Special to The Times
In 1976, energy security and gas prices were a growing concern for Americans. Inflation was rising, and many Americans were disenfranchised with the Republican administration then in power.
Former President Jimmy Carter might agree. In 1976 he ran for president against Gerald Ford. He was a relatively young and promising Democrat from the South. Some 32 years later, the issues that drove voters to the ballot then are similar to the themes of the campaign between Barack Obama and John McCain.
"I ran on a platform of change. Of course, that's what America was ready for," Carter said, smiling at the similarity to the current Obama campaign message of "Change You Can Believe In."
"The difference between me and Obama is I didn't have any money."
I talked one-on-one with Carter in a wide-ranging interview for Voice of America in the Pepsi Center studios of the Democratic National Convention Committee.
It is the fourth time I've interviewed the former Georgia governor and president. In our last interview in Chicago in April, I asked him if he would endorse Obama. This was during the primary season when it was not clear if New York Sen. Hillary Clinton or Obama would emerge as the clear front-runner. Carter preferred to keep an endorsement close to his chest until the primary season was over.
Now that Obama is on the verge of securing his place in history as the first black person to receive the nomination of a major political party for president, Carter is more candid and open about his support for Obama.
"He carried Plains, Ga. We only have 180 voters. He carried my home and got all the votes in my family. There's 26 of us, but I think that demonstration that he has done already that the last vestiges of racial discrimination or racism are crumbling."
Obama's message of change resonates with voters across the race, age and gender spectrum. But his critics contend that Sen. Obama's vision is more rhetoric than substance. Carter thinks Obama has a rare opportunity to use that message of change to improve the tarnished U.S. image abroad. And, according to Carter, he could do it in the first 10 minutes of his presidency, should he win in November.
"In his inaugural address, he can say. 'When I am president of the United States, we will never torture another prisoner. While I am president of the United States, we will never go to war against another country unless our own security is directly threatened.
" 'When I am president of the United States we will be the champion of human rights all over the Earth. When I am president of the United States, the United States will be in the forefront of leadership of dealing with environmental questions including global warming,' and things of that kind.
"But you see, in 10 minutes, he could spell out for the world and for America of course, the changes he could make. And all of those things he could either do by executive order or he could do by just leadership."
Foreign policy issues plagued Carter's presidency. The hostage crisis in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which led to Carter's boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, contributed to his 1980 election defeat to Ronald Reagan.
Dealing with the Soviet Union (which included what now are Russia and the Republic of Georgia) and its nuclear arsenal was one of the top foreign policy issues Carter had to deal with as president. Now, after Russia's military action in Georgia, he sees that region of the world playing a larger role in U.S. foreign policy.
"I'm not defending Russia, but we still need to be sensitive to how they feel as they are surrounded by increasingly friendly nations to the West," Carter explained. "The purpose of NATO is in effect to be an enemy of the then Soviet Union. The more pressure we put on Russia the more we are likely to see Russia react in a very improper way. And in a way that is what has happened so far."
Though Carter makes headlines, such as the firestorm his book "Palestine, Peace not Apartheid" created, the former president and head of the Democratic Party has kept a relatively low profile in U.S. politics. He rarely campaigns on behalf of other political candidates. He focuses much attention on the international peace and medical work of the Carter Center, and the efforts of Habitat for Humanity, which helps build homes for the needy.
He has made several trips to New Orleans, including work trips for Habitat. His appearance at this year's Democratic National Convention focused on that issue. A film that showed Carter talking with Hurricane Katrina victims preceded his only official appearance at the DNC. He and wife Rosalyn took the stage after a brief introduction and waved to the crowd.
He never spoke a word, and still the audience gave the former president a rousing cheer.
Even though it has been almost three decades since Carter sat in the White House, he has done much more beyond that office. He is a Nobel Laureate, a Grammy award winner and best-selling author of more than 20 books. And he isn't finished.
As he continues to write another book, he also is pushing an international coalition -- led by the Carter Center -- forward in the quest to rid the world of Guinea Worm Disease, an illness that afflicts villagers in many remote parts of Africa. If successful, which Carter insists will happen, it would be the first parasitic disease eradicated from the planet.
Kane Farabaugh is a Midwest-based TV and radio correspondent with Voice of America (www.voanews.com). He is covering the 2008 Presidential election for VOA. A 1995 graduate of Ottawa Township High School, Farabaugh recently returned to Ottawa, where he now lives with his family. He's worked for various commercial TV stations as a reporter and anchor as well as the American Forces Network Europe based in Germany. The views expressed in this column are Farabaugh's and do not represent the views of Voice of America.
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