President Jimmy Carter

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Former President Jimmy Carter will discuss his life and his new book, “A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety.”


TED SIMONS: Coming up next on this special edition of "Arizona Horizon," an interview with former President Jimmy Carter. We'll hear about President Carter's life, his political career and his new book. President Jimmy Carter, next on "Arizona Horizon."

"Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the Friends of Eight, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

TED SIMONS: Good evening, and welcome to this special edition of "Arizona Horizon," I'm Ted Simons. President Jimmy Carter went from life in rural Georgia to military service and made a living as a farmer all before he got into politics, a career path that took him all the way to the White House as America's 39th chief executive. President Carter is in Phoenix promoting his new book, appropriately titled "A Full Life: Reflections at 90. Joining us now is President Jimmy Carter. Good to have you, welcome to "Arizona Horizon."

JIMMY CARTER: Good day to you and people all around Arizona.

TED SIMONS: It's great to have you. Thank you. Speaking of Arizona, thoughts, memories and experiences in Arizona?

JIMMY CARTER: Just a beautiful state, and I campaigned here and 49 other states as a matter of fact. I had fairly good support here during the primary. In the general election I would say President Ford carried most of the states west of the Mississippi and I carried almost all of them east of the Mississippi, and I came out a little bit ahead.

TED SIMONS: You did. As far as the book is concerned, you've written a lot of books, you've written a number of them. Much of what's in this book has been touched on in some way shape or form in the previous efforts. How does this book differ from the others?

JIMMY CARTER: This is my 29th book. I've covered things in this book that I haven't really done before. Why I decided to run for President, for instance, my life in the Navy. The relationship I had with former Presidents and ones that served after me. The things that I was able accomplish and resolve fully when I was President, and things that I had to postpone for others to address. Those kinds of things. My relationships with my wife early on, some of the major lessons I've learned in life and sometimes the hard way, which may be helpful to other people that read the book. A lot of things in there that I have never written before.

TED SIMONS: And indeed, "Reflections at 90". Memories, what memories do you find at this stage, that you find that you enjoy most?

JIMMY CARTER: The most enjoyable part of my life has been since I left the White House. Of course, it was great to be President of the greatest country in the world and to have that authority and that power and influence and knowledge of internal affairs and that sort of thing. But I've had a much better life I would say during the 35 or so years since we left the White House. We have programs in 70 different countries in the world, and we deal with the most intricate matters that -- governments don't want to fool with. We go to Myanmar, we go to meet with all the Palestinian groups, we go to North Korea, we go to Cuba, we go to Sudan and so forth , we go to Nepal --. We meet with people that cause problems in the world that we can help resolve. We also have started a program of bringing people to -- We just finished our 100th troubled election in May. And this year we'll treat about 71 million people so they won't go blind or have some other horrible disease that is no longer known in an even halfway developed world, but it afflicts hundreds of millions, in the very poor countries. Particularly in Africa and Latin America.

TED SIMONS: Getting so much done now after leaving the White House. Why do you think it's working better? -- The best memories sound like they are the most recent ones for you. Why do you think that is?

JIMMY CARTER: Because I was President first. I wouldn't be able to do the things that I know how to do now, if I hadn't been President of a great country first. And I wouldn't have the direct access to any leader on earth. Any king or president or Prime Minister that I want to meet, I just call them and he's very eager to meet me. Then I tell them what we want to do in his country or her country, and they generally agree and cooperate with us. If I go to a pharmaceutical company and ask them for hundreds of millions of doses of medicine. Primarily because I have been President of a country and they respect me, they give this medicine to us and we can go into the jungle areas and cities and towns -- and also in the desert areas and give medicine to people. I couldn't orchestrate honest and fair election processes in troubled countries, and actually go in with some associates and conduct an honest and fair election, if it hadn't been for my White House experience. And my wife and I also, every year for one week, we go and build Habitat houses for poor people in need. We've done that now for 32 years. Later on this year we'll be in Nepal where Mount Everest is, we're building 100 houses for one week with other volunteers who will join us. Those are the kind of things I was able to do primarily because I was President.

