Jimmy Carter “The American President”: A Kunhardt Film Foundation InterviewJul 08, 2023
campaign and the next time I went, that's when you said you were born again or that your face was exaggerated, well, the born again thing has been very highly and misinterpreted by many people I have always been a Christian child I have always been quite devout but then I was disillusioned about God's purpose for my life I thought my life I certainly thought my political life was over in 1966... and my sister Ruth Stapleton was Carter Stapleton was a very evangelical person famous then with five books and series of important conferences and speeches, she was very famous and she came to our house after I was defeated, she drove from Fayetteville, North Carolina, we went out and spent some time together.
I told her that my political life was over, I was doomed to simply be a peanut farmer for the rest of my existence, I was disappointed that God had no interest in the future of my life, etc., and she convinced me by quoting a passage from the Book of James that those kinds of tragedies or setbacks should be the basis for a better life, for renewed vigor and confidence and purpose for re-evaluation of what we have done and were not cause for despair or alienation and I said, Ruth, that is complete nonsense. Political life was over and she said, "Well, just have faith and do the best you can," so I started campaigning again and in 1970 I was elected.
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jimmy carter the american president a kunhardt film foundation interview...
I see, when did you realize that you could make it to the White House all the way? It happened then or later. I had no ambition to run for
presidentwhen I was elected governor in 1972, when McGovern was nominated. I and a group of other southern governors hoped to be elected vice
president, but that was not the case, so within a few years. months after the 1972 convention in Miami I began to secretly plan to run for president only about five or six of us knew eh this was after I had been governor for about a year or so you would have accepted the nomination for vice president yeah I would would have done Have you taken it?
Did you try? Did you talk to him about that? Never not, but I hoped he would see me as an attractive addition to the ticket and even if he wasn't elected I thought it would give me some sort of advantage. springboard into the future, might have helped him a little, I'm not sure about that, but well, if you could remember the Eagleton disaster, I remember we had to go through that whole unfortunate episode, yes, I know, I see it, but And then , when I announced it in 1974, no one cared and no one thought I had a chance, but I was confident that our plans and our strategy would bear fruit and I never lost confidence and we had turning points step by step.
We were always way ahead of where we expected to be during the campaign itself, let's see that was a difficult task, although wasn't it good? It was the years of discipline again. I remember you in my home state of Iowa, there's your suit bag and going with your people, the Peanut Brigade people, right there, guy who said, how would you keep them all on the job? Well, that first year in 1975 was a lonely existence. Me in Iowa. I visited 135 cities in towns in Iowa and just looking. for someone with a notebook thinking they could be a news reporter and I read, I could go on the radio and never on television, but I would just go from town to town and speak in college classes, maybe 20 people would come.
I remember once. I went to Des Moines and spent a lot of money to have a big reception and have refreshments there and so on and two people came and a big ballroom and a hotel in Des Moines. I stayed there for about half an hour and then I left the hotel, walked down the street to the courthouse and shook hands with everyone who worked at the courthouse, that didn't put you off, oh yeah, but how did you deal with it? I kept working on your faith again. Well, so it wasn't just religious faith, it was faith in myself and we had a very secret weapon at our disposal when, when there were other candidates, there were nine prominent candidates campaigning, taking time off from their duties in Washington, most of them .
I was campaigning, my wife was campaigning in a separate place and in other separate places, my son Jack and his wife Chip and his wife Jeff and his wife, my mother and my aunt, we had seven or eight simultaneous campaigns all the time , every weekend. On Saturday we would return to the planes, share ideas, share notes, make sure we spoke with the same voice. Monday morning would be great in the factory shift lines, so we covered Iowa in Florida and New Hampshire far beyond what anyone else could. I didn't do it with television ads, but just with personal visits and it was in that first stage of success that the Peanut Brigade came and then I had hundreds of Georgians coming out to do the same thing, so that was really the secret for us.
