Yes, I still know that guy; I still am that guy”?

JIMMY CARTER: Well, that’s a difficult question to answer. I don’t think that…

RAY SUAREZ: That’s why I saved it for last.

JIMMY CARTER: I understand.

(LAUGHTER)

JIMMY CARTER: I don’t think I have changed in any material way, except I have learned a lot since I left the White House. And the thing that I have learned mostly is the growing chasm between rich people and poor people.

The richer people in America are getting richer and richer. The poorer people in America are getting poorer and poorer. And that is a case in almost every country on Earth. And it’s also the issue between rich countries and poor countries. The rich countries are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.

And, as we grow further and further apart economically, we grow further and further apart in understanding each other and having mutual respect. And I think that’s a challenge that we still haven’t faced adequately in this country or around the world.

So, that is what I have learned, one of the things, major things I have learned since I left the White House.

RAY SUAREZ: The book is “White House Diary.” Please thank the 39th president of the United States, Jimmy Carter.

(APPLAUSE)

JIMMY CARTER: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: That conversation took place last week in front of a live audience at the Lincoln Theatre in Washington, D.C.