TED SIMONS: -- What memories for you are the hardest?

JIMMY CARTER: Well, the White House years are the most troubling. The last year I was in office was when the hostages were being held, Iran was the most troubling of all. I prayed more about it, I was in more concern about it. But we eventually brought every hostage home safe and free, and I protected the interests of my country, but that was a very trying time. And then we had some very intense negotiations to formalize relations with the People's Republic of China for instance, to start ending apartheid in African countries, and to go to Panama and resolve the issue of the Panama Canal treaties. To go to the Holy Land and bring peace with Israel and Egypt, those were some of the things that were challenging to me.

TED SIMONS: You said it was great to be President.

JIMMY CARTER: It was.

TED SIMONS: Did you enjoy being President?

JIMMY CARTER: I did, Yes. There were some trying times and I would say the overwhelming joyous and productive and exciting and challenging, and unpredictable, adventurous times have been since I left the White House, because of the diversity of the things we do, and the direct personal contact we make. We go into individual villages and assess their problems in health care, and then we actually administer medicines if it's needed, or teach them how to resolve an ancient problem that people may have suffered for 20,000 years. That's very gratifying to us.

TED SIMONS: It's interesting, you talk about all the things you're doing and the Carter Center is doing, and moderating elections, monitoring elections, getting health care to people that need it. Such an active public service kind of a life. Yet, there you are in rural Georgia as a kid marrying the girl -- you literally married the girl next door, didn't you?

JIMMY CARTER: I did. As a matter of fact my mother was a nurse. The first day Rosalie was alive I went over and looked through the cradle at my future wife, my mother tells me. We still live in the same little town, about 650 people, Plains, Georgia.

TED SIMONS: -- You write that most of your friends were African-American.

JIMMY CARTER: Almost all of them.

TED SIMONS: -- When did the racial divide, the racial question, when did that hit you? At what age?

JIMMY CARTER: When I was younger I didn't have any friends except black boys and girls. My mother was a registered nurse, she was gone a lot. So African-American women kind of took care of me and raised me and taught me about a proper attitude toward life, toward God, my fellow human beings and taught me the names of trees and birds and things. I was raised in a black culture. I would say when I was about 14 years old -- I wrote a poem about this called A Pasture Gate. Two African American friends and I we were coming out of a field to the barn and went through a gate. When they got to the gate they opened it and stepped back to let me go through first. I thought there was a trip wire and I would fall down. I finally realized later that that was a time in their life and mine when their parents probably told them, it's time for you to start treating Jimmy as a white person. And not as a complete equal with you anymore. As I said at the end of the poem, that was drawing a line between friends and friends, race and race. It was later that I realized that's probably what happened. Then I was in the submarine force, I was a submarine officer. When Harry Truman ordained as commander and chief, as president, that all the racial discrimination should be over in all the armed services and also the civil service of our government. And that was kind of a turning point in my life.

TED SIMONS: The pasture gate incident in the book is fascinating -- you can the way you write it that it really did impact you.

JIMMY CARTER: Well, it did.

TED SIMONS: It was something you weren't aware of, and all of a sudden here' the world.

JIMMY CARTER: And I realized later that when we finally got the Civil Rights Act passed and Martin Luther King, Jr., and Andy Young and Rosa Parks were successful, we had removed the millstone from around the neck of both black and white people. I think the last few months with the tragedy in South Carolina and the abuse by police of black people, that we are beginning to see that we still have a long way to go. That we kind of breathed a sigh of relief, said it's all over now, no more discrimination, all equality from now on, no more white supremacy. But that's not true yet.

TED SIMONS: Still have a ways to go.

JIMMY CARTER: Still have a ways.

TED SIMONS: Your father, you write, showed fairness and respect for all but he was a man of his time and place.

JIMMY CARTER: He was, and everybody else was, too. As was the Supreme Court as was the U.S. Congress, as were all the churches as were all the American Bar Association members. There was no question in those days of the 30s and 40s that racial discrimination was wrong and should be corrected.

