Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has never been one to mince words. And he has said he does not care about what people think of him. Recently, he defied U.S. policy by traveling to the Middle East for meetings with the militant Islamic group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and which Israel and the U.S. say is a terrorist organization. Israeli leaders refused to meet with Mr. Carter during the trip. And the Bush administration criticized him for it.
In a wide-ranging interview with VOA's Kane Farabaugh, Mr. Carter defended his decision to meet with Hamas and strongly criticized the Bush administration's Middle East policies. He also spoke about the race for the Democratic party's presidential nomination and when he plans to endorse a candidate-- either Senator Barack Obama or Senator Hillary Clinton. Mr. Carter was touring the U.S. to promote his latest book, "A Remarkable Mother," about the late Lillian Carter, and the influence this strong woman had on his views about gender, race, politics and family. The book was timed to coincide with Mothers Day in the U.S., May 11.
QUESTION: We have former President Jimmy Carter. We're going to talk first about the newest release that you have, "A Remarkable Mother." I know that this is timed close to Mothers' Day, but let's talk about the motivation in writing the book at this point in your life.
PRESIDENT CARTER: Well, I wrote it because I think that for many Americans there's kind of a cloudy image of what it means to be a notable American. And my mother, among all the people I've known in my life, was the most perfect example, in my opinion, of what an American ought to be. She was bold, courageous, outspoken, indomitable. And she used her freedom, under very severe restraints, to address the most difficult and troubling and embarrassing issues that were prevalent in America of her day. And that was racial segregation that lasted for 100 years after the Civil War. And that was supported by the Supreme Court and the Congress, as Separate but Equal.
Mother saw that as a crime against humanity and a violation of her basic religious beliefs. So she never paid any attention to that. And she was the only person that I ever knew in my growing up years that treated and reached out to our neighbors, African Americans, all on an equal basis. In fact, she started out as a registered nurse. At first she was in charge of the operating room, and then she nursed for money when we really needed it during the Depression. She got $4 a day from the hospital to nurse patients in the hospital.
And then later she saw all of our neighbors where I lived were black and extremely poor; we didn't have any white neighbors. So she quit nursing in the hospital and began to nurse the poor people around us. She was almost like a doctor; she was highly trained.
And the standard service then was 20 hours a day in the home of a sick person. And the nurse was expected to take care of the children and everything else. So momma would just get off duty four hours each day, from 10 o’clock at night until 2 o’clock in the morning. And she would come home and wash her nurse's uniform and take a shower and put instructions for us children the next day on a desk and then she would go back to duty. And she rarely got paid for it, and she didn't care.
Sometimes a family would give her a little pig or some chickens or eggs or black eyed peas or something, trying to pay her. But she thought that her life should be devoted, in that little, tiny community in south Georgia, a very conservative region of America, to combating discrimination against black people. And she continued that all her life.
In fact, when she was 70 years old, she was in the Peace Corps in India, still dealing with the poorest and black people again, who were suffering from leprosy and so forth. And she was in effect an untouchable herself since she had to deal with bodily fluids and other unclean things.
QUESTION: Would you characterize your mother as an independent woman at a time when that was not a characteristic of many women across the South.
PRESIDENT CARTER: Well, I would. There were some stalwart women, though, that survived the Civil War. You have to remember how many men were killed during the War Between the States. And so their wives would inherit responsibility for the family, their widows. So she was not an anomaly in being a strong willed woman. She was almost unique in addressing the race issue as she did.
And she was an evocative spirit. She had a bubbling over sense of humor. She could titillate people to be her most intimate friends, or sometimes, if she didn't like them, her enemies. Later, when I was President, for instance, she would go on the talk shows, Merv Griffin or Johnny Carson or even Walter Cronkite, and her ebullient spirit would just let her take over the entire program, where it looked like she was the host and they were the guest.
