Interview with Former President Jimmy Carter

Interview with Former President Jimmy Carter

By John King, USA - October 26, 2010

KING: One week from a consequential midterm election. It's a privilege and an honor to have with us a gentleman who knows well the pressure of being in the Oval Office and a tough time politically. The 35th President of the United States Jimmy Carter joins us from San Francisco. Mr. President, it's good to see you.

Let me just start on that point. You remember what it's like. In that midterm election year your approval rating was about 49 percent heading into the midterm elections. You only lost 11 House seats. Historically that beats and significantly beats the historical average. When you look at this president now who has had about 44 percent approval rating, and people think he's going to lose 40, maybe 50 seats in the House, describe what it's like to be sitting in the Oval Office knowing that's coming.

JIMMY CARTER, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, I was very popular then and we had a good economy going and I think when the election was over we had a 17-vote margin in the Senate and more than 100 margins in the House for Democrats. So it's a completely different situation now than what it was back in those days. The electoral process has changed with a massive infusion of so much money into the campaigns, most of which is spent in negative advertising so this has created I think the deep division between Democrats and Republicans and I think the polarization of the whole country.

KING: One of the themes in a lot of that big spending and the big advertising. is criticism of the Obama agenda. In your book, you think about some -- your own agenda. Some people see a parallel. I want to read something from your book, "White House Diary." "I overheard in Congress with array of controversial and politically costly requests. Looking back, I'm struck by how many unpopular objectives we pursued. We were able to achieve a remarkable amount of what we set out to do, but ultimately the political cost of my administration and for members of Congress was very high." Mr. President, do you see a parallel between then and now? CARTER: Well, in a way, but the difference is much more great than the parallel, because I have superb support from the Republican side, Howard Baker was the majority leader in the Senate, and Bob Michael in the House, and they supported me overwhelmingly with the programs that I proposed. Even though in the Democratic Party, I had an opponent running against me the last three years. So, and that was Ted Kennedy. So he sapped away a lot of the liberal Democrats and I had to turn to moderate to conservative Democrats and Republicans to give me a batting average in the Congress that was just -- better than any president since the second world war except Lyndon Johnson who had a little bit better average than I did so we had a very successful relationship with the Congress the whole four years.

KING: And that is a very different environment, you touched on there. Those, Howard Baker, Bob Michael, men who were fierce partisan Republican when they wanted to be but were not afraid to negotiate with a Democrat. You came in in the wave after Watergate, anger across America at a corrupt president and what they believe to be a corrupt Republican Party. When you look at the tea party now, what's similar to the grassroots anger and what do you see is the biggest difference?

CARTER: Well, the similarity is there was a great dissatisfaction when I ran for office in 1976 with the incumbent candidates who were running against me and with Washington itself. So I benefited from that tremendously. As you said, we just had Watergate, we just had Vietnam, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the two Kennedy brothers, the revelations of the church committee that we had committed crimes in international trade. All of those gave me a great advantage. What was different was, I didn't have any money and I ran against a candidate, Gerald Ford who also didn't have any money. We just used the $2 per person check-off in our campaign. Now the entire political process has been inundated with vast amounts of money from unidentified sources, which is completely transformed the electoral process from -- compared to what it was.

KING: What makes your book fascinating, anyone out there, whether you were for or against Jimmy Carter when he was president, it's a great read because it's the unvarnished thoughts of a president of the United States at times both good and bad. You mentioned a moment ago the Kennedy challenge you faced. Something in your book is important about those days. It brought -- is very applicable to these days as we watch the current vice president Joe Biden crisscross the country campaigning even more than the president. You write this about a young Senator Joe Biden in your book. "As a young senator, Joe Biden had been my most effective supporter during the 1976 campaign. Joe's report proved to be quite accurate. This was the first indication I had about Kennedy's presidential plans, but they were soon to become more evident as he marshaled opposition to many of my proposals." I want to talk more about your view of Joe Biden now. Your vice president Walter Mondale became the Democratic presidential nominee and, to be kind, it didn't go very well. It was the biggest landslide in American presidential history. Do you see, as you watch Vice President Biden now, a man you were close to many years ago, do you see him as a future president? CARTER: I think he's highly qualified to be president now or in the future. Joe Biden was a very able help to me. He was a brand-new senator back in those days. He helped me in Delaware, Maryland, all the way over to Pennsylvania on almost a full-time basis. He was the first one that ever came to me quite early, after I'd been in office for one year, to tell me privately that Senator Kennedy was going to run for me against -- against me for president so I think Joe Biden is highly qualified to hold any office in Atlanta, including president.

KING: As you look out there now, in the final week of the campaign and in the last couple weeks of this campaign, another former Democratic president and son of the south Bill Clinton is everywhere campaigning for Democrats. Why don't we see Jimmy Carter out there? Do Democrats not want you out on the campaign trail?

CARTER: Well, I wouldn't say that. I'm really busy doing what the Carter Center does. The last few weeks, I've been in China, I've been in North Carolina, I've been in Egypt, and Israel, and Jordan and Syria and the west bank. So that's what I do primarily. I've been pretty well removed from the Democratic Party affairs since I left office. And it's not because I wouldn't like to help. I hope the Democrats do well. But I don't think we're going to have very good luck this time.

KING: Let me close with one other thing you talk about in your book in great detail and that is back in 1978, the normalization of relations with China. When you took that dramatic step, and it was controversial at the time, did you have any inkling of what the world would look like now, China, who lends a lot of money to the United States, as you travel especially the industrial heartland of the United States a lot of economic anxiety is focused on what people perceive to be an economic threat from China. Could you see that coming in those days?

CARTER: No, I couldn't see it coming, but if you remember, three days after we announced normalization plans which had been highly secret before then, that's when Den Zhou Ping announced that there would be complete reform in China domestically and also internationally. And that's when China began to burgeon not only within itself with the free enterprise system but also to reach out to, really, almost every nation in the world now, with a very aggressive political agenda. So I think it's something no one could have anticipated how well China has done economically.

KING: The former president of the United States, Jimmy Carter. His book, "White House Diaries," is a great read, great piece of history. Mr. President, thank you for joining us. We hope you're well. You look great.

CARTER: Getting along fine, thank you. I was just sick for one day but I got a lot of publicity for it.

KING: All right, sir, you take care.


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John King, USA

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