TED SIMONS: You write quite a bit about your naval experience. How did the Navy shape your life?

JIMMY CARTER: I would say the preeminent fact at the naval academy was do not lie. If a midshipman there told a slightest falsehood, he was out. That was the end of his naval career. If you stepped on the grass and somebody saw you and you later said, I didn't step on the grass, you were gone. I think to tell the truth was a preeminent mandate, and I carried that over. Later it became kind of a motif for me. If I tell a lie, don't vote for me, and so forth. It was a time in history that we had had too many lies told by our government and too many devastating blows. The Watergate crisis, the Vietnam War, misrepresentations. And the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Kennedy brothers. And the revelation by the Frank Church committee that the President and the CIA had committed crimes against you might say enemy leaders overseas. Those kinds of things were all revealed, and I came along at a right time.

TED SIMONS: You came at a right time, but you came along at a time when addressing these issues and doing it as a bit of an outsider -- you were considered an outsider --.

JIMMY CARTER: Oh, yeah.

TED SIMONS: Didn't make you many friends, did it?

JIMMY CARTER: No, but I didn't need many friends. I had about 12 opponents, all more famous than I was. And either big states or the U.S. Senate or something like that. By the time I got recognized as a legitimate candidate, all of the -- you might say the semi professional politicians around different states had already aligned themselves with more favored candidates. So I had to take what was left over, young people and newcomers to politicia I didn't have any money, we didn't have money at all. And we didn't ever stay in a hotel room. We just got people to let us stay in their house if we could beg them to, or we slept in an automobile. That was all my staff. When I ran finally against Gerald Ford who was an incumbent President, he and I raised zero money. We didn't raise a single dollar of contribution from anybody that might want something back after we were elected. And the same thing happened by the way four years later when I ran against Ronald Reagan. We didn't raise any money. We just took a $1 per person check that some taxpayers volunteered to give.

TED SIMONS: When you see what happens in this day and age, regarding money and politics. I think you write that you consider it legal bribery.

JIMMY CARTER: It is legal bribery. There's no doubt, you can't possibly hope to be the Democratic or Republican nominee for President if you can't raise two or $300 million. I wont condemn those people that want to give. But some of them want something back after the election is over, either from an incumbent President or Congressman or U.S. senator or governor or something like that. It's made it completely legally to give unlimited amounts and get something in return. That's one of the main reasons we've seen such a dramatic change in the relationship between very rich people who are getting richer and richer and the average working people in this country that are not.

TED SIMONS: The campaign against President Ford was different, as well, you were both respectful of each other. And that respect lasted really after you both left the White House.

JIMMY CARTER: Well, the historians said publicly and in writing that the two former presidents of the United States that had the closest personal friendship was Gerald Ford and I. I was very proud of that. His wife was a friend of my wife and the children were friends of each other. So we had a very intimate and gratifying relationship.

TED SIMONS: As far as being in the White House, you write that you had problems with the media. I think almost every President says they have problems with the media. You thought maybe they couldn't accept a southerner, that that was a factor at play. Talk to us about that.

JIMMY CARTER: When I was elected I was the first person from the deep South chosen that was chosen to be President in about 150 years. It just wasn't a thing done. I think a lot of the media from the North, they controlled the media pretty much, felt there was some power behind my background or an inclination towards racism, that I was a southerner that was still committed to racial distinctions. That was right after the Water Gate revelations some investigating reporters had gotten famous because the reveled what went on with Richard Nixon. I think they thought they were going find something wrong with me that would be gratifying for their own career. -- I was in office 48 months and 46 months I had negative news coverage. Just the first two months was the only positive coverage. We learned to live with it.

TED SIMONS: Again, we hear from presidents afterwards or supporters of Presidents, everyone seems to have a problem with the media, don't they?

JIMMY CARTER: That's true.

