Jimmy Carter On 'This American Moment'

Correction Sept. 2, 2008

In the interview, we referred to "campaigns run by Strom Thurmond in North Carolina." Thurmond served as both governor of and senator from South Carolina.

Former President Jimmy Carter i i

hide captionFormer President Jimmy Carter.

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Former President Jimmy Carter

Former President Jimmy Carter.

Charley Gallay/Getty Images

Talk of the Nation's new series asks artists, journalists, scholars and politicians to describe the impact of "This American Moment" in the nation's history. Former President Jimmy Carter describes his reaction when he learned that Sen. Barack Obama would be the Democratic presidential nominee.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Now, as Democrats await the grand finale of the national convention tonight in Denver, and Republicans prepare for their gathering in St. Paul, we continue our series of conversations about This American Moment. All this week and next we take a step back to put this election and this campaign season in context. Every day, we're asking a different guest to tell us what he or she thinks is at stake, what this election means to him or her. In just a moment, the 39th president of the United States, Jimmy Carter, joins us.

We want to know what This American Moment means to you. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Email us at talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. President Carter joins us now from NPR's headquarters at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. President Carter, it's an honor to have you back on Talk of the Nation today.

Former President JIMMY CARTER (Democrat, 1976-1980): I'm delighted to be back with you again, Neal. Thanks.

CONAN: An African-American accepts the Democratic nomination tonight, which also happens to be the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech in Washington, D.C., the I Have a Dream speech. I wanted to - where were you 45 years ago?

Pres. CARTER: Forty-five years ago I was in Plains, Georgia. As a matter of fact, I was a peanut farmer. I was not involved in politics, and I was very excited about Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech, as I am of the selection of Obama to be a presidential candidate. It was important to me because I had grown up in a completely segregated neighborhood. My family was the only white family in the neighborhood. All my neighbors, all my playmates, all my workmates in the field were black children, and that's the way I lived until I was 16 years old and went off to the Navy and college. So, I saw as a child and as a young man the devastating affliction of racial discrimination. And so, the movement by Martin Luther King Jr., and later by Lyndon Johnson, were transforming events in my life.

CONAN: It's interesting. Tonight, a fellow Georgian, John Lewis, will be on the stage there in Denver before Barack Obama. And as much as this moment means to you, I imagine it means a great deal to him, too.

Pres. CARTER: Of course it does. We'll, he's one of the few survivors that, you know, marched with Martin Luther King Jr. Andy Young is another one with whom I had breakfast yesterday morning. And he served as my delegate, as you know, to the United Nations.

CONAN: Sure, yes.

Pres. CARTER: So, that heritage is wonderful for us, but it hadn't been realized fully yet. As a matter of fact, we have struggled with this problem in Georgia politics for a long time. I carried the Georgian flag. I carried all the states except Virginia in the South. But beginning in 1964, the Republicans had very shrewdly capitalized on racism in order to become dominant in the Southern states, and they still have enormous strength there, politically speaking, because of a subtle and sometimes overt appeals to racism with the Confederate flag, and welfare mamas, and that sort of things that they still have used, and I think that - I believe that this nomination - I hope the election of Barack Obama will bring an end to that heritage of racism that existed ever since our nation was founded.

CONAN: As you know better than I, I suspect, during that time, there were various code words that were used, state rights, for example.

Pres. CARTER: Absolutely.

CONAN: And I wonder, have you heard those kinds of words in 2008?

Pres. CARTER: Oh, yes. You still hear them in certain places. I saw my opponent in 1980, Ronald Reagan, began his campaign, his kickoff speech for his campaign was in the Mississippi village where the three civil rights workers were buried in the dam of a pond. And it wasn't an accident that the Republicans chose that just to demonstrate, although Reagan didn't have to say it, anything except state rights, that the racial issue was very important to them.

And we've seen the campaigns run by Strom Thurmond in North Carolina against a black candidate a few years ago. And as a result, the Georgia governor's election almost eight years ago now decided on the basis of the Confederate flag. So, those things are very important, and are very present in my own life in Georgia. But there's been a remarkable breakthrough this year when Barack Obama came into Georgia and campaigned against two very attractive, white candidates, and won against Senator Edwards and against Senator Clinton, both of whom are very attractive. But it was a remarkable development when my state of Georgia went for a black candidate.

CONAN: In the Democratic primary, do you honestly think the state of Georgia is in play come November?

Pres. CARTER: It's in play, yes. I think it's too early yet to decide how much chance we have to see Georgia in the Democratic column after November election. But at this moment, Obama's making a major effort in Georgia. I teach Sunday school in my little church every Sunday morning, and his local worker and our county seat nearby comes to our Sunday school class, and we talk about each other. So, the first time that a Democratic candidate for president has actually tried to win Georgia. Lyndon Johnson in '64 never came to Georgia. He had no campaign effort in Georgia, except my mother was his campaign manager at Sumter County, but he didn't have a chance. But I think this is a good chance for Democrats this time.

CONAN: Here's an email that we have from Belinda in Chicago. As a person from Birmingham, Alabama, who lived most of my formative years in the Jim Crow South, this is a great moment. I was part of the children's march in one of the first to desegregate the white Catholic high school. I remember the jeers, spittle, and hatred of wanting equal rights. This is a moment I thought I would never see. If he wins the election or not, it is a dream come true. And I think a lot of people feel that way, President Carter.

Pres. CARTER: Well, they do. As I said, my mother was a Lyndon Johnson campaign manager in Sumter County. Every time she would go out of the head campaign headquarters, her automobile would be covered with scatological comments written in soap, and the radio antenna would be tied in a knot. When my children went to school in Plains High School with a Johnson banner on their book sack, they would sometimes be beaten up, and would come home bloody at night, but go back the next morning ahead - again, committed to the Democratic Party. But we were in the minority then.

CONAN: Yeah.

Pres. CARTER: And now, of course, with Obama coming along, he has proven already that it's time for racial discrimination to be ended in this country, and I think he's made notable successes. I've listened to his speech in Philadelphia a few months ago. It was a heartfelt and deep analytical presentation of that issue. I literally wept to hear the best explanation of this that I've ever heard. It's a blight on our country. And there are still some vestiges of racial discrimination that are going to be in play this year, I believe, much less than in previous years.

CONAN: You talked about the Republican Party, and certainly they played a part, and on the national level, you've mentioned Lyndon Johnson, but on the local and state level, certainly the Democratic Party played its part in maintaining the status quo for many, many years.

Pres. CARTER: That's exactly right.

CONAN: And would you think that this nomination in any sense redeems the Democratic Party?

Pres. CARTER: Well, I feel like it did. I'm a completely objective analyst. I have no prejudice - this is all about that, but I think this has redeemed the Democratic Party. And it was kind of a hopeless case for Obama when he first started. Even early his life he had nothing with which to start, except the knowledge that it was almost an impossibility for any Democrat ultimately to be acceptable on national basis if he happened to be African-American.

He just had a loving mother, and he had some loving grandparents. He came from nowhere. He went to Harvard. He got a good education. And then instead of taking a very rich paying job, which he could have had on Wall Street or anywhere else, he went back to Chicago, took a minimal salary, and worked to get other poor people, both black and white, a chance in life. That's his heritage, and it's now being distorted completely by the swift-boat techniques that were so effective against John Kerry. But I think that he has helped in a lot of ways to eliminate discrimination against women, and against Hispanics, and other minorities, of course, women are not a minority, but other people who in the past have felt that discrimination.

CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line. This is Matt, and Matt is with us from Oakland, California.

MIKE (Caller): Yes. Hi, Neal. Thank you very much for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

MIKE: Beyond all the history that we've heard of through this election cycle already, I think it's being lofted for my generation - I'm 30 years old - nomination of Barack Obama marks the end of my parents' generation's role in this country, and that it's our turn now. My grandparents never could have imagined that a black man would be nominated for president, and yet here we are with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton who, I'm sure, they never could have imagined a woman being there, either. She almost won. To me this is a sea change, and the world has already changed regardless whether or not he wins.

CONAN: Of course, Senator McCain is not of the same generation, though. More of the same ages as me or Jimmy Carter, for that matter.

Pres. CARTER: That's true, yes. Well, my grandchildren though are the same age as that. We have a lot of them in their 30s, and we have a family reunion kind of a nice vacation every Christmas season. Rose and I pay all the bills. We save up our money all the year and frequent-flier miles to get them there. And this past year, we were on a vacation, and we hadn't talked to our grandchildren about politics. But we were surprised to find that out of 24 grandchildren and their spouses that we have, 23 of them are for Obama. So, that was to show that the next generation were way ahead of us, as a matter of fact, in those early days.

CONAN: Matt, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

MIKE: Thank you.

CONAN: So long. Here's an email from Michelle. This moment, this particular election means to me a strikingly different future history for my granddaughter. We've changed history today, something that not very long ago was unlikely, even unthinkable, nominating a person of color, any color, to the presidential candidacy. We nearly nominated a woman, another feat unimaginable not so many years ago. Many issues have been discussed - race, gender, stereotypes, civil rights and the political potential of our country.

My granddaughter, when she's born in October, will always see these issues as a matter of history, no longer a matter of what could be, but what has been and what may be in the future. She will be part of the first generation of Americans who have a living, breathing example of the truth that anyone can rise to become everything they dream to be with no excuses given to them to stand in their way. Another look at the future generation, President Carter, and I had not thought of it that way.

Pres. CARTER: Well, as a matter of fact, I have. I think that's a beautiful presentation of the feelings I have about my grandchildren. As a matter of fact, Rose and I have now one great grandchild, and they won't even know about our country as a history of racial discrimination. In fact, we had 100 years of legal, racial segregation under the separate-but-equal ruling after the Civil War was over, and to see the vestiges of that still present. And now coming to a conclusion, I believe, with this historical election year, it's very gratifying to me, our children, our grandchildren, and even our great grandchildren.

