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Former President Jimmy Carter shares his full, lucky life in new memoir

Now the author of his 29th book, “A Full Life: Reflections at 90,” former President Jimmy Carter joins Judy Woodruff to discuss race relations in America, the Democratic candidates for the upcoming presidential race, growing up wishing for more approval from his father, plus his own longevity and luck.

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  • Editor’s note:

    In her conversation with President Carter, Judy Woodruff mistakenly said that Bernie Sanders wants to "cut taxes on the wealthy." She misspoke; she meant to say "raise taxes on the wealthy," which is something we have reported on in the past.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    We turn now to former President Jimmy Carter, out this week with his 29th book, "A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety."

    President Carter, welcome back to the NewsHour.

  • FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER:

    It's good to be back, Judy. Thank you very much for letting me come.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, it has been an extraordinary life. There is so much in this book, starting with growing up in rural South Georgia.

    There's a lot in there about race relations. And the reason I want to ask you about that to begin with is, it's very much in the news right now, the U.S. Congress having a vote on it today, the state of South Carolina deciding to remove the Confederate Flag. That was what Congress was discussing today.

    You had the police shootings around the country, the murders in Charleston. Why do you think this country still wrestles so much with race?

  • FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER:

    Well, I think we kind of breathed a sigh of relief back in the '60s, after we had 100 years of racial discrimination with separate but equal, and the Supreme Court and the Congress and everybody else agreed to that, all the churches.

    And after the Johnson years of Voting Rights Act and Martin Luther King Jr., Andy Young and others being successful, I think the United States kind of breathed a sigh of relief and said, well, we have resolved the race issue now, and there won't be anymore, detectable, at least, elements of an American society where whites are in the supreme position, to the detriment of blacks.

    And I think the recent high publicity about the police and black confrontations and the tragedy in Charleston have reminded us that we still have a long way to go. There's still an innate racism in our country that needs to be addressed accurately.

    And I think the Confederate Flag has been for some people a lingering element of this. Georgia did away with it 14 years ago. And I think the governor that did it was soundly defeated when he was up for reelection, partly because of the flag.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, it's a complicated subject.

    And you write about that in the book. You talk about how you had African-American playmates when you were growing up, and yet your father believed in the separation of races. When you were inaugurated as governor of Georgia, you talked about the time for discrimination is over, and yet, when you were running for governor, you talk about inviting George Wallace to speak in Georgia.

    What do you think you have seen and learned about how politicians handle the subject of race?

  • FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER:

    Well, I think politicians really go with the tide.

    But I was immersed in a black culture from the time I was born, until I was — when I was 4 years old and on and until I left at 16 years old. And I experienced the first dramatic demonstration of the benefits of racial equality when Harry Truman — seven years before Rosa Parks sat in the front of a bus or Martin Luther King's really being active, Harry Truman, as president, commander in chief, ordained peremptorily that all racial discrimination would be done away with in the military services, and also in the public service, civil service, by the United States government.

    So that was a good indication to me about the real advantages of doing away with racial segregation.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And I want to ask something, before I get to the book — there is so much in the book to ask you about — and that is the emerging 2016 presidential campaign, the contest for the Democratic nomination.

    Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator, is out there getting big crowds, talking about economic inequality.

  • FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER:

    I know.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Secretary Clinton, of course, is out as well. He says he would do more on this. He says he wants to cut taxes on the wealthy. She hasn't gone that far. Who do you think speaks more, speaks better on the subject of economic inequality?

  • FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER:

    Well, I really think that, more inherently, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. The senator was in the forefront of saying equality and doing away with discrimination economically, constraining Wall Street, and doing away with the domination that the rich people now have over the political system.

    And so since Elizabeth Warren decided not to run, I think Bernie Sanders has kind of inherited her mantle for promoting less distinction on an economic basis of American citizens.

    So, at the same time, I know that the stupid decision by the Supreme Court on Citizens United to let money dominate America's political system is giving, I would say, Hillary Clinton a big advantage that will be, I think, overwhelming toward the end of the campaign.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But you're saying you think at this point Bernie Sanders speaks more…

  • FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER:

    I think he speaks more for a liberal and the active wing of the Democratic Party, yes.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And speaks — are you saying has more to say about economic inequality, has a better message…

  • FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER:

    So far, he does. I think he's been a lot bolder in his promulgation of his own ideas than has Hillary Clinton. But I think she is going to come along later and win.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    There is so much in this book about your early life. And I know you have written about it before.

    But I was struck by how you wrote about your father.

  • FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER:

    Yes.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    You talked about craving attention from him. In fact, you include a painting that you drew of your father. But you said he was sparing with his praise, and there's part of a poem that you wrote.

    You talked about the pain you mostly hide and you said you felt 'a hunger for his outstretched hand, a man's embrace to take me in, the need for just a word of praise."

  • FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER:

    Yes.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    How do you think that affected you?

  • FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER:

    Well, I was totally dominated and revered my father. I admired everything he did. He was a great sports person. He loved me. I was his only boy at that time, before my brother, Billy, came along.

    He expected the highest possible achievement on my part in the field or when I had my own business or when I was carrying out his instructions or his advice. And when I was erring, he was punitive. And I would resent it for a short period of time, but I would get over it. And, eventually, I look back on those times as a time of my hungering for his word of approbation or kind — or approval.

    And so then I realized toward the end that I — when I had my three boys, that I treated my boys the same way and…

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Sparing in praise for them?

  • FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER:

    Sparing in praise, that's true.

    And then I said, my daddy is still a part of me, which is true.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    You also note, you write about your ancestors, your grandfather, I guess, who died in a gunfight.

  • FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER:

    And my great-grandfather, too.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And your great-grandfather.

    Your grandfather was 45 on your father's side when he died.

  • FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER:

    Yes.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Your father was just, what, 58 or 59 when he died of cancer.

  • FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER:

    Yes.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    You have so far outlived them. How much do you think about that?

  • FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER:

    Well, I think about it with regret, obviously, because all my family have died with cancer. And my — both my sisters died with pancreatic cancer. My brother died with pancreatic cancer. My daddy died of pancreatic cancer. My mother died with breast cancer.

    They all smoked cigarettes. And I never have smoked a cigarette. So, I think that may be a triggering device to some genetic factor. I don't know what the background is.

    But the health service of America kind of adopted me as a target. We were the only family in the world for a number of years that was known to have pancreatic cancer deaths in four members. And so I have escaped it so far, thank goodness.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But living as long as you have is a gift.

  • FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER:

    It is. I know that. I realize that. And I'm grateful for it.

    And I think a lot is just luck. And a lot of it is the fact that Rosalynn and I live a very carefully orchestrated life of proper diet and a lot of exercise. But some of my family members have also had proper diet and a lot of exercise. So, I would say luck.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And so what do you want to do with the rest of your long, long life?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER:

    Well, I'm going to stay active as long as I can politically, and with the Carter Center primarily, and if I'm able mentally and physically, will continue to be quite active.

    But this has been the most traveled year that I have had in a number of years. Just happen to have a lot of things come up. But the Carter Center has programs in 80 countries in the world, so we have a lot of things going on.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    It's not a quiet life at all.

  • FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER:

    No, it's not a quiet life. It's a challenging and exciting and unpredictable, adventurous, enjoyable life.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And you're already working on your next book.

  • FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER:

    Well, always I'm working on some of book. That's the way I make a living.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    President Jimmy Carter, thank you for coming to talk to us.

  • FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER:

    Thank you, Judy. I have always enjoyed being with you.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Appreciate it.

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