TED SIMONS: The Camp David accords were amazing. To think that in this day and age, you had Egypt and Israel shaking hands there and you right there. Those talks at Camp David were very personal, the relationships were very personal. I thought signing a photograph with Menachem Begin, I thought that was a fascinating story.

JIMMY CARTER: Well we had failed at the end of 12 days, we were there 13 and we were getting ready to go back to Washington and announce that we had not been successful. -- Begin was very angry with me because I had made some demands on Israel he didn't think he could accept. He asked me for a signed photograph of me and him and Sadat together just as a souvenir. My secretary called Israel and got the names of his 8 grandchildren. So instead of putting best wishes Jimmy Carter. I put With love and best wishes to, and I put the name of each grandchild and his son. I took it over to his cabin to give to him. He was very cool toward me. He said thank you, Mr. President. He reached out and took the photograph and turned around and walked away kind of. I stood there and he looked at the photographs and began to read the names of his grandchildren one by one. When he got to about the third name he had tears coming down his cheeks and his voice was kind of choked up. I was too. He finally said, Mr. President, why don't we make one more effort? We made another effort and we were successful. But I think it was because of those photographs and his realization that he was possibly bringing peace to his own grandkids that he said, I'll be a little more flexible.

TED SIMONS: Your most difficult political decision was the Panama Canal, but your most important diplomatic decision was China.

JIMMY CARTER: I think that's right, yes. Getting two thirds of the Senate to vote for the Panama Canal treaties was much more difficult for me than getting elected as President in the first place. It was one of the most courageous votes that the Senate ever did. There were 20 people in the senate that voted for -- those treaties in 1978 that ran for reelection. Out of the twenty only seven came back the next January. -- That was very difficult, but I think as far as shaking up political alliances and the world on a sustained basis, my decision to normalize diplomatic relations with China was probably more significant.

TED SIMONS: Indeed. I also noticed you did have a health care plan and you had ideas there. But Teddy Kennedy of all people seemed to get in the way. What happened there?

JIMMY CARTER: Ted Kennedy wanted to be President. And for the last two years I was in office he was a full-time candidate against me. He didn't want me to experience any major successes which I can certainly comprehend, having been in politics myself. But we worked on this comprehensive health plan for every human being, basically to extend Medicare to everybody. -- And we had all six committees in the House and Senate lined up to help us including Ted Kennedy's committee. In the last week when we were getting ready to reveal it, he changed his mind and decided to oppose it. He was powerful enough in the Senate to block its passage. There's no doubt we would have had comprehensive health care for all Americans 30 years earlier if Kennedy had maintained his commitment to the program that he had helped me develop.

TED SIMONS: Last year in office, we've got to get there, you write that it was the most stressful and unpleasant of your life.

JIMMY CARTER: It was.

TED SIMONS: As far as the hostages obviously. The failed rescue mission, was that the right decision? Regardless of 20/20 hindsight, your Secretary of State Cyrus Vance did not think it was a good decision.

JIMMY CARTER: He was the only one.

TED SIMONS: And he wound up resining, but do you think it was still the right decision?


JIMMY CARTER: It was, it was. We had to have 6 helicopters to bring out all the hostages and the rescue team. We couldn't have left them behind because they would have very likely been killed by the Iranians. -- And the military told me we need to have at least 6 helicopters come out. So I decided we'd have seven and an eighth. We had two helicopters go down, one turned back unexpectedly to the aircraft carrier, I don't know why yet. The other went down in a sandstorm which left us with six. In desert 1 we were getting ready to go in and rescue we knew where everyone was and so forth. That particular helicopter had a fuel leak and swerved sideways and hit one of the airplanes there. And we had to abort the mission. So I think if we'd had one more helicopter we would have gotten the hostages out. I would have had a second term and history might have been a little bit better. But I don't think my life would have been much more pleasant. [Laughter]

TED SIMONS: You refrained from using the military against Iran. Why?