CONAN: We're talking with former President Jimmy Carter on This American Moment. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's get Mac on the line, Mac with us from Charlotte, North Carolina.

MAC (Caller): Yes, good afternoon. What this moment actually means to me is that we have an opportunity now to transcend race, color, and gender, and focus on the soul and the spirit of the person. And that's where the focus should be.

CONAN: You think, Mac, this is the moment reminding us of Martin Luther King's statement 45 years ago today that we judge a man by his character and not by the color of his skin?

MAC: And that's the way we should judge any human being, by the person's soul, and spirit, and his or her ability to uplift and enrich the lives of all human beings. Not only focus on this country, but focus around the world. We need to start focusing on all human beings and their needs.

CONAN: Mac, thank you very much for the call. Appreciate it.

MAC: Thank you.

CONAN: So long. And let's see if we can talk also with John, John with us from Des Moines, Iowa.

JOHN (Caller): Mr. President, it's an honor.

Pres. CARTER: It's a pleasure for me, and I thank you Iowans for what you did for Obama.

JOHN: Yes. It was very cold that night, believe me, but I was there.

Pres. CARTER: And what you did for me, too, by the way. Go ahead.

CONAN: Many years ago.

Pres. CARTER: Right.

JOHN: I'm thinking of the promise of America, and how quickly one generation has changed so much. It lends credence to the term "teach your children well." And I'm just so proud of what the Democrats are doing, and it's an excellent convention. That's all I have to say. Thank you.

CONAN: I wonder, President Carter, as you listen to the speeches there in the hall, and I'm sure you've been watching some of it on television, what have you enjoyed the most?

Pres. CARTER: Well, this is my 10th convention. My first one was on 1972 when I gave a nomination speech for Senator Scoop Jackson, and in '76, of course, I was a nominee, and also in '80. And I think this is the most momentous of all for our country. For me, of course, '76 was more significant, But...

CONAN: I bet.

Pres. CARTER: But I was really concerned Monday morning when I read in USA Today on the front page that only 46 percent of Hillary Clinton's delegates were deeply committed to Obama and almost 30 percent of them are willing to vote for McCain. But I think the speeches that have been made this week, from their hearts, I believe, by Hillary and Bill Clinton - along with others which I need not name - have been a transforming experience. And I think the divisiveness that permeated our party then, and just because of intense competition, has been overcome. So, I believe this will remove a major handicap that Obama faced when the convention started.

CONAN: Let's see if we get one more caller in. This is Barbara, Barbara calling us from St. Louis in Missouri.

BARBARA (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

BARBARA: Hi, President Carter.

Pres. CARTER: Hello, Barbara.

BARBARA: Can you hear me?

CONAN: Yeah. You're on.

BARBARA: I'm sorry.

CONAN: Yes.

BARBARA: I think it's a sad commentary on many, or a great number of Americans, who actually contemplate not voting for a person because of the gender or the race. This is supposed to be one of the leading countries in the world, and for people to actually be so far behind in their thinking, I just think it's pathetic.

CONAN: Barbara, I'm sure you don't mean to say that somebody who votes for John McCain could only do it because they're voting against Barack Obama, because of the color of his skin?

BARBARA: I do mean that.

CONAN: You do mean that?

BARBARA: Yes. I think there are people who absolutely will not vote for someone because he's black. And they talk about, oh, well, my doctor this and that. But if it happened to be a black doctor, they'd say, well, my black doctor, or he's black, like - and I'm a white person. But I think when you, you know, you cut people open, they're identical inside. We all have the same stuff inside as outside. And...

CONAN: Well, Barbara, you may be speaking about some people, but I'd like to think that certainly it's not many.

BARBARA: No. Well, I unfortunately think that it is. There's a large number. And that's why I didn't say everybody. But I just think it's a sad commentary that there are people in this country, which is such a - supposedly forward-leading country, that feel that way, and the same thing with a woman. Other countries have had women leaders, and wonderful women leaders. What's wrong with the United States having a woman leader?

CONAN: Barbara, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

BARBARA: Thank you.

CONAN: And President Carter, we're going to give you the last word, just in 30 seconds or so. What do you think This American Moment means to you?

Pres. CARTER: Well, I think this is already a historical year for the Democratic Party and for American politics to see a woman and a black wind up as the two leading contenders almost exactly equal, and then the Democratic convention anointing the African-American to our representative as a candidate, and all very likely a choice for president.

I think it's a major step forward in changing the image of America around the world. My wife and I have visited about 125 or so countries since we left the White House. And the interest in this election, no matter where you are, in the Middle East, in the Arab countries, and all of Africa, of course, and Asia, in China, is intense, because they see this as a restoration of the basic moral values of our country. They said all...

CONAN: And President Carter, I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there. But thank you so much for being with us today.

Pres. CARTER: That's the way I wanted to end it. Thank you very much.

CONAN: OK. Jimmy Carter with us from Denver. This American Moment will continue next week on Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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