Did you try to change that image? Yes, I did that the first time I went to Massachusetts, for example. They considered me a curiosity, although the people of Boston were very interested in politics. He paid attention to me even though I was kind of a weird Southerner and the first question a TV reporter asked me was why people in Massachusetts should vote for you, who come from the South, and I said, when John Kennedy was running for president. I got a higher percentage of the vote in Georgia than I did in Massachusetts, and because of that, we were loyal to his candidacy, so we deserve some credit here.
So we finally did pretty well in Massachusetts, let's move on to win the White House. Let's start from the back first, it was worth it, yes, all those years, oh yes, it was an important and tedious discipline, well, let's see, I guess you could say it's the best thing that has ever happened to me publicly, um, I enjoyed being president. Proud of my country Proud of the honor I received I am confident that what I did was the right thing when I was president. Every morning I look forward to arriving at the Oval Office to face the day.
Sometimes I was disappointed when I arrived. There might have been things there that I couldn't uh, how did you realize you had won? It wasn't until the final results came in from the state of Mississippi that I came out on top and defeated President Ford. who was a good man and who you know had the country's well-deserved gratitude uh then it was close and real field suddenly you're getting excited like accelerated tired I see oh ambitious and then we did as much preparation before arriving in the White House, as anyone could do it, we had a very clear agenda the day I took office, I prepared the first budget before I was president, I was completely familiar with military secrets, you know, before addressing responsibilities, etc., etc.
We had had a good, good preparation, how did it feel on the inaugural stage again? Very, very proud and humble. I made a very short speech, one of the shortest presidential texts ever. I wrote it all myself and, uh, and then. We had made some very secret arrangements to get out of his limousine and walk down Pennsylvania Avenue, but the only thing the Secret Service asked was that we not reveal this ahead of time, so we got off at the checkpoint where I gave my inaugural address. around the capital and I stopped the limousine guide and walked down Pennsylvania Avenue, so the whole inauguration process was very exciting and a little adventurous for us, tell me about your first moments in the White House when you first walked in, How did you feel?
Obviously, it was a good tour after I was president, but to go in and see the desk that Thomas Jefferson tied to the back of his horse and used and to see Abraham Lincoln's room and to go into the map room where Frank and Roosevelt and Winston Churchill made strategic plans for World War II and seeing where the balcony where Truman sat was an overwhelming experience for me. I had to be immersed in a sense of history and responsibility and I would say humility, that was amazing. Which former presidents did you admire the most? Did you have a couple of heroes in the back of your mind like Jefferson or others thinking, of course, I would say that in ancient times, Thomas Jefferson was who I had studied the most and where I studied and where I had the most respect and I still have, but in modern times of this century I have always looked up to Harry Truman as my hero.
I have tried to emulate him at times. I have studied the books about him. I knew what his speeches were and I believe he was a man of absolute honesty and integrity. I don't think he has ever used a presidency for his own financial or other benefits. I think he was a man who considered his role in historical terms. with a lot of flexibility trying to use the talent that he had for the best interest of our country, so I'm always a big fan, of course, in times of stress crisis, in that you would go back to his writings and his actions that he would do, of course In fact, when I have given speeches as president on human rights, I would often quote Harry Truman, who I consider to be an unsung defender of human rights, he gave speeches very specifically on human rights that perhaps have now been forgotten and I think the The most vivid demonstration of his commitment to human rights was his treatment of the Germans, Japanese, and Italians after the war.
He did not try to be economically punitive, but he tried to rebuild those societies and it is thanks to the humanism of Harry Truman. human rights policy in its most generic sense that we now have wonderful democracies in Germany and Italy and in Japan, it could have been the other way around and I think it was a great basis of stability to perpetuate the peace that we have known since then. Then once along the way you said you would not knowingly tell a lie to the American people, did you keep that commitment? Yes, I did, yes.