JIMMY CARTER: Well, I tried to promote two basic ideals of mine as a Christian. One was to keep the peace. We worship the Prince of Peace. And to promote human rights in all their aspects. I did the best I could not only to keep peace for my own country but to keep peace for others, including Egypt and Israel. I would say most of my advisors, even including my wife, proposed that I should attack Iran militarily, which we could have destroyed Iran. I just decided to try to use peaceful means. I was fortunate, not only protecting my country's interests but we never dropped a bomb, never launched a missile, never fired a bullet while I was in office. A lot was good fortune, a lot was commitment on my part.

TED SIMONS: The hostages were not released until after the election. There's been a lot written and speculated about this. I want to ask you. Do you think there was some sort of deal, do you think that was by design?

JIMMY CARTER: That's a question I never have been willing to answer. I deliberately avoided getting involved in any sort of research to prove it. There were books written about it that say there was a deal between the White House and the Ayatollah. I don't know. The only thing I know is I stayed up 3 days and nights I never went to bed even the last 3 days I was in office. I negotiated between Iran and 12 other countries to get the hostages freed. At 9:00 that morning of inauguration day when I was going out of office, all the hostages were in an airplane at the end of the runway ready to take off. I was waiting for them to take off and the Ayatollah didn't let them do so until five minutes after I was no longer in office. Why? I don't know.

TED SIMONS: Do you want to know?

JIMMY CARTER: Not really.

TED SIMONS: That incident, I know Kennedy and Reagan at the time, they called you an ineffective leader, they called you weak on that. Your emphasis on human rights, that was seen at the time as weakness. -- How did you respond to that? This was used against you and it worked, you did not win that reelection.

JIMMY CARTER Well, I didn't use it wisely. -- I said in the book here, one of the things I didn't do was to keep the Democratic party vital and alive and loyal to me. I let Kennedy move in and he took over a good portion of the Democratic party, more ultra liberal members. I had to depend on Republicans to help me get my legislation passed. Which I got, I got as much support from Republicans as I did Democrats when I was in the White House. I had a very good batting average. But I think the human rights issue was one of the strongest and politically demanding things that I did. Because we brought the freedom and peace to a lot of people on earth that never had known it before. If you have time, I'll give you one quick example.

TED SIMONS: Please.

JIMMY CARTER: In Latin America, when I became President, we were in bed with every dictator in Latin America, in South America and in Central America and in the Caribbean. Whenever one of our dictator friends was challenged by Native Americans or native peoples, indigenous people, poor people, we would send troops down, either Marines or Army troops to defend our military friend, who probably graduated from West Point and his kids went through American colleges, but who also would provide us with very beneficial contracts for pineapple and bananas and bauxite and iron ore and those kinds of things. We had a lot of money flowing into us because we supported them -- I put an end to that. And within seven years every country in South America had become a democracy. When before that almost every one of them was a dictatorship. I think that showed human rights paid off.

TED SIMONS: We're about to run out of time. I could talk to you forever. You have mentioned these are the best -- and I think at the end of your book you write that the life you have now is the best of all. And you have been talked about and people refer to you as the best former president we've ever had. Is that a little bittersweet to hear?

JIMMY CARTER: To my wife it is. It really doesn't bother me, you know. I did the best I could. As Chris Mondale said, we told the truth, we kept the law and we kept the peace. We protected human rights. We did the best we could.

TED SIMONS: It's been an absolute pleasure having you here. -- I was around back then, as well, and it brings back a lot of memories. Congratulations on a life well lived. Do you ever just press the snooze button and say, I feel like sleeping in? You're a busy man.

JIMMY CARTER: We stay busy but also enjoy life very much. We have 38 in our family now, 22 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I met with some in Los Angeles when I was there recently. So we have a good quiet life, my wife and I do in Plains, but we still have 80 countries around the world we visit whenever we can.

TED SIMONS: My goodness. President Carter, great to have you here. Thank you so much.

JIMMY CARTER: Thoroughly enjoyed it, good questions.

TED SIMONS: Thank you. That is it for now, I'm Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening.

Jimmy Carter : Former President

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