39th U.S. President President Jimmy Carter

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Former president discusses his newest text, tackles the lack of bipartisanship in Washington and weighs in on campaigning ‘then and now’ and today’s political system.

Jimmy Carter served as the 39th U.S. President. In his one term, his administration oversaw the creation of the Energy and Education Departments, the Israel-Egypt Camp David Accords, the Soviet Union Salt II treaty and U.S. diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China. After leaving office, he founded The Carter Center and has been tirelessly active in Habitat for Humanity and international public policy. He's a Nobel laureate, a "Best Spoken Word" Grammy winner and best-selling author who's written more books than any U.S. president.


Tavis: Always honored to welcome former President Jimmy Carter to this program. It’s hard to believe he just celebrated his 86th birthday, given the tireless work he continues to do around the world on matters of peace and human rights.
During his years in the White House he kept a personal diary which is the basis for his latest best seller, “White House Diary.” Mr. President, a belated happy birthday and honored to have you back on this set again.
President Jimmy Carter: It’s always good to be with you, thank you.
Tavis: I’m glad to have you. You and I were just chatting before we came on the air. I literally just got back; I’m still kind of jet-lagged. (Laughter) Just got back a few hours ago from China and so many Chinese citizens told me to say hello to President Carter, because everywhere I went they would ask me about my work on PBS and who’s going to be on your show when you get back?
So your name just kept coming back. I said, “The first day I’m back, President Carter’s going to be on.”
Carter: Well, I was just over there three weeks ago.
Tavis: They told me you were just there a few weeks ago. So recently, you and I guess a total of 15 Nobel laureates signed a letter that was sent to the leaders of the G20, asking them, when they see President Hu Jintao in just a few days at their summit, to do what, specifically, with regard to Dr. Liu, who just received the Nobel Peace Prize.
Carter: Well, we’d like for him to release him completely from his imprisonment, but also to let his wife go free so that she can be at liberty to travel around the world if she wants to and talk about her husband, talk about his ministry there.
He has been a very outspoken and courageous human rights activist, as you know, and we think that neither she nor he should be punished for his freedom of speech.
Tavis: The government’s position, the Chinese government’s position is that his receiving the Nobel Prize was an insult to their country and to the rule of law inside of China.
Carter: Well, he had been arrested under Chinese law and convicted of illegal activities and sentence as a prisoner would be in our country, to a crime. They consider him to be a criminal, and I don’t think there’s any doubt that the Nobel committee was trying to promote human rights in China, and it was a deliberate attempt by them to publicize the need for recognition of him as took place in the past with, say, the Dalai Lama, when the Nobel committee also gave him the prize.
So they do this on occasion, to try to publicize some activity of which the Nobel Prize committee approves.
Tavis: You had relations with China, of course, when you were in the White House. Can you compare and contrast our relations with China during the Carter administration and where you think we are or are not in our relationship today?
Carter: Well, for 35 years before I became president, we didn’t have any diplomatic relations with China. We had diplomatic relations with Taiwan only. Although President Nixon went over in 1972 and issued his Shanghai Communiqué and said, “There’s only one China,” he didn’t say which one.
We continued to recognize the one China as Taiwan. I decided when I went into office to go ahead and have normal diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China on the mainland, or as Ronald Reagan called it, the “Red China.” So I think that was a turning point in the history of the world, as a matter of fact, because three days after we announced that we were going to have diplomatic relations, Deng Xiaoping, who was the unquestioned leader of China, said they were going to have reform and a new form of government in China.
That’s when China began to open up not only surprisingly aggressive human rights for their own people but also to reach out to the rest of the world. So it was a turning point in the history of China and also our own country.
Tavis: One last question about China. I was there courtesy of a wonderful group called the C100, prominent Chinese-Americans who are involved in making sure that American journalists get a chance to see inside the country and talk to the people.
I was surprised that so many Chinese – we get this impression that they don’t want to talk openly about issues because they can’t critique the government publicly, but in private conversations they’ll tell you honestly how they feel. What’s your sense of the future of our relationship with China, because this imbalance in so many ways seems to be becoming more critical?
