In former President Jimmy Carter’s latest book — his 29th — the Plains, Ga.-native takes an intimate look back at personal events from throughout his life in the aptly titled “A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety.”
His newest memoir was released on July 7, the same day he and his wife Rosalynn celebrated their 69th wedding anniversary and, not coincidentally, he writes about their relationship with as much candor as he does his relationships with other former presidents and world leaders.
In 1976, the former Georgia governor, who will turn 91 on Oct. 1, was only the 39th man to be elected president of the United States and the first since 1848 to come from the Deep South.
Carter will be signing copies of his memoir at Nashville Public Library on July 23. The event is being sponsored by the Nashville Public Library, Parnassus Books, Nashville Public Library Foundation and Humanities Tennessee.
President Carter spoke with The Tennessean by phone recently.
At 90, what is it about writing that makes you continue? Is it the process and the craft or do you still feel you have more to share?
I enjoy the process of writing and I have done that for a long time. Also, it’s a major source of my income for me and my family. We have a very large family…
I’d say the other thing is, it gives me a forum to propagate ideas that I have. When I teach a class at Emory, sometimes news people are there and a little bit of news gets out, but I’m not on the lecture circuit and so forth — I don’t make lectures for money and things like that — so this gives me the best chance to express views that I believe deeply in.
Why choose now to delve even more intimately into your life and some of your thoughts?
One reason is, I’m 90 years old and I know that I’m going to be in the declining part of my life. I’m still very active. I’ve been lucky so far. I thought it would be interesting to cover some of the things I’ve never talked about before, like my time in the Navy and why I ran for president and my relationship with other presidents. Some of the successes and failures of my time in the White House — things of that kind — so that’s the main reason I wanted to do it now, and this is the 12th book that has been published by Simon & Schuster. When I get ready to write a book, I generally talk to the main editor there and she and I decided this would be a good thing for me to cover.
Also it’s a book that every now and then, when I learn a lesson that is profoundly important to me later on — like dealing with the race issue or dealing with my wife — maybe those lessons will be beneficial to readers.
You noted you still receive between 1,500 and 3,000 letters a month. Given the reaction to some of the comments in your recent interviews, the past few weeks, I imagine you’re going to exceed 3,000 by the end of July.
Well, I usually do when a book comes out. When I wrote the book “Palestine Peace Not Apartheid,” the first few weeks I got, I think, 6,100 letters. I think that’s the most I’ve gotten as a reaction to any book, but I have a staff that opens the letters, they read them and they send me about 100 a month — something like that, and sometimes more — that I answer individually.
The Confederate flag was moved earlier today. What do you think will come of the decision to remove it from atop the State House?
Well, Georgia did it 14 years ago by a very wise and courageous governor, Roy Barnes, and he was defeated for re-election because of that just a few months later. Other Southern states have done it. I’m sure Tennessee has. I don’t think Mississippi has yet. Anyway, when we were going through the very long and bitter Civil Rights movement, and finally Lyndon B. Johnson, Martin Luther King and Andy Young and others came along and made it successful, I think our nation breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Well, we finally resolved the problem of white superiority or the degradation of other people because of race.” I think because of the recent news reports of the terrible tragedies in Charleston, (South Carolina), and also the mistreatment of blacks by some police forces, it’s shown that we still have a long way to go and this is one step in the right direction. I think this is just one symbolic thing that I hope will improve the whole situation. I’m not sure yet.
Mr. President, you wrote about racism in the South and the contrast between the fact that you and your siblings had a very close black friend and were raised by your father to treat all African- Americans with respect, yet your father believed in segregation. How do you feel his thoughts would have evolved had he lived in and experienced the past 50 years?
I think he would have responded quite eagerly to the change. … When I came back home from the Navy almost a generation later, after my father died, in Sumter County, I would say there were only five people, including me, who were more moderate on the so-called race issue. When I made my inaugural speech (as governor of Georgia) in January of 1971 and I announced that the time for racial discrimination was over, it was so newsworthy still, in the South, that in a couple of weeks I was on the front cover of Time magazine just because of it. So it was slow coming, and Georgia was one of those states like Tennessee that never did have a leader standing in the schoolhouse door and calling out the National Guard to integrate schools. We complied in Georgia, like you did in Tennessee.