I don't think anyone has ever alleged, yeah, right? It was quite a bold thing to know that sometimes you have to darken things really well. He was also a subject of great ridicule, you know, from news reporters, uh, them whenever he walked into a presidential press conference, which I loved. I did it quite often, there was always an attempt by some news reporters to catch me and say something different now than what I had said before, but no, I never did, so don't subscribe to all those old sayings about the burden of the presidency and it's a white prison and it's a fishbowl all those things that you didn't seem to care that no Rosen would care uh that I never lost an hour of sleep while I was president worrying about what had happened or what might happen and so on. .
I did my best and with self-confidence in my religious faith. I adjusted to the disappointments and really enjoyed being president. However, there was a moment of great stress for me and that is why the hostages were being held when I was obsessed with preserving their lives and bringing them home safely, I would personally meet with the families of the hostages and try to assure them of my interest, so it was a very bad moment, that was their worst moment. oh yeah, what was the best? Well, I think the best moment was probably dealing with the Middle East issue.
Camp David, yes, David, and even better, I think it was the peace treaty that came six months later. We have to get to Camp David. All went well. downhill, the Israelis were very intransigent and pleaded more than the rest of his cabinet, even to the people of Israel, so we reached a stalemate and I made a very difficult decision due to the almost unanimous opposition of my cabinet and my staff to make the decision. initiative and going to Egypt and going to Israel to try to get Reagan and Sadat to come to an agreement on a peace treaty and I went there and when they signed they both signed the agreement, I guess that was probably my greatest moment.
He surprised you about the job, the limitations of what a president can do, yes, the professional, and I was glad because the president's influence on foreign policy was more or less what he expected. The president's influence on the legislation was less than he expected, particularly as it relates. I remember you wrote that you had a week-long honeymoon with Congress, that's right, and then what was most surprising, I guess, was the minor role the present plays in the economy. and economics, so you could say you have half a chance with Congress to shape economic policy, but far beyond that is the role of the Federal Reserve System and far beyond that is the entire free-trade system.
American business, to the extent that ups and downs in inflation and employment, etc., the president is a minor player, but the president is blamed when things go wrong in the economic situation and is given unjustified credit when things go wrong. Things are going well, so those are some of the surprises, how do you handle criticism? Because all presidents are bombed. I received a lot of criticism and we faced some before I became president. I remember when we got to the White House and what should have been a glorious reception, you know? I thought the Washington Post had a full page of cartoons about me implying that I had an IQ of about 50.
They had a picture of my mother barefoot in the outhouse with glass cut out of the door, a strawcoming out of our ears and That was a bad start, but we had learned to deal with it, but you looked at it, you read it, I mean, you turned it off, yes, I did, no, I read it, you were aware that I got up early every morning. mornings. By the time I received my first briefing of the day, which was eight o'clock, I had read a full report from the Secretary of State for International Affairs. He had read the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the New York Times cover to cover.
I was familiar with what was happening during the day and I never avoided reading and absorbing these things, but another president says they cut the newspaper so they couldn't see. I read it all, in fact, I got up before the Clippers. I see, did you have enough time to really learn how to be president or should there be a six-year term? I have spoken to several former presidents, we all agree that there should be a six-year term, really yes, you understand. think if you review a littleThere is consensus, there is consensus, yes and um, of course.
I think in many ways I'm not trying to brag, but maybe this is what it seems like. I didn't really put reelection as that high of a priority. You know, I tackle difficult topics. the first term when my wife quite often said Jimmy, let's postpone that, but we were left in a matter of controversy because we were very ambitious the first four years, but I think it would be better for the nation to have a six year. I don't think that will ever happen because it takes a lot of enthusiasm and interest and a kind of crisis, but before amending the Constitution, no one particularly cares whether you have two options for a full year term or whether you have a six year term, but if you look back in recent history, there haven't been many presidents who have served two full terms, it's been rare.