Carter: Tavis, for more than 12 years I and the Carter Center had a contract with the government of China, surprisingly, to promote democracy in the little villages of China. There are over 600,000 of those villages. They have absolutely pure, open, honest, completely democratic elections for the little villages.
Tavis: That you’ve monitored.
Carter: We’ve monitored those, yes, and we have a website that has more than a million hits every day as Chinese go to our website and see what’s going on concerning documentary and China. So we have a very close relationship with China.
I think that China in the future is going to increase their influence, both in the economic world and also in the political world. We have programs now in 73 countries in the world, and nowhere can you go in Africa, in South America or anywhere else that you don’t see the rapidly increasing influence of China in the governments of those small countries.
China is very generous in doing things – for instance, when they were approaching the World Cup in Africa, China would go into a country and build a stadium, for instance, and give it to the government. Of course, what China is trying to do is to cement to access to iron and coal and oil and different materials that they’ll need in the future for the rapidly growing economy of China.
So I think that it’s very good for us to have as good relationships as possible between the United States of America and China, to maintain stability in the world. I don’t think there’s any doubt that the diplomatic relations that I formed with China has helped to stabilize the Western Pacific.
Tavis: I want to jump to the book, but you said something that might confuse people who have not followed China as closely as you have and I have, and have not been there, which is that China is a communist country, communist leadership, but you just said democratic elections in these providences all across the – exactly.
Carter: (Unintelligible) in those villages.
Tavis: Exactly.
Carter: Shortly after we normalized relations, Deng Xiaoping, the leader that I mentioned already, he ordained through changing the government that the little villages would have democratic elections. The little villages are not part of the Communist Party system.
The Communist Party starts at the big city; they call it townships, counties and provinces, those three levels. The provinces, they send to the national assembly. So the little villages are outside the Communist Party system, and so he wanted them to have their own government and he wanted them to have an honest election.
There have been various kinds of leaders in China. Some have wanted to see this democratic system move up into the Communist Party (unintelligible) lower levels of it; other leaders have been very conservative on doing that. Hu Jintao, the present leader, I’d say is one of the most conservative ones.
There’s a new group of Chinese leaders, some of whom we know quite well already, who are going to take over in a year or so, and we don’t know yet what they’ll have as their policy concerning increased political democracy.
Of course, as you know, they have a completely open, democratic free enterprise system.
Tavis: Exactly.
Carter: That’s what makes them so formidable in the global economy. (Laughter)
Tavis: Exactly. What’s fascinating, though, because we have – until you go there, as you’ve been there many times more than I have, and see these numbers, we have 300 million Americans, 300 million of us; one and a half billion Chinese people, which raises the question, which I was debating every day, of whether or not our way of doing business – that is to say, the democratic way we do it, necessarily fits their model, their citizenry, their struggle.
Carter: I was involved in the beginning of the breakdown of the Soviet Union, and they had a disaster, both in the economy and also in politics. China has been very cautious. They decided to move with open and free enterprise system – trade, commerce, moving around, competing in business and that sort of thing. Almost free enterprise.
But they decided to keep tight control by the Communist Party over the political system, and I think in the future it’s inevitable that China’s going to have to liberalize their democratic system. As you probably noticed, 23 of the top Chinese leaders, some of them out of office now, wrote a letter to Hu Jintao recently condemning the Chinese government for tightening up on free speech.
So that’s kind of a burgeoning sort of effort in China, is to be more open. They just passed last year a law that ensures some elements of access to information, or freedom of information, and the Carter Center has been asked by the Chinese government to help implement that law.
So we have a good working relationship with the Chinese government in several ways.
Tavis: There are two or three things that you talk about in the book that represent mistakes that you made, things that you think you could have done better. In no particular order, one, you don’t think that you had – how might I put this – that your relations with the press was as good as they could have been in retrospect. Tell me about that. (Laughter)
Carter: Oh, we had probably the worst relationship with the press.
Tavis: (Laughter) I was trying to be kind. I was trying to be generous.
Carter: Well, if you look at relationship that John Kennedy had with the press, which was beautiful, and then when Ronald Reagan came in it was beautiful, and everybody was in the same boat and went to the same cocktail parties and that sort of thing, we were kind of on the outside looking in.
