Man of Peace

Jimmy Carter discusses his ‘Full Life’ at Vroman’s Bookstore

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 7/30/2015

From his early childhood in segregated Georgia and his early political battles to life during and after the White House, former President Jimmy Carter shares the often challenging experiences that shaped his social, religious  and political views in “A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety,” which Carter will be signing tonight, july 30, at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena.

A peanut farmer who became an engineer and nuclear physicist, rising to governor of Georgia and then president in 1976, Carter examines his relationships with his parents and wife of nearly 70 years, Rosalynn, and describes how his childhood friendships with African-American children later made him a defender of civil rights.

He also expresses his regrets and disappointments about the 1980 presidential election, in which he lost to former California Gov. Ronald Reagan, due largely to the Iranian hostage crisis in which 52 people were held for 444 days by Iranian revolutionaries overthrowing the government of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

In the book, Carter also shares how his Christian faith became the source of his empathy for others, as well as his hunger for peace and human rights, a passion that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.

“There are times when courage is required, and genuine humility is not easy to retain for those of us who are blessed with almost every possible advantage,” he writes. “To put myself on an equal basis with a homeless person, a drug addict, a destitute African family, or some neighbor who might be lonely or in need tends to make me feel uncomfortable. But when I succeed, I find that I am ennobling them — and myself. This is not just an idealistic theory, because I know from a few such occasions in my life that it has been true.”

Carter addressed the issue of inequity in American society — including the role that the criminal justice system plays — during his now-famous Law Day speech at the University  of Georgia in 1974.

“In general, the powerful and the influential in our society shape the laws and have a great influence on the legislature or the Congress,” then-Gov. Carter said. “This creates a reluctance to change because the powerful and the influential have carved out for themselves or have inherited a privileged position in society.”

Hunter S. Thompson was in the audience that day and was so impressed that he grabbed his tape recorder from his car in between trips to refill his iced tea with whiskey.

“I have heard hundreds of speeches by all kinds of candidates and politicians, but I have never heard a sustained piece of political oratory that impressed me any more than the speech Jimmy Carter made on Law Day in May 1974,” wrote Thompson in “The Great Shark Hunt.” “It was a king hell bastard of a speech, and by the time it was over he had rung every bell in the room.”

Since leaving the White House, Carter has become one of the most active and impactful ex-presidents in history. Most notably, he became a proponent of Habitat for Humanity, which provides housing and house-building opportunities for low-income people around the world. The San Gabriel Valley chapter is currently reviewing applications for nine single-family homes to be built in the Arroyo Seco in place of the old Desiderio Army Base.

He and Rosalynn also founded the Carter Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting disease, hunger, poverty, conflict and oppression around the world. In Africa, the Carter Center has led a coalition that reduced incidences of Guinea worm disease from 3.5 million cases in 1986 to just 126 today, putting the disease on the path to eradication.

Carter will be at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, at 7 p.m. tonight to sign copies of his new book, as well as his 28 other books.

He recently spoke with the Pasadena Weekly about his life and career.

Pasadena Weekly: Did some of these early events in your life that you describe in the book influence and shape your positions later?
Jimmy Carter: Well, yes. My early childhood and later my time in the Navy and when I was a farmer for 17 years, all of those early events before I got into politics shaped the attitude I have towards my country and towards myself.

And the campaign against Homer Moore [for Georgia State Senate in 1962] seemed like it prepared you for politics later.
(Laughs) Well, it did. I learned the hard way, but I also saw that there were improvements that needed to be made in the political system. But I think we have a much worse situation now, with massive quantities of money going into all the campaigns than those early days.

Citizens United certainly didn’t help.
No, well that was one of the worst decisions that the Supreme Court ever made. It’s really dealt a severe blow to the moral integrity and honesty and idealism of our electoral system.

Hunter S. Thompson wrote that your 1974 Law Day speech was a “king hell bastard of a speech” and made him give politics one last chance. Was that speech a turning point or high point for you as well?
I didn’t pay much attention to it at the time, until Hunter, who was there in the audience, started promoting the speech and talking about how good it was, so I went back and listened to it again. It’s kind of an extemporaneous speech, because I threw my prepared speech in the trash just before I made the speech, and then I wrote [a new one] on a piece of scratch paper. And it expressed my concerns about the fairness and objectivity of our entire judicial system, and I still have a concern about that. The poor people and the minorities, they suffer most from our judicial system, and it’s almost impossible to imagine a rich, white man getting executed, and so forth.

Has anything changed since then? Has anything gotten better? It seems like the criminal justice system still results in inequity and it’s still only the poor that go to prison.
No, I don’t think anything has gotten better, as a matter of fact. Since I left the governor’s mansion, we have seven times as many people in prison in America as we did when I was there. Per capita, we had one per thousand when I was governor. Now we have about seven people per thousand in prison. We’ve got 3,500 or more now in prison for life who have never committed a crime of violence. And we still have the death penalty, which we didn’t have when I was governor and when I was president. So I think we have gone backward in objectivity and fairness of our judicial system.