On the topic of gay marriage rights, I would imagine you’re not surprised that you gave a long answer in a previous interview and yet there’s one line — one sentence — that is being emblazoned in all the headlines.
Yeah, I know that. I don’t have any proof by Biblical verses what Jesus would have done. I just know when two people love each other or they want to make permanent their commitment to each other and it doesn’t hurt anybody else, that’s my own personal opinion, not anybody else. And I made it clear in the interview that that was just my personal opinion. I was not trying to base it on Biblical scripture.
Is it moments like that when you’re glad to be fortunate enough to have these books where you can fully examine your feelings and go deeper than a sound bite or a headline?
Well, I am. That’s one reason I like to write, too. You have to think pretty deeply about something and when you make a statement in a book, you have to pretty well justify what you’re putting down there, and poetry is particularly that way. I can express deep feelings about other people and about my relationship with them much more frankly and honestly in a poem than I can in prose or in a speech or something like that. So when I wanted to write about my relationship with my father or my relationship with my wife and so forth, I can say it much more honestly and thoroughly and succinctly in poem than I could in prose.
On the topic of media, in the book, you touch on the fact that there were people who just were not accepting of having a governor from the Deep South be elected to office. I don’t want to draw an equal comparison to what folks go through when it comes to racism, but that still sounds like an element of discrimination and prejudice.
It was. There’s no doubt about that. When we moved into the White House, the first week in the Washington Post, there was a full page spread of (political) cartoons showing my mother coming out of an outdoor privy and me in a hog pen and with straw coming out of our ears and so forth. It was the first time in about 140 years that anybody from the Deep South had been elected president and, of course, a lot of people in the North felt just because I was from the South I was inherently a racist myself and therefore unqualified to be a president, so it was something that we had to bear off-and-on during the four years that we were in the White House, but we learned to roll with it. We had overwhelming support from Tennessee in particular — second only to Georgia, I think — in the election in ’76 and it showed how proud the people of the South were that we finally had another Southern there.
I think people have tempered some of those feelings…
They have. Yes.
Then how good did it feel the other day to read the column from Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times — especially for him to write, “We were wrong about you, Mr. President.”
It was very gratifying. Nicholas Kristof has been one of my heroes. My last book before this one was about the abuse of women and girls around the world. He and his wife are kind of experts on that subject, as well. He’s traveled in Africa with us and he’s seen it firsthand — what The Carter Center does in reaching out to poor people who desperately are in need and have never known freedom and never known peace and never known democracy and never had alleviation from terrible diseases…Nick was quite (familiar) with what we’ve been doing at The Carter Center, so I was very gratified to see him write that. And I’ve gotten a lot of emails from my own friends saying, “Well, finally somebody else agrees with us.”
Not to belabor racism, but in 2008, the country voted into office its first black president. Why are we seemingly more divided on the racial issue than before the civil rights movement? Or, at least, vocally divided?
I think a lot of the racists — I’m not saying how many there are — were completely aggravated with the fact that America elected a black president and so, I think, a lot of them have used some means by which to express their distrust of President (Barack) Obama. Claiming that he’s not an American and things of that kind. I won’t go into detail about that, but we have 22 people in my family who were able to vote in 2008. We were on vacation and I gave everyone a plain piece of paper and told them all to write down whom they were going to support in the 2008 Democratic Primary between Hillary Clinton and Obama. Ultimately, 22 of them voted for Obama and, of course, we supported him when he ran against Senator (John) McCain as well. It was kind of a sigh of relief for us, but there were other people who think black people should be looked upon as inferior, who resent still the fact that he’s in office. Which I think is a horrible mistake and another indication that racism still prevails in some people’s minds.
I would certainly be remiss if I didn’t close out our conversation by asking you which presidential candidate, at this point, has the advantage in 2016?
I think that Hillary has the advantage because she’s able to raise the most money and, I think, on the Republican side, I would guess that Jeb Bush has the same kind of advantage and money is a major part of it. Whoever the Democratic (nominee) is, that’s the way I intend to vote.
IF YOU GO
What: Book signing event with former President Jimmy Carter
When: 4:30 p.m. Thursday, July 23
Where: The Grand Reading Room at Nashville Public Library, 615 Church St.
Admission: Free to the public, but attendees must purchase a copy of “A Full Life” from Parnassus prior to or at the signing.
Details: For more information, visit www.parnassusbooks.net.