But I think after the Nixon-Watergate scandal, many of the press felt that they could do what Bob Woodward and them did, and expose something inside my administration or inside my personal life that might be a scandal. So we had a very tense relationship with the press while I was in office, and that was a mistake, partially my own fault.
But when I was governor of Georgia and when I was president of the United States, we did not ever feel that we had to participate in the nightlife of Atlanta or Washington, and that kind of let us be on the outside, too, so.
Tavis: That’s the second issue I wanted to raise, you’ve raised it now, that you and First Lady Ms. Roslyn Carter did not do the social circuit in D.C.
Carter: No.
Tavis: One of the things that you have to do in D.C. is to hang out on the social circuit.
Carter: I think that’s probably in retrospect a mistake, but that’s our lifestyle. We still I’ve in Plains, Georgia. It has a total population of 635 people. As you know, 60 percent of them are African American and f40 percent are White folks, so we all live in a little, tiny place, and I’m a peanut farmer at heart, still grow peanuts on my farm in Georgia. (Laughter) So we’re not high life sort of people.
Tavis: Does that mean that an outsider cannot govern effectively in Washington as president.
Carter: Oh, no. I think I governed effectively. I don’t have any doubts about that. I had the benefit, when I was in office, of having an excellent relationship with the Republican Party. We had superb bipartisan support and we had the highest batting average of any president since the Second World War, except Lyndon Johnson. He had a little better average than I did.
So we got along well in Washington as far as diplomatic affairs were concerned, and also legislation passed was concerned – a very good batting average.
But anyway, I think that this relationship with the Washington so-called establishment, diplomatic and I would say the news media and the nightlife, we didn’t fit into that and I didn’t miss it at all when I was in office. But in retrospect, when I wrote this book, looking back on it I can see that I would have been better off if I had been closer.
Tavis: You’ve said two things now I want to go back and unpack. One, you talked about the good relations that you had as a Democrat with Republicans in Congress.
Carter: Right.
Tavis: Not the case for President Obama right now. What do you make of the politics, Republican versus Democrat, in Washington today?
Carter: It’s abominable, and it’s a disgrace to a great democracy to see what’s happened in our country. The main reason for that has been the enormous infusion of high quantities of money to campaigns – governors, Congress, president and the U.S. Senate.
Now, with this new, stupid Supreme Court ruling, secret money can come in on an unlimited level from corporations. Nobody knows where it comes from. That distorts the political situation in our country tremendously. Most of that money is spent on negative advertising that is tearing down the character and reputation of your opponent, and it works, although most American people say, “We don’t like negative advertising,” it works.
So by the time the election’s over, states are divided up, red and blue states, and when people get to Washington, the successful ones, the Democrats despise the Republicans and vice-versa.
Obama has suffered more than any other president has ever suffered in history in not having any support from the other side, even though when he puts forward something that’s an idea that the Republicans put forward two years ago, when he puts it forward, they won’t support it.
So he’s only got two or three votes at the most, as you know, for some of his most controversial and also some of his most well-advised proposals.
Tavis: Many of us were disturbed by the Supreme Court ruling you referenced a moment ago. I say that in terms of full disclosure, because I’ve talked about it publicly. I was disturbed by that. You called that ruling – I think you called it “stupid?”
Carter: It is. I did.
Tavis: Why do you call it stupid?
Carter: Because it’s a complete transformation or change in what our country has done ever since it was founded – that is, to try to put some restraint on the massive infusion of money into the political campaign and to also have those who do make the contributions legally identified.
They can make it secret now, and as you know, in these last few weeks of this campaign they say hundreds of millions of dollars are pouring in to right-wing, Republican candidates from unknown and unidentifiable sources.
So that’s a complete change. When I ran against Gerald Ford in 1976, he and I used public money. We used a $2 per person check-off, $26 million total. When I ran against Ronald Reagan four years later, we did the same thing. We never dreamed of a negative political campaign ad. We only referred to each other as “my distinguished opponent.”
If I had characterized Ronald Reagan as being scurrilous or a liar or something like that, which is common now, it would have been devastating to me personally. So we didn’t ever think about that. So that’s changed the whole political environment in our country.
