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Conversation: Jimmy Carter

Gwen Ifill talks with former President Jimmy Carter about his new book.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    President Carter's 15th book, "An Hour Before Daylight: Memories of a Rural Boyhood," tells the story of growing up as a Georgia farm boy during the Depression. He joins us today to talk about the book and perhaps, about a few more current events, as well. Welcome, President Carter.

  • PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER:

    Good to be with you.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Your 15th book, as I just mentioned. Why did you choose, this time, to write about your childhood?

  • PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER:

    I really started taking notes on my memories of my childhood, maybe ten years ago. And as I had thoughts about an interesting event or person, I just typed it out on my computer. And my first thought was just to make it available to my children and grandchildren as kind of a family memoir.

    But later, I saw that there were some significant themes here that were really likely to be interesting to a broader audience. One was, how did people actually live during the Depression years? How did sharecropping come into being so favor? What was the aftermath of the Civil War? And secondly, how did white and black people live together on a farm, in such extreme intimacy? That would be very rare in these days.

    What was the devastating impact on African American families life of living, not only in abject poverty, but also under the restrictions of separate but equal ruling of the Supreme Court? And the third thing was that I came out of this environment, which will be strange to almost everybody in these modern days, and ultimately became President of the United States. And I wanted to think in my own mind and describe very clearly who were the people that shaped my life.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But you write very candidly about how you live a separate but unequal life?

  • PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER:

    Exactly.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    How did that prepare you for the life you have now, since then, lived?

  • PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER:

    Well, the separate part was not accurate, because we lived as completely integrated, personally, as two people could be. I lived in an isolated community called Archery. I didn't have any white playmates; all my playmates were black children.

    We worked together, we fought with each other, we wrestled, we made toys, we fished on the creeks together. My mother was a registered nurse who quite often had 20-hour duty, and my father was very busy and away a lot. So I spent a lot of nights with the nearest neighbors of ours, Rachel and Jack Clark, who were African American. So I was really raised by, and shaped by, my intimacy with the African American neighbors on our farm.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    You tell a story about your best friend as a child, AD. And it's an interesting story about how you went to the movies together. Would you tell it for us?

  • PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER:

    Sure. Well, AD and I were inseparable. We did everything together. And on a rainy day on occasion, two or three times in our early life, my father would let us off to go to the movie. The train -Seaboard Airline Railroad — was just 50 yards in front of my front door.

    So we would go up a half a mile up the railroad track and put down a little red flag, and an engineer would see it and stop to pick us up to take us Americus, ten miles away. And we would go there hand in hand, get on the train. He would go to the colored-only section, and I would sit in the white section. We would drive to Americus on the train and get off, walk down the street, side by side, hand- in-hand as buddies, get to the movie theater, go our separate ways. He would go way up on the third floor with the very steep aisles and very narrow seats, and I would go to the more luxurious part for white folks.

    Then after the movie was over, we'd get back together, separate ourselves on the train and go back home. So there was no doubt that we were the closest possible friends, but separated by the Supreme Court's separate-but- equal ruling when nothing was indeed equal — because AD's uncle and aunt, with whom he lived, couldn't vote, and they knew it. They couldn't serve on a jury, and they knew it. AD couldn't go to the nice white schools, and he knew it. But still, outside of those legally restraining factors, AD was the closest friend I've ever had in my life.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    At some point, you all began to realize that your lives were not really on the same path. When did that dawn on you and how did that affect your friendship?

  • PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER:

    You know, we never had any thought about that, any semblance of inequality, until I was about 14 years old and so was AD and another friend of ours whose name was Edmund Hollis, AD's first cousin. One day we came out of the woods on our farm, and we walked out of the pastures to the pasture gate and AD and Edmund went first. They opened the gate and when I got there, they stepped aside to let me go through the gate first. And thought it was a trick. I thought they had a trip wire there or something that I would stumble and fall on the ground, and they would have a laugh at my expense.

    But it wasn't. And I guess that their parents somehow had relayed to them that when you reach a certain age in a segregated society, that there should be some distinction between white people and African Americans. And we still played and fought with each other and played baseball and so forth, but from then on they deferred to me and treated me as in a superior way, which was really hard for to us comprehend. And then, by that time we were 14, I guess we were approaching maturity in some ways. I mean, I had more of an interest in my white classmates, including, you know, girlfriends for parties and playing on the basketball team. So…

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And that's when the separation began.

  • PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER:

    That's the separation, but it kind of drew a line between us based on race, I'm afraid.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    This book takes us as far as your going off to the Naval Academy. And of course, a lot of us are familiar with what happened in that big swath afterward: The statehouse, governor's office, presidency. But you have made an incredible new life for yourself post- presidentially. I understand you talked to President Clinton this weekend. What kind of advice do you give him leaving, as young as he is, from the White House?

  • PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER:

    (Laughs) Well, he doesn't need advice from me, of course. I've seen in the news reports that several times he has said that what we do at the Carter Center is a very good example of the kind of life that a former President should lead, which is a compliment to us.

    I've talked to him about it a couple of times, and I hope that when he does make a decision to set up some kind of an institute or center or foundation and has some interesting projects to undertake, that he might ask me to join him as a partner or that he might be willing to let me invite him to join me as a co- chairman, for instance, on some of the programs that the Carter Center has. We now are very active in 65 different nations in the world, 35 of which are in Africa. So we have a heavy investment in Africa. And I would be delighted if President Clinton, after he leaves office, would decide to help me in one of the projects.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    You've also made a reputation for yourself as an international election monitor, yet you said that you wouldn't have even stepped into Florida. You wouldn't have even touched that.

  • PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER:

    No.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Can the United States still be a beacon of democracy in this way, in the electoral process, after what we've been through?

  • PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER:

    Well, I think as a matter of fact the United States still a beacon of democracy to most people in the world. This past year, the Carter Center monitored six elections in the world. Three were in Latin America and the others were in Asia and Africa. But we have certain minimal standards in a country before we will go in there at all. And we would not dream of going into a country that had election laws like ours, where there is such a vast chasm in some central nonpartisan or bipartisan agency deciding on election arguments.

    And also, where every precinct, every voting place can have a separate kind of voting mechanism, and where the interpretation of what is a good vote or a bad vote depends, almost exclusively, on local officials' prejudices. So we require uniformity in the type of voting and in the standardization of what is a good vote, and we also require that a central election commission be available, on a nonpartisan basis, in order to make judgments during a contest period immediately before, during, or after an election.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    I imagine you've also been watching with some personal interest the last-minute negotiations to try to come up with some sort of settlement in the Middle East.

  • PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER:

    Yes, I have.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    You have made it clear that you feel like you your help in this matter had been shunned by the Clinton administration. Do you think there is a way that you could have contributed so we would not be at the impasse we are at today?

  • PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER:

    Well it's hard to go back in history. I don't think there is any doubt that President Clinton has done the best he probably could, and he has elevated the issue of Mid East peace to a very high level.

    There were times all during President Bush's administration that the Carter Center was called upon to do specific things that were suitable for a non-governmental organization to do. I went regularly to the Middle East. I met with all the leaders, including the PLO Leaders, Arafat, before the United States Government would do so. I met regularly with President Assad in Syria, and so forth.

    But I haven't had a chance to do any of that in the last eight years. But I think there have been times, maybe during this past eight years, when I was actually asked by President Assad to explore the possibility for progress, but President Clinton and his negotiators were playing a full role in that, and there was really no place for us to act.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Assuming for a moment that a Republican President- elect would ask a Democratic ex- President for advice, especially in this transition period, what could you offer him? Have you talked to President- elect Bush since this election?

  • PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER:

    Yes, I have.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    What would you offer to him as he walks into this brand new… two former southern governors, you-him, what do you think?

  • PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER:

    First of all, not to interfere in his administration.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Naturally.

  • PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER:

    But I think the main thing, regardless of what we think about the procedure that was used in Florida, that he was declared by the Supreme Court to be elected, that he is now my President and the President of all Americans. And whether he realizes it or not– and he may not– I think almost unanimously, the American people wish him well.

    They want him to be successful, and I think if he reaches out to the American groups who did not give him any support, if he reaches out in a genuine fashion, I think they would respond positively, and that would include not only some alienated Democrats, but I think African American community, the Hispanic community and others… the working people of very low income, I think they want him to be successful as a President.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But there seems to be so many bad feelings left over among Democrats, especially about this. How do you begin to paper over, to heal those wounds, do you think?

  • PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER:

    Well, the question asked me is what I would do. What I would tell him, I would tell him what I just told you — that people want him to be successful, and I will get to the inauguration, by the way. Well, I think he still has a ways to go. Because his choice of Mrs. Chavez and of John Ashcroft, and two extremely sensitive people for poor people, working people and minority groups– I think have perhaps, unfortunately, been his most conservative choices — and I think they… their choice has not sent a signal yet that "I really want to be reconciled with you.

    I want you to realize that I am your President just as much as a Democrat would have been." But that is not an unsolvable problem. It's just a first initiation before he becomes President, and I'm sure that after he is President, one of his main goals will be to reconcile himself with those groups that didn't give him support in the election.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    15 books down and the 16th you are already working on.

  • PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER:

    Yes.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Thank you so much for joining us, President Carter.

  • PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER:

    I've enjoyed it very much.