It expanded when you talked about the worst moment, the best moment, what is your most important achievement and your and your biggest disappointment is that you didn't achieve it. It's hard to say because you don't know what the legacy might be. I think the implementation and the minds of Americans and the rest of the world about the importance of basic human rights. with a broad definition it may be the most important achievement. I also faced the crisis of normalizing diplomatic relations with China, although President Nixon went to China, as you know, in 1972 and received the Shanghai Communiqué and said there was one China and was never willing to say which one. one, so many of the people who supported Taiwan assumed it was Taiwan and others the other way around when President Ford was in office, he completely ignored this normalization of China and others did too and I decided to normalize relations with China, they tried for peace with Israel. between Israel and Egypt the basic premises of Camp David have been good, so I think one of the lasting things would be the Alaska land bill that doubled the size of a national park system and tripled the size of our wilderness areas and resolved a 20-year issue of altercation that started when President Eisenhower was in office, so a few things came up, why did you feel what disappointed you or what do you think you failed at or wish you had?
I wish we could have made more progress in harmonizing relations with the Soviet Union and I think we could have done that because we had to raid agreement II. Brezhaf and I were quite compatible after that we were waiting for a comprehensive test plan on nuclear weapons or explosives and then they invaded Afghanistan and this was a setback for the relationship between us and the Soviet Union because I was convinced, as was our security apparatus and, indeed, most of the world's leaders, that the service was preparing to leave Afghanistan if they consolidated their control in that country towards Pakistan and Iran. and Iran was torn apart by a war, but with Iraq, so we considered this Soviet invasion of Afghanistan a very serious threat and I would say my biggest frustration was not being able to make more progress towards the end of a Cold War.
Did the presidency change you? I don't believe it. I don't think it has changed much for me. um and it's hard for me to answer that, but the people who know me best, my wife and my close associates, I don't think I have. I see, did you change the office? Well, that's hard to say. Leave a fingerprint of some kind. Well, there were a couple of things. I think that the exaltation of the basic concept of Human Rights was something that perhaps I have implemented. It's been so good, one thing I changed was the role of the vice presidency and that has been very significant and permanent before I took office, the vice president was a very secondary figure in the United States, people don't even remember how far removed the vice presidency was the president's, the most sensitive responsibility the president has is when to use nuclear weapons first.
When I got there, I was surprised to realize that the vice president was not included in that process at all and the vice president was not even briefed on the characteristics or proper use of nuclear weapons. If something were to happen to the president before I got there, the vice president wasn't even authorized or qualified to take over, so I changed all that and moved Fritz to my house on Monday. vice president to the White House with me, he was never excluded from any of the most sensitive issues that I addressed, he was a full partner with me and this had never happened before, but after that I think all presidents have emulated to some extent, that basic change I was at a conference to discuss the vice presidency and you are given credit for solving what everyone said was a problem, the vice presidency, so let's move on now, you're leaving, you're leaving the white house, you're missing out once.
He said show me a good loser and I'll show you a loser a hard time it was a very hard time and it would have been harder for me if it hadn't been even harder for Roseland and as I tried to think of arguments to calm his anger and his pain, you gave me a fundamental reason to accommodate this, so, this unexpected, uh, involuntary, but you moved quite quickly and yes, your role now as peacemaker and the center here and I was that in your Mind even before the elections , no, but it was on my mind between the elections and when I left office, because what some people don't recognize is how young I was when I finished being president, I was one of the youngest survivors. presidents in this century I was only 56 years old, I had many plans ahead of me for the second term I anticipated and I wanted to discover in my own mind what I can do to use this tremendous remaining influence that I have. take me with me so there's no place where you didn't know what you were going to do, not really.
However, I must say that the breadth and scope of what the Carter Center does was completely unforeseen. I wanted to establish Here, although it was a place where I could help resolve disputes between nations or particularly within nations, when I was president I realized the enormity of the conflicts in the world and they were not being addressed because the United Nations was created ago. now 50 years to deal. with wars between nations and those had almost faded from the international scene now all wars were within countries and no one was really dealing with them and I saw in the early stages of my involuntary retirement from the White House a real need for this and out of that The Carter Center has grown and all the work I have done, how soon was the pain relieved? it took a while it took a while well, I was president I took notes meticulously on a small handheld recorder when something happened that I knew would not be officially recorded a visitor's impression or traumatic experience.