Tavis: How, then, do we fix the problem? If the Supreme Court, at the judicial level, we’ve got decisions that you call stupid coming out of them about campaign finance reform, the Congress, McCain-Feingold, that’s become a joke and a mockery.
Carter: Yeah, yeah, I know.
Tavis: And with all due respect, President Obama, to your point now, when he ran, initially said he would take matching funds, started raising money like crazy, did a 180 on his own commitment to take public matching funds.
Carter: He did.
Tavis: So if the executive branch can raise that kind of money, Congress has made a mockery of McCain-Feingold, the Supreme Court is passing stupid decisions, how do we fix the serious issue of campaign finance?
Carter: Well, the only way to do it is to have public financing of all congressional and presidential campaigns, and I don’t think a Republican Congress that’s going to take place in the future or now would ever approve that, because the Republicans benefit from those enormous sums of money pouring in.
But the Carter Center monitors elections all over the world, the most troubled elections on Earth. We just finished our 80th election recently. We would not dream of coming in to monitor the election in the United States of America, it wouldn’t qualify, because over there we require that there be one, central election-monitoring organization.
In the United States, you might say every county has got its own separate system. There’s not even one kind of ballot that you use all over the United States. We require that in a foreign country.
We also require that every qualified candidate has equal access to television and radio in a foreign country. That now, you have to buy elections, and the way the elections are bought has been bad in the past, but it’s going to be even worse in the future because there’s no reason why, say, Exxon or some other corporation that I might not name wouldn’t give every Republican candidate for Congress $1 million, which could buy the election in a small, rural district where the Democrats can’t raise any money. So in the future, it’s going to be much more insidious, much worse, than any we’ve ever seen in the past.
Tavis: Since you referenced it a moment ago, your sense of where we are now, just days away from these historic midterm elections, you mentioned the Republicans who may be in power in just a matter of days, how are you feeling about this election?
Carter: I don’t feel good at all about it, as a Democrat. I don’t think there’s any doubt that the Republicans are going to prevail and take over the House. I hope the Democrats can hold on to the Senate.
In a way – this is a strange thing to say – it may be better. It has been. Because at least the Republicans, with control of one house of Congress, may feel some degree of responsibility, whereas in the past two years they’ve been totally irresponsible. They haven’t supported President Obama even when they knew he was right, because they just wanted to tear down what he was trying to accomplish. I think that’s one thing.
Another thing, I think that President Obama might be a little bit more free now, rather than – I think he can go back to what he ran for president on his campaign and say, “This is what I’m going to do, this is what I propose. We’re going to put it to the American people and to the Congress,” and then he can take it and take on the same position maybe that Harry Truman took on in 1948 – that is, a do-nothing Congress if they won’t support his position.
Tavis: Let me play devil’s advocate, just because I’m curious to get your point of view on this.
Carter: Please, yeah.
Tavis: I could argue, for the sake of argument, that he has accomplished now everything he’s going to get done in this first term because this obstructionism is only going to get worse.
Tavis: That may or may not be true. I’m an optimist, and I’m just looking on the possibility of a better relationship, because the Republicans will now have to answer to the public as they go to a 2012 election, but what they do in Washington, they’ve got away with murder, you might say, political murder, these last two years.
But I think in the future, holding one House of Representatives, future Speaker Boehner, I guess –
Tavis: John Boehner, yeah.
Carter: – John Boehner, he’s going to have to say, “Well, this is the way Republicans are voting in the House,” whereas in the past two years they’ve just said we’re all going to vote against everything that Obama does. So maybe the Republicans will feel and have to exert a little more responsibility than they have in the past.
Tavis: Do you think our political system is just flat broken?
Carter: It’s worse than it’s been in my lifetime, and that’s a long time. I think the only way that it can be corrected is for the American people to see very vividly that it needs repair. If things go from now to worse in the future, the American people, in every congressional district in the land, might demand that reforms take place in the political system.
Tavis: It’s a beautiful thing, every time you come on this show, to sit and listen to your reflections now. The thing I was most impressed about with regard to “White House Diary” is how, when, where you found the time to jot down these reflections while you were in the White House.