And it sometimes caused me some discomfort, because she was completely at ease about what she said, or irresponsible in what she said. So the next day, if I had a press conference, the first question would be: Mr. President, how do you respond to what your mother said last night on the Johnny Carson Show? And I got in the habit of saying, look, I'm not responsible for what my momma said. She has a life of her own to lead.
But she and my wife, Rosalynn, were the two basic reasons that I was elected President. Because, in 1975 and 1976, I didn't have any money. We never had enough money to stay in a hotel. And mother and Rosalynn were out campaigning every day, five days a week, in different places from me or each other. And since I won by a narrow margin, I think it's accurate to say that if it hadn't been for my momma and her campaigning, and Rosalynn's of course, I wouldn't have been elected.
QUESTION: In reading the book, it's interesting, because the plan at first was to allow your mother to raise the children while you and the family, or the immediate family, had campaigned. But your mother insisted that she join the campaign because she thought she could do the most use for you.
PRESIDENT CARTER: Well, she could. At first what we thought would be mother's duty was taking care of Amy, who at that time was just a very tiny child. And she did that for a few months. And then she turned that duty over to Rosalynn's mother, and momma went on the campaign trail. That's right.
(Interruption from someone off microphone.)
PRESIDENT CARTER: No, I'm fine.
QUESTION: Okay. What lessons what are the most important lessons that she has instilled in you or the most important characteristics that she has given to you that you continue to practice every day of your life?
PRESIDENT CARTER: (Chuckles.) Well, I don't want to attribute my characteristics to momma directly. But my father died while I was still in the Navy. And I came home in 1953, and from then on until mother died she was the only parent I had. So she obviously affected me a lot.
Well, when mother was 70 years old, she wrote in her diary that if she had one wish for her children it was, in effect, for them to do things that were interesting and titillating and adventurous and unpredictable and she used the phrase not give a damn what anybody says about you. And so I think in many ways all of her children kind of inherited that inclination to try to carve out for ourselves, depending on our ability and opportunities, challenging things to do and interesting things to do and innovative things to do and not be too concerned about public opinion.
QUESTION: Have you been able to get over the fact that she sort of favored Billy as the star of the family?
PRESIDENT CARTER: Well, she always protected the least in the family. And when I became President of the United States and my sister Ruth became a worldwide famous evangelist, and that sort of thing, mother habitually said that Billy was the smartest one in the family. Which none of us disagreed. Billy, when he was working with me at Carter's Warehouse in Plains, Georgia, I would get there at 6 o’clock in the morning, and by the time I arrived, Billy had already read five newspapers and the weekly news magazines. He was an expert on politics and international affairs and a special expert on professional baseball.
And he used his encyclopedic knowledge of things to win a lot of money. Because unsuspecting farmers would come in to buy fertilizer or seed and Billy would make some ridiculous statement it sounded ridiculous but it was accurate and they would get up a bet and he would pick up a little cash. So he was always on the cutting edge of arguments and debates and telling jokes. He and mother were a lot alike.
QUESTION: Because of your mother's influence, is it fair to say that race really wasn't an issue that you were knowledgeable about until you went into the Navy?
PRESIDENT CARTER: I was immersed from tiny childhood in a black community. I wrote a book called "Hour Before Daylight" about my young years, before I went off to the Navy. And at the end of the book I tried to think of the five people that shaped my life, in addition to my mother and father. Of those five, only two of them are white. The other three were black people who literally shaped who I am and the way I think and the way I deal with moral values and the way I deal with religious issues and things of that kind.
So I'm a product of the finest aspects of African American culture, and I'm very proud of it.
QUESTION: Does it trouble you then to watch the current campaign and see how race is creeping into this contest?
PRESIDENT CARTER: It does. And I think that there is a lot of racism still in the political arena of America. In fact, since 1964, the Republicans have capitalized on the race issue in the South, and they've been able to carry the States almost every year because of subtle things about race, like the Confederate flag or whatever. And it's still there. And I am troubled by it. And I hope that this year will bring an end to it, or a substantial end.
