(Sara Saunders photo)
|White House Diary, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $15.45, 592 pp.
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, Ga., a predominantly African American town with a population of just 637.
The inseparable, peripatetic couple continue to travel around the world on behalf causes advancing peace, health care and a number of other humanitarian concerns.
President Carter is also a very prolific writer, and the author of more than two dozen books. Here, he discusses his latest best-seller, “White House Diary,” an annotated version of the private journal he kept during his tenure in office.
You have been on missions to North Korea and to Palestine to visit the leaders of countries that traditional politicians shun as unpalatable. But, you have discovered that negotiation is possible.
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 toward doing away with nuclear weapons and toward 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.
Do you think it will be possible to end the Cuban boycott in the near future given the current political climate?
I hope so. I tried to do it 30 years ago, when I was president. We established diplomatic relations with Cuba to the extent that we have an “intersection” in Havana for the United States’ diplomats, and one in Washington for Cuban diplomats. So, I believe that the boycott that we have against Cuba is counterproductive, and it also makes the 12 million or so Cuban people suffer unnecessarily just because of a foolish policy of the United States.
Have you perceived that race relations have been affected positively by the election of Barack Obama?
I’m afraid not. The election of Barack Obama was a very wonderful step forward for the country, which has unfortunately been tainted by the ugly reaction of some right wing activists who are doing their best to cast aspersions on his character and to question his religion and citizenship.
The Iran Hostage Crisis lasted 444 days. In hindsight, is there anything you would have done differently that may have ended it sooner?
I would have sent one more helicopter, which would have meant that we could have brought out all the hostages and also the rescue team. We had an unexpected failure of three of our eight helicopters on that rescue attempt in 1980, so we didn’t have enough to get everyone out.
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.
You and the late Dr. Martin Luther King are the only two native Georgians to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, and you are the only U.S President to receive the Martin Luther King Nonviolent Peace Prize. And in 2006, you gave a eulogy at the funeral of Coretta Scott King. What did that mean to you?
The King family and I were very close. They gave me their full support when I ran for president, and when I was in the White House, Coretta and Daddy King would come by quite often to give me advice about what I could do to help African Americans and the poor.
How do you finance your great 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 re-elected 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 eight to just four million barrels a day. Now that figure’s up to 12 million. So, yes, 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 of us 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. 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.
Knowing what you know about the world’s current state of affairs, with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, how would you have led this country differently when you were president?
I think I would have been much more attuned to the concerns of people who were desperately in need. I was unfamiliar, for instance, with the plight of those living in the small villages in the deserts and the jungles of Africa. Now, every day, the Carter Center works among those people in a very exciting, fruitful and gratifying way. That’s definitely one of the things I wish had been aware of when I was in the White House.
In 1978, you declared a federal emergency at Love Canal. How would you characterize progress in our nation’s management of toxic materials since then?
[Laughs] We passed the Superfund Act the last few months I was in office, which finally made it possible to fine the large corporations which were polluting our streams, our soil and our air, and to make them pay for the cleanup. I’m proud of passing those laws, but I would just hope that Congress and incumbent presidents will continue to enforce them.
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 toward 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.
If you were still in office, how would you handle getting us out of this expensive war in Afghanistan?
I’d get us out as soon as possible. We know definitively that al-Qaeda isn’t all over Afghanistan anymore. According to CIA estimates, there are less than a hundred al-Qaeda members in the entire country. Most of them are in Pakistan. So, it’s hard for me to understand why we’re still fighting there and sending in more and more troops. I would get out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible.
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.
Despite the tremendous accomplishments of your presidency and post-presidency, some people still reflect on the candor of your Playboy interview admissions about having “lust in your heart.” If you were to do a Playboy interview today, would you be as forthcoming?
[Laughs] No, I don’t think I would. I was a little bit naïve back in those days. All I did was quote a Bible verse from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus said that people who have lust in their heart are just as guilty as those who commit adultery. But that landed me in serious trouble. As a matter of fact, that almost cost me the election. By the way, it was the best-selling Playboy issue in history.
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.
Would you might like to be president again?
No, I’m 86, and too old to be president. Moreover, when I ran, I didn’t have any money. Now, it requires raising hundreds of millions of dollars just to get the nomination, and I don’t care to be involved in that process.
What is your guiltiest pleasure?
[Laughs] I have a lot of pleasures but I don’t feel guilty about them. One of my greatest pleasures is being on the farmland that’s been in the family since 1833. I enjoy walking by myself on the same paths where, as a little boy, I delighted in following my father around.
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.
If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?
Peace for Israel and for Israel’s neighbors.
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.