“I’m a Southerner,” Jimmy Carter announced on one of his TV ads during his 1976 campaign for president, introducing himself to the nation. He was filmed walking through his peanut farm in Plains, Georgia. Today, the improbability of his election to the presidency has faded from public memory, but it ranks as one of the most remarkable success stories in national politics.
Carter was governor of Georgia, but less than a year before the election, he was virtually unknown to most of the country. He was a relentless campaigner, and left other Democratic primary contenders in his wake. In the post-Watergate era, Carter’s promise that he would always tell the truth helped him defeat Gerald Ford, and swept the 52-year-old into the Oval Office.
Carter’s term was tumultuous—the economy soured, there was an energy crisis, and Islamic radicals in Iran took 52 Americans hostage. At one point, the president’s approval dipped to 25 percent, below even Richard Nixon’s nadir.
But Carter had his triumphs. In the fall of 1978, he brought together Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat for a summit at Camp David. Carter, a born-again evangelical Christian, says that his faith is what drove him to push for peace in the Middle East. After 13 days of tense negotiations (as a break, Carter took the two leaders to Gettysburg to show them the Civil War battlefield) Carter produced a treaty: Israel would give back the Sinai territories occupied since the 1967 Six-Day War, and Egypt would acknowledge the right of Israel to live in peace. When Carter announced the treaty to a joint session of Congress, with Begin and Sadat seated before him, he said, “To these two friends of mine, the words of Jesus: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be the children of God.”
In 1980, Carter waged a tough campaign, but lost to California Governor Ronald Reagan. He rallied in his post-presidency, devoting himself to humanitarian causes and charitable works, and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. Over the last 30 years, he’s written 27 books. His latest, A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety, was published Tuesday.
I spoke with President Carter just as South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley signed a bill removing the Confederate battle flag from flying over the state capitol building.
John Meroney: What are your thoughts on being a Southerner in 2015? Are you still proud of your heritage?
President Jimmy Carter: Oh, yes—and prouder today than I was the day before yesterday. I think it’s a good move for the South Carolina legislature to take [down the Confederate flag]. Georgia did that 14 years ago, and North Carolina did it even earlier. There’s an awakening in our country and I don’t know how trenchant or permanent it will be. The recent high publicity about police singling out blacks for extraordinary abuse, and this terrible event in Charleston, will make us take another look at ourselves.
Meroney: What are your thoughts about the Confederate flag being placed into a military museum?
Carter: It’s all right with me. My great-grandfather and his two brothers fought at Gettysburg. They were in artillery and they survived the war, thank goodness. So I revere what they did. I think their motivations were honorable when they undertook the war and participated in it along with other Southerners. A museum is a very legitimate place to honor those who fought and what they really believed in. But to maintain the battle flag as a symbol of white supremacy is contrary to what most Americans want.
Meroney: At age 90, do you consider yourself more liberal or conservative than when you were elected president?
Carter: Well, I’m about the same, I guess. I don’t think I’ve changed all that much. Although for the last 35 years, almost all of our work at the Carter Center has been among the poorest people in the world. For the people who don’t have peace, we negotiate agreements that end wars and prevent wars. We promote democracy and freedom by holding elections in troubled countries—in fact, we just finished our one-hundredth election. This year, we’ll treat about 71 million people, mostly in Africa, so they won’t have terrible diseases. That’s been the concentration of my effort ever since I left the White House.
Meroney: Don’t people get more conservative as they age?
Carter: Well, I don’t think I’ve done that. I have 22 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and they keep me young. Also, I’ve been a professor at Emory University for the last 33 years—I’ll start my 34th year pretty soon. I’m in a young environment even though I am growing old.
Meroney: In 1976 when you were running for president, you said, “The traveling press have zero interest in any issue unless it’s a matter of [the candidate] making a mistake.” Now that we’re moving into a new presidential campaign, is your view of the media the same?
Carter: Well, that was a highly personal thing then. I was one of the candidates, and whenever any national news reporter whom I respected from their previous work came to interrogate me about any of my feelings, it was all about my opponents and things related just to the campaign or election itself. I think in a generic sense, the national news media does address important issues, like race, gay marriage, immigration, taxation, and things of that kind. But during the excessively long political campaign for the United States presidency, there’s still a plethora of articles, news interviews, and television time spent on the latest thing that Donald Trump said and how the Republicans reacted to it. This is to the detriment of covering international affairs that are important.
Meroney: As a born-again evangelical Christian, what does your faith tell you is the proper response to last month’s Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage?
Carter: I think this is an individual decision to be made. I personally have always been in favor of people who are gay being permitted to marry legally—and I still feel that way. I support the decision that the Supreme Court made just recently on that subject. However, I have never believed that the government ought to have the right to intrude into the internal affairs of a local congregation. If, for instance, at my church we decide we do not want to perform gay marriages, the federal authorities ought to stay out of that church affair and let the couple who seeks marriage go to a civil court or go to another church. That would be my one caveat.
Meroney: You and former governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee are both evangelical Christians, but your views on so many issues are very different. How can that be if the two of you have the same basic view of the meaning of life?
Carter: Well, I don’t criticize Governor Huckabee—who I know quite well, by the way. His wife works side-by-side with us quite often on Habitat for Humanity projects. He’s been to our local church to visit with us, and so has she. But we differ on some basics. As you may remember, during the time I was in office, the so-called right-wing or conservative-evangelical Christians aligned themselves almost permanently with the Republican Party.
