Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Presidential Ponderings

By Debbie Gilbert

JANUARY 25, 1999:  On March 12th, former president Jimmy Carter was in Memphis to promote his 11th book, Living Faith, recently reissued in paperback. In between a pair of booksignings, Carter made himself available for interviews with just one ground rule, his publicist warned: "No questions about impeachment." Evidently the 39th president of the United States like the rest of us is weary of hearing about the travails of the 42nd president. But on matters of national and global policy, Carter is still deeply involved, intellectually and emotionally. Here are excerpts from his conversation with the Flyer.

Flyer: I met your daughter Amy in 1989 at an environmental event at the Memphis College of Art.

She wasn't demonstrating, was she?

No, she was behaving herself.

You know she was arrested several times for civil disobedience.

But none of those arrests occurred while she was in Memphis?

No, it was primarily while she was at Brown [University].

How is she doing now?

Amy finished her graduate work at Tulane in art history. She got married two years ago and she just discovered in November that she's pregnant. She's going to have her first baby the last week in July.

That's exciting.

Yes.

People seem to respect you because you sort of lead by example. You don't preach,'This is what you ought to be doing,' Is that a conscious way that you try to live your life?

I live a life that I hope is compatible with the mandates of my existence my duties as a citizen, my duties as a Christian, my duties as a husband and father, and so forth. And in the process I've found, as I've gotten older I'm now 74 years old that when I do strive to do things that I believe are right, it turns out to be the most enjoyable and exciting and adventurous and gratifying experiences that I've had. When we undertake something that looks at first like it might be a sacrifice for the benefit of others, it turns out to be a real blessing for ourselves.

We're still active, Rose [his wife Rosalynn] and I. We'll be going, for instance, to Nigeria next week to prepare to hold an election over there to change that country from a dictatorship into a democracy. And recently we were in Venezuela to protect a democracy down there. We analyze [at the Carter Center, a nonprofit think-tank in Atlanta] all the world's conflicts and try to mediate on occasion. Those are the kinds of things that still give us an interesting life. I'm not averse to talking about them if I can induce other people to work for peace or work toward democracy or freedom, or human rights. I guess that would come under the auspices of preaching.

Well, not evangelizing. That turns people off.

No, that's true.

During your presidency, during the energy crisis of the mid-Seventies, you created the Energy Department, and then, to set a good example, you put solar panels up on the roof of the White House. And the first thing that Reagan did when he came into office was to tear down the solar panels. Now, it seems as if everyone has adopted Reagan's attitude. Gas prices are low, people are driving these monstrous SUVs, nobody really cares that we have finite resources, Congress won't let the U.S. comply with the Kyoto accords on global warming, and so on. Can we continue on the course that we're on, as far as energy policy is concerned?

Well, one of the things to remember is that the massive collection of energy-conservation rules we introduced became part of American law. So now automobiles are much more efficient than they were when I became president, and houses are all more efficient because there are mandatory insulation requirements. The impact of those energy-conservation rules is still part of American life.

In addition to that, with new technology, people around the world have been able to produce more oil than they anticipated per day. So, with greater production compared to consumption, the prices have gone down. However, there's no new oil being created, and there's going to come a time in the future when we again face an energy crunch, based on a shortage of natural gas and oil. And I don't think there's any doubt that there's at least a continuous stirring of interest in solar or wind power that is renewable.

But it's kind of a token interest, isn't it?

When I left office, the Japanese adopted responsibility for photovoltaic [solar-power] cells. The United States is still championing windmills [as a power source], which is, you know, still peripheral so far. But I established a goal which could have been fulfilled by the end of the century which is almost upon us now to have 20 percent of our total energy produced in solar power. That could have been done.

But the efficiency part is still there. And there's a setback now, with the big gas-guzzlers but even the big gas-guzzlers now don't equal what was the average gas consumption by an automobile when I was president, which was only 12 miles per gallon. So it has changed a lot.

The problem is that the cars are more efficient, but there are so many more of them on the road now.

That's true. We still need to conserve fossil fuels. We still need to reach out for solar and replenishable energy. We are not doing that. And that means that when the time does come in the future which is inevitable we're going to find it much more difficult than if we had continued with the process almost 20 years ago.

Why do you think there isn't the political will? We seem to be sticking our heads in the sand and hoping the energy situation will just go away.

The political situation has changed, I think, in America. This is not something that's a premise of mine; it's just obvious to everyone. There is much more divisiveness in Washington than existed when I was president or when Gerald Ford was president, or when Richard Nixon was president, or Lyndon Johnson or John Kennedy. I think a lot of it is due to the fact that the campaign laws have been misinterpreted. Because you can use so-called soft money not to promote a candidate but to tear down an opponent. [There is] an almost unlimited amount of money that special-interest groups are willing to invest in their own privileges to be derived in the future.

So what we see is an enormous portion of campaign money now used in negative campaign advertising. This creates an impression in American citizens that all politicians are in some way suspect. And it drives a wedge between candidates, once they get to Congress or to the state legislature, that didn't exist before. When I ran against incumbent President Gerald Ford, and Governor Ronald Reagan when I was incumbent, I never referred to them as anything except "my distinguished opponent" or "my worthy opponent." And the same thing happened in congressional races and everywhere else, almost without exception. If someone had used negative advertising then, it would have been suicidal, because the American people would not have accepted it.

There's a change in the basic environment of politics. You have extremely great leaders in Congress, and in the Senate in particular, who are stepping down because they don't want to serve in an unpleasant environment anymore. Well, I think this is a transient time. The American people are so wise and so committed to basic democracy and freedom and fairness that I think it will change.

You don't think that it will discourage good people from going into politics?

It does. It discourages good people from going in; it also discourages them from staying in. Senator Sam Nunn is one example, from my own state. He just felt that it wasn't worth it anymore.

Where would you place Newt Gingrich along that continuum?

Well, he didn't resign voluntarily, exactly. But if you want to look at it from a strange point of view, I think Newt has left Washington because of the animosity that exists there. [Though] I can't say that he wasn't responsible for developing part of that animosity.

But it's not a pleasant environment, where you [could] go there and really respect the Republicans in your committee as well as you respect the Democrats in your committee; where, if you're a Republican leader, you share the responsibilities with the incumbent president. In fact, I got along better, when I was president, with the Republican minority leader, Howard Baker, than I did with Democratic majority leader Robert Byrd. And I worked equally in harmony with Republicans as well as I did with Democrats. Those times are gone. They don't exist now.


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