My mother would be delighted to see a black man and a woman with the potential of becoming president. That would be a breakthrough for her and she would like it.
And I think she would advise both candidates not to give up until the last minute. If she was running for something, she would never give up. And so I think that just because you get a few votes behind, she would say: Stick with it, you never know what's going to happen.
So I think that and my mother was very active in politics. I say that in the book. I described the 1964 presidential election, when, not many people remember, but Lyndon Johnson completely wrote off the South. He never campaigned a day in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, or Louisiana. He gave those States to Goldwater, and Goldwater won. My mother became Johnson's campaign manager in our county. She was about the only white person that came out publicly for Johnson.
And she would go to campaign headquarters, her headquarters, every day and park her Cadillac in front of the place. And when she came out at night the radio antenna would be tied in a knot or broken off, and the car would be covered with filthy language, written in soap and other things, on the side of her car. She would just grin and come home and wash the car and go back to work the next day.
QUESTION: You’ve said in previous interviews you're intrigued by Barak Obama's campaign.
PRESIDENT CARTER: Yes.
QUESTION: And these are exciting times to be a candidate and to be a voter. Are you close to an endorsement?
PRESIDENT CARTER: No. Rosalyn and I have taken a policy since I left the White House of not endorsing a political candidate before the primary season is over. And I've said publicly and I'll adhere to it that I won't make any public declaration of my choice until after June the 3rd, or between then and the convention.
QUESTION: Are you concerned for the Democratic Party having such a late start to sort of collect the energies for the general election? Is this helping or hurting whatever candidate comes out in front? Is it helping or hurting them that this primary season is lasting as long as it is without a declared nominee?
PRESIDENT CARTER: I don't know. But I don't think it's hurting. A lot of intensely committed supporters of both Ms. Clinton and Obama have been inspired to come out and invest their lives, in effect, in their candidate's race, a lot of them for the first time. And I think that enthusiasm will carry over. And I don't have any doubt that after a clear winner is identified the earlier the better that the loser will support the winner and almost all of the loser's supporters will also support the winner.
I can't imagine any appreciable number of the Democrats supporting McCain in November. A few, yes. But the only loss will be a few of those that I mentioned earlier that are absolutely new to politics and have come out basically to support Obama, very young people and African Americans, who have never been in politics before. They might very well stay at home and not go to the polls in November, but they won't vote for a Republican.
QUESTION: I want to shift gears a little bit here.
PRESIDENT CARTER: Of course.
QUESTION: Are you surprised by the backlash that you're receiving for your recent visit with the leaders of Hamas? Is this something that came unexpectedly to you, or were you prepared for the criticism?
PRESIDENT CARTER: I was prepared for it. And the backlash is greatly exaggerated. For instance, when I left home, there was a poll in Israel just among the Israeli Jews, not among the 20 percent who are Arabs 64 percent of those polled said that Israel should be negotiating fulltime with Hamas. Because the Israelis know the history of Hamas and the background, how they won the last election, free and fair, and subsequently were declared to be terrorists and excluded from the process. And also the Israelis know that there is no way for Israel to have peace with the Palestinians unless Hamas is involved. Sixty four percent.
The other night I was on the Larry King Show. And CNN had one of their polls, call in and vote: Should Jimmy Carter have visited Hamas or not?
The poll results were 70 percent yes, he should have gone, and 30 percent no. So America is basically for me and the Israeli population is for me. The governments of the two countries I think are wrong in not dealing with Hamas and in not dealing with Syria. Because there is no way that Israel can have peace with their next door neighbors, the Palestinians, or with Syria, without at least talking to the people with whom they disagree. So I think I was right in going.
QUESTION: The Anti Defamation League has taken the forefront in really criticizing the book, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid." And they're also critical of your visit recently.
PRESIDENT CARTER: I know.