I dictated my feelings about it and then I did it while filling out a tape, I just threw it in the basket. I never read all those notes and when I left the White House, I realized, I discovered that I had 6,000 pages of diary notes and I and I was broke. He was in debt for a million dollars. I discovered it after I lost the election, something I had never been before and, um, I sold my Memoirs and then I worked on them and the Memoirs came out of my reevaluation of my diary notes, so they gave me an agenda that allowed me healing my wounds, reevaluating the things I had done, said and felt and I was in relative isolation on Planes because I had to finish this book, so it was a good healing process and the fact that I returned to the planes where my family and the Rosen family have been around for 150 years and we are farm laws and our church and our friends were a refuge within which I was able to heal my disappointment very quickly looking back what is the most important quality for a president can you or one or two ?
I think integrity and the ability to communicate with the public and I think those two are the most important thing is what's in your life now. Do you continue from here and continue with the World Peace Mission? And yes, whatever you watch, we have voluminous programs now at the Carter Center that are very exciting to me. We have an almost unlimited menu. Threat we have. We are worried about hunger in Africa or in the last seven years we have accumulated three hundred thousand African farmers who we are teaching to grow more corn, wheat and millet, we immunize all the children of the world from a working group that has always been located here At the Carter Center we look at all the conflicts in the world and we address them the best we can, we have here an activist from the Human Rights Council who tries to prevent human rights abuses and correct them, so we have a whole agenda that is very exciting for us and unpredictable and adventurous and rewarding, so my personal time commitment will have to reduce from year to year, but now I have built a staff that does the administrative work and takes on many responsibilities that I used to have on my own shoulders if If you could write a list of priorities for a new president, what would you tell him to do during these times?
Well, we are now the only superpower in the world and the Soviet Union has faded into a relatively secondary level. position I would like to see our nation exemplify all the characteristics of a superpower. I would like to see every person in the world consider the United States as the main defender of peace, so that every time there is a dispute on Earth, the United States devotes a large part of its great political, economic and even military to unite the disputing parties and use maximum influence throughout the international community to bring peace to that country and this would exist in Burundi, Rwanda, Liberia and Sudan, just to name the African countries.
Coaches I would like to see our country be the champion of basic human rights in a broad sense so that people look to the United States to correct human rights abuses and we are not guilty of human rights abuses. I would like to do it because our country should be considered one of the main defenders and protectors of freedom and democracy, so every time elections are held in the world in a country in trouble or in transition, the United States will be at the forefront. vanguard to ensure that elections are fair and honest and trusted by both parties as a means to perpetuate what could be a fragile piece.
I would like to see our country be altruistic for a change. We are now the most selfish developed nation in the world. We give three tenths of one percent. of a gross national product to heal the wounds of people around the world, while a country like Norway gives 20 times more for the same purpose, so I would say that peace, human rights, freedom and the relief of suffering They are the characteristics, in my opinion, of a great nation and we do not display them and I think they would be politically attractive and inspiring and would accurately reflect the characteristics of the American people.
That would be my advice to the next president. What about the question of family values at the national level and the whole social unit is the basis of all Faith and discipline, that kind of thing. I think the same thing would apply, you know, in our own country, but now the phrase Family Values is kind of a misleading phrase for most people when you say family values. Think about ultra-conservative religious values or the abuse of people from families who don't have a mother and father to take care of the children and a derogation of those who are dispossessed or poor, but I think those kinds of values, um.
I would say that based on a Judeo-Christian ethic that should be read as established in our country, not that the government can do it, no, but I think the government can certainly address those types of issues substantively and not just as a policy. gimmick or slogan or soundbite in a political campaign and that's what this whole concept has degenerated into.
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