Meroney: In your view, why was that?
Carter: You know, I don’t know. When I ran for president, I think Gerald Ford got a few more votes than I did among evangelicals. And then after that, the Moral Majority was formed and there were arguments while I was president about whether Bob Jones University and other Christian universities should have legal status not to pay taxes, and whether there should be a right to worship God in public schools. Issues of that kind became preeminent. In the 1980 election, for the first time in American history, there was this melding or partnership between the evangelicals and the Republicans. And it’s been permanent and it’s been strengthened. That’s why Huckabee went to the Republican Party. By the way, there are a lot of Republicans who agree with me on some of these points.
Meroney: Speaking of your faith, what’s your estimate of how many people you’ve led to Christ through personal one-on-one interaction?
Carter: I would say several hundred. I’ve been on Christian mission programs for the Southern Baptist Convention—to Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, other places like that. I’d spend a whole week, or ten days, just going from one house to another explaining the plan of salvation to people who did not have any faith. A lot of them have accepted Christ. I teach a Bible lesson every Sunday when I’m at home. I taught this past Sunday, and I’ll teach next Sunday as well. We have only about 30 members of our church who attend our services—it’s a small church. But we have several hundred visitors who come—sometimes it’s as high as eight hundred. Most of the time, though, it’s in the two hundred range. Many tell me they’ve never been to a church before. I don’t have any doubt that a few of them, maybe every Sunday, decide to accept the lessons that I teach.
Meroney: Is there more racism in the country now than when you were president?
Carter: I think there is. After the civil-rights movement was successful—about a hundred years after the end of the War Between the States, the Civil War—there was a general feeling in this country that the main elements of racism, of white superiority, had finally been overcome. With the news media showing the police abuse toward black people in some places, and the terrible events in Charleston, South Carolina, maybe we’ve been awakened to say that we’ve still got a long way to go. The burgeoning of obvious, extreme racism has been a sobering factor for us.
Meroney: In your new book, you publish some of your poems. What impact did the legendary Southern poet James Dickey, who also wrote the novel Deliverance, have on you?
Carter: James Dickey was a close personal friend of mine. When I was campaigning for president in 1976, he used to come down to Plains and sit on the balcony of our depot and sometimes read poems to the people and shake hands and let them know he was for me. On my inaugural day, when I became president, he gave the preeminent inaugural poem—he wrote it especially for me. I was with him also when they had the inauguration of the movie version of Deliverance in Atlanta. I sat side-by-side with him at the first showing.
Meroney: What was your reaction to the novel and film?
Carter: I was overwhelmed. The Chattooga River on which it was filmed was a place I had canoed—I knew its ferocity. In fact, just the day after seeing Deliverance, I went down the river again. I was really impressed with the music, too.
Meroney: What was it like watching the film with the author?
Carter: He was very excited—or concerned—about the movie, in which he played a small part, the sheriff. Dickey was completely intoxicated when the movie was getting ready to start. When he sat next to me, he really didn’t know much of what was going on until the scene where the banjo player came forward and he kind of sobered up a little bit. By the point in the film when Dickey appears as the sheriff and welcomes the people who come up off the river, he was completely sober. He and I had a lot of good times together, and we made a lot of jokes back and forth. Deliverance was a dramatic and wonderful success—one of the 26 movies that were made in Georgia while I was governor, of which I was proud.
Meroney: You’re unique because you’re the only president I know of who’s quoted Bob Dylan in speeches. You said that you didn’t appreciate the relationship between a landowner and the people who work for him until you heard Dylan sing, “I Ain’t Gonna Work on Maggie’s Farm No More.”
Carter: Well, Bob Dylan and I have been very close friends since I was governor. I first met him when he was going through an era of deep Christian faith. When he performed once in Atlanta, he wanted to spend some time talking to me about my faith. His band came to the governor’s mansion and stayed with my boys. Bob and I spent a long time in the garden that night just talking about matters concerning theology and religion and so forth. Earlier this year, when Bob Dylan got the Person of the Year award at the Grammys, he said he would accept the award in Hollywood only if I came out and presented it to him. So I went out there and was able to be with Bob again. He’s been to Georgia one time since, and I took my family to hear him perform.
Meroney: What are we doing wrong in our approach to a nuclear deal with Iran?
Carter: I think we’re doing the right thing. I watch the news with bated breath—I hope Secretary of State John Kerry and others will be successful in concluding an agreement. As you know, the Russians and the Chinese, as well as our European allies, are working side-by-side with us. I have full confidence in John Kerry, who I think is one of the best secretaries of state we’ve ever had. I have confidence that if an agreement is concluded that it will be adequately enforceable and will be good for the United States, Iran, and the rest of the world.
Meroney: When you ran for president, you stated that you were against the U.S. intervening in foreign wars. Do you still regard yourself as a non-interventionist?
Carter: I think the United States has the potential of being a true superpower on earth. That to me obviously involves an adequate defense mechanism and economy and cultural attraction for other people. But the measure of it is if we are a champion of peace. And a champion of human rights. And a champion of democracy and freedom. And a champion of environmental quality. And a champion of being generous to people in need. Those are the marks, in my opinion, of a superpower for which we should be striving.
Meroney: What comes to mind when you hear politicians talk about “American exceptionalism”?
Carter: When I gave my farewell address coming out of the White House, I said that the United States did not invent human rights—that human rights invented America. I still have that feeling. Within us, we have the capability and the idealism and the history to be a superpower of the kind I’ve just described.