QUESTION: Their contention is that just by the fact that you visit with Hamas provides legitimacy to the way that they behave and the act: not recognizing Israel as a state, the continued attacks into Israeli territory against Israeli citizens. Do you feel that way when you
PRESIDENT CARTER: No, I don't. First of all, my visit didn't legitimize or de legitimize anybody. Hamas was legitimized by the fact that in the election two years ago, in 2006, they ran for public office all over Palestine, the West Bank and Gaza, in an open election that was supported by the United States, approved by Israel and the other Palestinians, and they won. They won a majority of the parliamentary seats. And they were subsequently excluded from the government by pressure from the United States and from Israel. And they were then de legitimized by declaring them to be terrorists.
And you mentioned two things. Not recognizing Israel. I took a question to the Hamas leadership, the top leadership, the head of the politburo and so forth. All of them live in Damascus, Syria. And I asked them to pledge to me that they would accept the results of any negotiation that was concluded between the present Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and the Israelis if it was submitted even if they disagree if it was submitted to the Palestinians in a referendum and approved. They said yes, we'll do that. And they authorized me to announce that when I got back to Israel. Which I did.
As far as violence is concerned, I asked them to stop the violence in Gaza. Because prior to my visit Hamas had always said: We will only have a ceasefire if it includes both Gaza and the West Bank. And Israel rejects that. So I asked them to accept Gaza only. And the day after I left Israel, Hamas proposed to Israel that they have a 60 day ceasefire in Gaza alone, which Israel rejected.
So not attacking Israel and recognizing Israel's right to exist, Hamas has agreed to both of those propositions.
QUESTION: There is some disagreements between the Secretary of State and yourself about the course of dialogue that occurred before you made the trip.
PRESIDENT CARTER: Sure.
QUESTION: Set the record straight. Exactly what sort of dialogue took place before you left?
PRESIDENT CARTER: Well, as has been the case with me for 25 years, since I left the White House, when I go into a sensitive area of the world, I generally call the National Security Advisor or the Secretary of State in advance to let them know where I'm going, with whom I'm going to meet and that sort of thing. So I put in a call for Condoleezza Rice about two weeks before I went to arrive in Israel, because I was going to Nepal in between. And she was in Europe.
So the Assistant Secretary of State for Mid East Affairs called me back on her behalf. And he and I had a very pleasant 20 minute conversation, during which there was never any request or even a hint that I should not go to Syria, that I should no go and meet with Hamas or anything else of that kind. And that's the only conversation I had with anybody in Washington or in our government about my trip.
And then I know that Condoleezza Rice I respect her as a woman of integrity, of honesty. I think that her problem has been that she has just been misinformed. The only hint of caution was submitted to Dr. Robert Pastor, who made the prior trip to make arrangements for my visits. And he was told by the State Department spokesperson, it might be dangerous for President Carter to go to Gaza since security would be difficult. So we didn't go to Gaza. But there was nothing in there about not speaking to the President of Syria, not speaking to Hamas.
QUESTION: Are you surprised that President Bush hasn't criticized you for making the trip? It's seems that he has been careful, perhaps, in
PRESIDENT CARTER: He knows. I think that now President Bush has found out what actually happened, that I was not warned. And so I noticed in I saw a transcript of his press conference I think yesterday. He said he wouldn't talk to Hamas, but he thought that other people, including me, should have a perfect right to speak to whom we chose. So I think that was a fair statement.
QUESTION: Last question. What's the next book? What's the next project?
PRESIDENT CARTER: Well, I will continue, I hope the rest of my active life, to try to bring peace to Israel. And it may be that my next book will be an up to date assessment of what's going on in Israel and the surrounding countries that might be beneficial to a new President. My hope is that the next President will announce, on Inauguration Day, or soon, that they're going to begin, that he or she is going to begin immediately to try to bring peace to Israel and its neighbors, and not wait until the last few months of their administration, as was done under President Clinton or President Bush.
QUESTION: President Carter, it's always a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you very much for joining us here on the Voice of America.
PRESIDENT CARTER: I enjoyed it. I'm glad to talk to you and people around the world.
(End of interview.)