America is no better off now than it was in the late 1970s and early 1980s, says former President Jimmy Carter. From national politics to relationships with other nations, there is a lot of room for improvement.”We had almost complete harmony with every nation on Earth,” the Nobel Peace Prize winner said of his administration. “We not only preserved peace for our country, we never went to war. We never dropped a bomb. We never fired a missile.”
Carter, who will be at the King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City Thursday morning, spoke with the Deseret News about how things have changed since his presidency, how things have remained the same and what life was like in the White House, during a round of press interviews for his new book, “White House Diary.”
Many of the issues that were pertinent during Carter’s administration still face American leaders, he said. Some 30 or 40 of those items, including Middle East peace, relations with China and with Iran, and the search for clean, cheap energy, remain high profile.
While the above issues may be similar, today’s American political scene is vastly different. Carter says he had wonderful bipartisan cooperation, with Democrats and Republicans in both the House and the Senate supporting him.
That doesn’t exist now.
The political environment has become polarized in individual states and among voters, Carter says, caused primarily “by the massive and unprecedented infusion of millions of dollars into the campaign coffers of candidates, which are used mostly just for negative advertising to destroy the reputation or character of your opponents.”
The amount of work a president faces is undeniably daunting. And like anyone else who deals with a major corporation, or has a major responsibility in a law firm or in the military, Carter says it was impossible to keep absolutely everything straight. Nobody can.
That’s where a good staff and strong Cabinet members come into play. “The president has a lot of help,” Carter said. “And I would say, in general, maybe not exactly now when there’s such a negative attitude, but in general, the American people wanted me as president to be successful. Because when I was successful in dealing with jobs and when I was dealing with international affairs and peace and human rights and energy and that sort of thing, then America (was successful).”
Everyone experiences ups and downs, and America’s 39th president says he’s no different.
Among the proudest moments of his tenure was when he got two-thirds of the U.S. Senate to vote for the Panama Canal treaties, which guaranteed that Panama would gain control of the Panama Canal in 2000 – the United States had exercised control of the canal since 1903.
One of the happiest moments came right as Carter was leaving office. The news that 52 U.S. citizens who had been held hostage in Tehran for 444 days had finally left Iran safely was exhilarating.
In contrast, Carter says the most difficult moment was when eight American servicemen were killed in a failed attempt to rescue the hostages in April 1980.
Perhaps the biggest publicized event during Carter’s presidency was negotiating peace between Israel and Egypt. Not a word of the treaty, which was signed March 26, 1979, has been violated in more than 31 years, Carter said.
Despite his accomplishments as president, many argue that Carter has been more effective in creating change since leaving the White House than he was during his presidency.
It’s impossible to compare the two, he says. The approach to problems and the problems being focused on are different.
“We have a very different kind of life now,” Carter said. “Mainly it’s different because we’re dealing with individual people.”
In 1982, the Carters, in partnership with Emory University, founded the Carter Center, which works toward furthering peace, promoting democracy and freedom, and improving health care for people worldwide.
With programs in 73 countries, the center keeps Carter in the public consciousness, though he says he tries to stay out of the public eye most of the time.
Of course he does have to make a living – he doesn’t get a salary from the Carter Center – and writing books is one way to do that. Publicity is part and parcel with publishing a book, and Carter says he looks forward to visiting cities, including Salt Lake, while promoting his books.
And “White House Diary” is a book Carter is proud to promote.
Only 20 percent of Carter’s 5,000-page White House diary – daily notes and dictations transcribed by one of his secretaries – is included in his new publication. But the former president plans to make the entire diary, with all of its typographical errors, available to scholars in the presidential library in about a year.
To make “White House Diary” a manageable read, Carter chose what he thought were the most “interesting and titillating” excerpts. He started working on the book about two years ago and reread it cover to cover, marking sections he felt were pertinent. For further clarification, he added explanations where warranted.
Because “White House Diary” is in fact a diary, Carter felt it was imperative to not change any of the entries.
“I was very careful not to change any meaning of any sentence in the book,” he said. “So it’s just like I wrote it 30, 31 years ago.”
“There are some things I wish I could have rewritten. But I was determined not to do so. I think that it was best is for me to write it the way I did and (record) how I felt 30 years ago rather than what I think now.”
“I’m not trying to rationalize or make excuses,” Carter said, “just explain accurately what happened.”