Carter: Well, I didn’t jot them down, as a matter of fact. Eight or nine times every day I had a little tape recorder on the desk. I’d pick it up and I would just dictate what I was thinking – plans for the future, some disappointments, some successes, what I felt about people that just left my office, (laughter) I might have had an argument or something like that.
Personal things that happened to me and my family, dreams for the future concerning international affairs. When I filled up a tape, I would just throw the little tape in the out basket. My secretary, in her spare time, would type up what I had dictated, and then when I got home to Plains after I left the White House I was amazed to find I had 5,000 pages of diary notes.
So I’ve gone through those diary notes and I’ve selected the most interesting and pertinent and, I’d say, the most highly personal items from the diary, and that’s what’s in the book.
So it’s just an insight into what a president felt every day of his life when he was in the White House, experiencing pressures and successes and failures and challenges and that sort of thing.
After about a year, I’m going to make the entire rough draft of the diary, even with typographical errors and everything, available to scholars and to news reporters.
Tavis: So even the stuff that’s not in here now we will eventually get a chance to see?
Carter: After about a year.
Tavis: Were there things on those tapes and in those manuscripts that you thought were just too loaded to put in the book? Too personal, too revealing?
Carter: I can only think of two things in the diary that I’m going to blank out before the scholars see it, and that was some highly personal events in my life that would reflect negatively on people that are still living.
Tavis: Okay.
Carter: But that would be my microscopic portion of the total.
Tavis: So in that regard, was there too much made of the Ted Kennedy comments about the healthcare issue?
Carter: No. You have to remember that the things I dictated about Ted Kennedy was 31 years ago.
Tavis: Exactly.
Carter: Right on the spot when it actually happened. But to give him credit, he probably thought he was going to be the next president, he could put his whole plan into effect. By the way, his plan was very costly, and he couldn’t get five votes for it in his own committee. But I think he saw – first of all, he didn’t want me to get credit for a big achievement, and secondly, he thought that he could get it when he became president.
Tavis: My read of the book is that the things that you finally hear, the things that you are most proud of, in no particular order, if I could put them in three categories during your administration – you tell me if I’m right or wrong – peace, human rights and energy? Environment?
Carter: I would say those three. Yeah. Yeah, I think energy and environment are connected. We passed a comprehensive energy policy that cut down our imports of oil by 50 percent in just five years. Ronald Reagan came in, he said, “We don’t need to save energy, we have a great nation on the top of a hill,” or something like that. (Laughter) “We can waste all we want, we don’t have to conserve,” and so he undid all he could.
A lot of the things that we passed in the energy policy were embedded in law, and they resulted in tremendous reductions in waste of energy in all kinds of things.
We also started the use of solar energy and windmills and hydroelectric and that sort of thing, and we’ve faltered with that. Now China has taken over. China is the number one producer of advanced windmills and photovoltaic cells and so forth. Had the energy policy not been abandoned, we wouldn’t be in the bad shape we are now.
But yes, you’re right – peace. We had tremendous challenges to my administration and to the United States when I was in the White House, but we were lucky – I say lucky enough, and I think maybe used good enough judgment not to start a way. We never dropped a bomb, we never fired a bullet, we never launched a missile during the time I was in office, and we still upheld the integrity and good faith of our country.
On human rights, we were the world champion of human rights, there’s no doubt about that. So a lot to be proud of.
Tavis: It’s been a good life, and you’re not done yet.
Carter: It’s been a good life. No, I hope not. (Laughter)
Tavis: But you did give us a scare a few weeks ago, though. I’m glad you’re doing well now.
Carter: Well, but I was just sick for one day. But unfortunately, I got a lot of publicity.
Tavis: But you’re Jimmy Carter, exactly. (Laughter) The next day, you were out building Habitat houses again.
Carter: (Unintelligible) it’s true.
Tavis: It’s good to see you, Mr. President.
Carter: Nice to be with you always, Tavis, thank you.
Tavis: Always good to have you on. The new book from the 39th president of these United States, Jimmy Carter, is called “White House Diary.” Mr. President, good to have you on.
Carter: It’s always good.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm