ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:
In just over 18 months, President Barack Obama will join the ranks of ex-presidents. He'll be 55 when he leaves office and among the youngest to become former presidents, alongside Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. President Carter remains a model of what an active, productive life can look like after leaving the White House. And the 39th president of the United States joins us now from the Carter Center in Atlanta. His new memoir is "A Full Life: Reflections At 90." President Carter, thank you for joining us.
JIMMY CARTER: It's a pleasure to be with you and all your listeners around the world.
WESTERVELT: In "A Full Life, you write that growing up in Archery in Southwest Georgia - this was the Jim Crow 1920s and '30s - almost all of your playmates and closest friends were African-American neighbors and children of farmhands. You played and worked together, yet you also went to separate schools and separate churches. As a boy, how did this separateness affect your friendships?
CARTER: Well, I didn't really think much about it because it was just a custom and everybody did it and nobody challenged it, so it was just life. And when I was at home, I really enjoyed the feeling of being in a deep and penetrating and harmonious community with my African-American friends. And when I went to church or went to school, it was just going into a different and somewhat strange environment for me. I was always glad to get back to Archery and to resume my previous life, which I had always enjoyed with my basically black friends.
WESTERVELT: That was a long time ago. What are your thoughts on race relations today?
CARTER: Well, a good portion of my book describes my relationship with other people around Plains because when I went off to the Naval Academy and became a naval officer and stayed in the Navy for a good while and came home, my wife and I were more progressive on the race issue than most of the people around Plains, so I describe that a bit in the book. After the Civil Rights Movement, there was a kind of a breath of - a sigh of relief in the South among many people. Well, the race issue is over and now we're going to be fully equal, and the millstone will be removed from the neck of both white people and black people. But I would say that over a period of decades since then - since the Voting Rights Act and so forth was passed - both the Congress, the Supreme Court and the general public in America had kind of backed away from that commitment to going out of our way to make sure that everything is equal in a racial relationship. And I think the fact is that we've kind of let down our guard. And there's another kind of a resurrection of an indication that a lot of racial tendencies still exist in our country.
WESTERVELT: In 1976, you and Gerald Ford ran what many consider respectful, positive, you know, no-attack ad campaigns for the presidency, and both campaigns were financed only with public money. Today, of course, the campaigns combined will spend several billion dollars, and with special interest and corporate superPAC spending additional billions. In your book, you call it legal bribery.
WESTERVELT: What's your view of the impact of this money arms race on American democracy?
CARTER: Well, nowadays, people don't - not several million dollars, but several hundred million dollars. And the Supreme Court's ruling on Citizens United is one of the stupid and most counterproductive decisions that the Supreme Court of the United States has ever made. And I think it has basically taken away a lot of the Democrat ideals of elections in the United States that we've enjoyed down through the previous generations. So I think it's completely distorted the democratic purity or legitimacy of our elections in the United States.
WESTERVELT: Legitimacy - that's strong words.
CARTER: Well, it's true. And it's legal bribery, as I said, because the rich people, when they give a candidate $100,000 or whatever through various devious means, they expect something in return. And they also influence, through those major campaign contributions, the outcome of elections that shapes the tax rates and gives special benefits to the major corporations and heavy contributors in a campaign.
WESTERVELT: You left the White House when you were 56 years old, one of the youngest ex-presidents ever. And you've had a lot of second, third acts, including your work on human rights and voting rights with the Carter Center. President Obama will be 55 when he leaves office. If you had one piece of wisdom to impart to President Obama for life after the White House, what would that be?
CARTER: Well, just use the talent and ability you already have that got you in the White House and the experience and knowledge of our country and the world that you've gained in the White House to the utmost beneficial use of other people. You know, I think since he's African-American background and race, I think that his influence in very poor countries where people have different color skin would be quite invaluable. And whatever he does, I'll respect it.
WESTERVELT: Nobel Peace Prize winner President Jimmy Carter. His new book is "A Full Life: Reflections At Ninety." Thank you so much for speaking with us.
CARTER: I've enjoyed being with you. Thank you very much.
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