Do you think we’ll ever abolish the death penalty?
Well, I hope so. I think the general public is changing very slowly toward an aversion of the death penalty. If you ask the American public, “Would you accept an end to the death penalty if there was a mandatory life sentence without parole,” then the majority would say yes.

There seems to be a disparity between the Christianity of conservatives and the Christianity that you espouse, which seems to be more literally based on the teachings of Jesus in terms of peace, nonviolence and giving to the poor. What are your thoughts on that disconnect?
I wouldn’t want to criticize them but there is a certain dramatic difference now. When I was in office as president, as a matter of fact, there was a time when there was an allegiance formed between, you might say, the conservative Christians and the Republican Party. And so, since then they’ve been much more inclined toward severe punishment and going to war and that sort of thing to resolve differences than before. That never had happened before, but ever since 1978 or so, when I was in the White House, that partnership with the Republican Party has been in place. I think it’s gotten stronger perhaps.

Are you hopeful or skeptical about the new deal with Iran over its nuclear program?
I’m very hopeful and very pleased with it. I think it’s better for the United States and it’s better for the entire world than what we were faced with. And I have complete confidence with the fact that John Kerry has negotiated an agreement that can be enforced, and if the Iranians don’t comply with the agreement, then I don’t have any doubt that the sanctions will be re-imposed right quick.

And, of course, you’ve had personal experience with Iran. What are your personal thoughts? Do you think there was a deal between the Reagan campaign and the Iranian government to release the hostages after you left office?
I’ve never known for sure. All I know is we finished negotiating the freedom of the hostages while I was still president, and the airplane was parked at the end of the runway ready to take off that morning, and they didn’t permit the American hostages to go free until after I was out of office. But what kind of arrangement was made or deal was made, I don’t have any idea.

Do you think the public was misinformed about what happened or didn’t have access to the full story?
I don’t think the public ever gets access to the full story, because it’s distorted by all kinds of reporting and withholding of the truth from the public by various players, but I think that the last three days I was in the White House I never did go to bed at all. Three days and nights I stayed up negotiating for the release of the hostages and, of course, I was very pleased when they were released, but I was disappointed that the ayatollah held them in captivity longer than necessary.

What is your take on the 2016 presidential race so far?
Well, of course, the Republicans have, I think, 16 people running right now. And Donald Trump seems to be dominating the news. I don’t think FOX News and MSNBC could’ve survived without Trump these last couple weeks. I don’t think he has a chance to get the Republican nomination — certainly not to be elected president—but he has taken charge of it. And he’ll be one of the leading speakers or debaters when FOX has the first debate in August. I think the Democrats still have a good chance to win, and, of course, I’m a Democrat and I’ll support the Democratic nominee.

In the Democratic field, who do you like, Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders or someone else?
I think there’s still some searching going on about that, although Hillary’s in the lead by far and has done the best job of raising money, so she has a tremendous advantage. I think all the odds are that she will be the nominee. But I think Bernie Sanders has been a surprising candidate, and I think if Elizabeth Warren had run, she would be even stronger than Bernie Sanders.

What can the two parties do to address the issue of income inequality in the 2016 race?
I hope that the candidates on both sides, both the Republicans and Democrats, will address that because it’s gotten much worse since I left office. Because with the advent of Citizens United and pouring money into [elections], it gives rich people much greater influence over the Congress and the president when they are in office, and, of course, they get increasingly better deals on taxation and help from the government and so forth, compared to the average working person. I hope that will be changed, a day into this election, but I’m not sure it will.

Have we made any progress in terms of resolving the Israel/Palestinian issue or establishing peace in the Middle East?
No, I think it’s in a low ebb right now. It’s at the worst state that I have known since I’ve been involved in politics, and that’s been a long time. We have fewer influences in both Israel and among the Palestinians than we ever have before. The Netanyahu government has indicated quite clearly that it has no intention of complying with international law or with the policy of the United States. So, at this point, I don’t see hope for progress in the immediate future.

Do you think eventually it could change? For example, similar to the Cuba situation, which seemed doomed but can come back from the brink at some point?
Well, the Carter Center doesn’t give up. We have full-time offices in Jerusalem, the West Bank and also in Gaza, so we continue to work over there constantly to try to find some way to reopen the possibility of a peace agreement. But unless we have help from the US government and help from the Israeli government, I don’t think we’re going to make any progress. I don’t see any immediate prospect of that being done.

Do you feel like you’ve been able to be more effective outside of government than you were when you were in office, or did your experience in government allow you to be effective outside of it?
The latter. I think the fact that I was president of a great country has given me the ability to do what we do at the Carter Center. It gives me access to almost everybody in the world. We have a lot of influence when I go somewhere, so we’re able to negotiate peace agreements with people, we’re able to observe troubled elections — we’ve just finished our 100th troubled election — and this coming year we’ll treat over 70 million people for terrible diseases. So I would not be able to do any of those things unless I had been president first.