Jimmy Carter on Politics, World Events, and His New Book

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As America faces an ongoing recession, the Middle East faces revolution and turmoil, and the president faces what could be an incredibly difficult re-election campaign, we couldn’t think of a better person to talk current events with than Nobel Peace Prize winner and 39th president of the United States, Jimmy Carter.

Carter is the author of several books, including last year’s "White House Diary," he’s also the subject of a new children’s book called "Gift of Peace: The Jimmy Carter Story." Read a transcript of the interview below.

CH: Mr. President, you know your other book, "White House Diary," is now out on paperback and I wanted to read you something you wrote in there. You said, "I'm convinced that one reason we accomplished so many of our goals was that I assumed personal responsibility for key proposals of Congress. Most major bills were drafter either in the White House or by my cabinet officers."

JC: Exactly.

CH: That doesn't seem to be the strategy of the current Obama White House. A lot of the times he'll consult with congressional leaders, but he leaves it up to them to write the bills. Do you think that's a mistake?

JC: I think it's a mistake, just because I prefer the other way. But I can't criticize a different president who does it a different way. But that's the way I served as governor and that's the way I served as president. Whenever we had any important legislation concerning human rights or energy, or whatever, we drafted the legislation inside the White House. And I would invite the chairman of the different congressional committees or their top staff members to come and participate in the drafting itself, so by the time the legislation got to the Congress, it was what I proposed. And, of course, sometimes the Congress would amend it, to some degree, almost always to some degree. If they amended it too much, then I would threaten or actually carry out a veto. But I think that, in the case of the energy legislation for instance, which has never come forward, and the case of health care, what happened was that five different committees wrote five different versions of a health care bill, and then ultimately, they reached the lowest common denominator. It's just a different way of governing, and the way I did I think proved to be successful. It made me and the members of the Congress be pretty much partners in the shaping of legislation. So there was not an adversarial role from the very beginning. But whether or not the Republicans would cooperate in these days with President Obama, oh, it's difficult to say.

CH: And that's a good question. I mean, certainly, you were a one-term president 

JC: Yes.

CH: The GOP has quite vocally said that their goal, members of the GOP have said their number one goal is to make President Obama a one-term president.

JC: Yeah, well I'd say minority leaders in the Senate say that.

CH: And I'm wondering what your advice then would be to Barack Obama, going into this election. You've written that there are things that you feel you could have done to change that second election. Is there anything that you think Barack Obama can do right now?

JC: Well, you know, I wouldn't want to propose...you know, I wouldn't want to be presumptuous and recommend actions about President. But I think, for instance, when the legislation is going to come up in the future on how to deal with our terrible indebtedness, I think that the best proposal would be for President Obama to draft what he thinks is a superlative approach to the whole thing, quite effective in nature with a combination of expenditures and also increased receipts, and then take that proposal, which would be his, direct it to the people and try to convince the people, both Democrats and Republicans, this is the best approach. And that's basically what I tried to do when I was president, was to present my own ideas, in totality, to the people, and I sold it as best I could to the general public, and then prevailed on the Congress that way. I think that's what would be the best approach to this particular issue of indebtedness, and bring us out of our financial problems, and also to the job issue as well.

CH: We're speaking with President Jimmy Carter. Of course, the new book is called "Gift of Peace: The Jimmy Carter Story." And the Jimmy Carter story is very much about the Middle East, the Camp David Accords, the revolt in Iran, the Iraq's invasion of Iran, which occurred not long before you went into a reelection campaign. And I'm wondering, what are the roots, perhaps, of the Arab Spring that we're witnessing today — were the roots or the stirrings of the Arab Spring already there when you were in the White House?

JC: No, I don't believe they were. When I went into the White House, nobody was urging me to take the initiative in bringing peace between Israel and Egypt. There had been four major wars between those two countries in the preceding 25 years, and I took it on myself to do it with a lot of help from every source. Then I prepared what I thought was a comprehensive peace proposal, got both Begin and Sadat to come to Camp David and eventually sold it to them. They were two very courageous men who were willing to stand up to some disapproval within their own countries, and in fact Sadat was assassinated because of his political courage. But I think that's what needs to be done. I would hope now, as we approach September, when the Palestinians are thinking about asking the General Assembly of the United Nations to approve them as a state, that they organize a quartet, led by the United States, that would put forward a comprehensive peace proposal based on the 1967 borders that President Obama has already adopted and then sell it. Not only to the general public, to the general assembly, and to the United Nations, but also sell it to the Israelis and the Palestinians. I think that's always the best approach, for the president to take the initiative, be a bold leader, prepare a comprehensive proposal and using a so-called "bully pulpit," of the White House, to take it to the general public and sell it on its own merit.

CH: We're speaking with President Jimmy Carter. Last question for you, Mr. President. I'm often very frustrated, as our listeners are, with what's going on in Washington.

JC: I know.

CH: How do we, as average American citizens, how do we turn that frustration into action, and do something to change the political atmosphere?

JC: Well, I think quite often you can do it with your own activities. You have a great pulpit of your own, or just expressing your views on any sort of public media, including the one on which we're talking. And I think the martial people who feel the same way you do get involved in political campaigns for members of Congress or for others in your district or perhaps in a state. And then make sure that those candidates' positions, which would ultimately wind up in Washington or the state capitol, are mirrored as best you can, as best possible, your own views. Then I think those views are the ones that never do change. We oughta commit ourselves as American citizens to do the same thing that all our major religions teach us — promote peace and justice and equality and human rights and service and humility. Those kind of things. And those are the principals that are expressed in the little book that was written about me, to which you refer.

CH: President Jimmy Carter, not just a great man, but a good man. The new book is called "Gift of Peace: The Jimmy Carter Story." Mr. President, thanks so much for joining us.

JC: Thank you, Celeste, I’ve enjoyed talking to you.