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Across the Great Divide

An interview with President Jimmy Carter



He comes from a land where the terrain is so level that "when it rains, the water don't know which way to run." Thirty miles east of Plains, Ga., there's a divide separating the watersheds of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, but just a few miles west of Jimmy Carter's birthplace and home are fields that once bordered the tiny town of Archery, where the former president spent most of his youth growing up in the rolling hills beside his family farm.

These days, Jimmy Carter heads still further west, crossing the Continental Divide to spend a long weekend in the mountains above Crested Butte. For Carter and his wife Rosalynn, it's a further extension of the irrepressible work that consumes the former first couple as they reach out to help the inner-city children of Atlanta and impoverished communities worldwide.

Earlier this month, the Carters came out for their ninth annual Winter Weekend, a fund-raising event attracting over 300 guests who pool their resources to raise well over $1 million for The Carter Presidential Center through a Club Med getaway and a record-breaking charity auction.

The long weekend is also a highly visible component of one of the Center's most prominent stateside programs, an opportunity for youth-at-risk from the Atlanta-based FutureForce program to spend the weekend with the Carters in Colorado's high country.

Carter's commitment to working with African Americans is grounded in his own youth; his work overseas in what he calls "Black Africa" follows the lead of his mother, Lillian Carter, who volunteered for the Peace Corps and finished her tour at age 70, having asked to be sent "where people have dark skins and need a nurse's service."

Carter's current bestselling autobiography, An Hour Before Daylight: Memories of a Rural Boyhood (Simon & Schuster), clarifies the role his formative years played in laying the foundation for his tireless post-presidency efforts -- a new phase of public life that he has single-handedly defined. He grew up in the Depression era, his mentors were the black men and women who sharecropped on his family farm, and his closest friends were their children. Though his family was not hit as hard as his neighbors by the failing economy, he was a fixture at the side and in the homes of his poverty-stricken friends, developing a genuine kinship that was far ahead of its time in an era of volatile racial tension. Today, he and Rosalynn commit their resources, imaginations and efforts to working in what he describes as the "poorest, most destitute, backward, and forgotten nations on the Earth."

The title of his book refers to the hour he arose every morning to start working on the family farm. It also suggests the coming-of-age story that the book represents, and hints at the echo of a man ahead of his time. Perhaps one reason he's experienced such a surge in popularity during his post-presidency is because he has always been more in touch with the values of the generations that followed his, generations who came of age during and largely after his term as president and that turned to him in an era bereft of role models.

I spoke with Jimmy Carter one evening after he'd spent the day ice fishing on Taylor Reservoir, deep in the mountains above the Gunnison River Valley. His energy was contagious, his broad, relaxed, genuine smile revealing the familiar charisma and sincerity that won over the American people in our bicentennial election year. We talked about the full circle he has traveled in applying the lessons of his youth to The Carter Center's mission to alleviate suffering, resolve conflicts, promote freedom, and monitor human rights both abroad and at home.

Carter sits on the edge of his seat throughout the interview, comfortable in a worn pair of blue jeans and a green tattersall shirt, but keyed up by the opportunity to talk about his humanitarian work. Later that evening, he'll talk politics at a Town Hall meeting with hundreds of his guests, covering everything from the status of peace in the Middle East to his perspective on George W. Bush and the Florida recount.

But for now he is happy with a one-on-one conversation. He asks insightful, concerned questions after my sister's family -- who are distantly connected to him through one of his old cabinet members -- and then sharpens his focus on the issues that have been most vital to him since his earliest memories of red clay caressing his bare feet and dust boiling up from a dirt road in Georgia -- his connection to the natural world and his lifelong efforts to work toward overcoming the barriers of race.

Indy: It's hard not to notice the connection between the way you grew up associating so closely with people who were living in poverty and the way you're working with inner-city children now through The Carter Center's FutureForce program.

Carter: Well, there's no doubt about that. When I was growing up, I saw the almost indescribable poverty of people who lived around me. I was deeply immersed in their lifestyle. I was in their homes, I slept on their floor, I ate the same food that they did. All that was imbedded in my consciousness.

When I went into the Navy and then to be governor and president, I set aside as a preeminent foundation for our foreign policy, basic human rights all over the world. When we started the Atlanta Project, now probably 10 years ago, we had 500,000 people in the Atlanta Project that all were in low-income areas. And we saw such abject poverty there. But I've seen how if a young person, particularly in that environment, can be given a chance and given some confidence -- and given a male role model quite often is a key thing -- they can overcome the handicap and [they can] progress. So we organized the FutureForce.

With Sam Nunn's help -- he was the chairman of the Armed Services Committee in the United States Senate -- we got military officers to help us with the FutureForce. But it's that background of mine that has made us particularly interested in these bright young boys and girls.

Indy: How much was your experience as a youth something that you have kept at the forefront of your activities now and throughout your public service career?

Carter: Well, I can't say I've kept it at the forefront, it just stays at the forefront. You really can't change your consciousness or your basic values or the memories that guide your decisions on a day-by-day basis. And of course I've had such a diverse career now -- in the Navy, and as a farmer, as a businessman and in politics, and since then in The Carter Center -- that my thoughts and my values are shaped by multiple forces. But the early childhood memories, as I describe in the book, I think quite vividly, just came pouring back into me after we moved back to Plains. To go in the same house and see the same bathroom and the same windmill and walk in the same fields ... it's hard for me to escape.

Indy: One of the most vivid parts of the book is your description of the natural world. You mention that you learned so much from black women in particular and that you learned to understand the natural world through them. That mentorship is very similar to the opportunities you're providing now for urban Atlanta children to experience the natural world.

Carter: It is. For instance, my daddy was one of the leaders in soil conservation work. Well, that was mostly terracing some fields and leaving some places along the hedgerows for quail to breed, things of that kind. But the ones who were deeply immersed in God's world were the sharecropper families and the families that did day labor in the fields.

Because they didn't have any money. They got $1 a day for a man's full-time work. The average per capita income for a sharecropper family, which was kind of the high level of social and economical status, was $75 a year, which is inconceivable almost.

They had to depend on what they grew in their garden, they had to depend on what possums and raccoons their hounds might find, a few fish that they would catch in the stream. And to some degree, back in those days, the black women were still familiar with the herbs and roots and other plants that they could use to flavor their food that didn't cost anything.

So, rich people, we rich people, we enjoy the ski slopes, and let's keep the redwood trees and so forth, but you can't really know how people really love God's world until you have to depend on it on a daily basis for your own livelihood.

Indy: There's obviously a shift in that relationship these days. The kids who are out here with you have much less access to that world than they would have when you were young.

Carter: I think that's inevitable, particularly for children who grow up in even moderate-sized cities and, in particular, large cities. They see something like a Central Park, and they can enjoy the trees, and of course you can become an expert bird watcher in Central Park if you wish. But to get immersed in that outdoors is a rare privilege. It would be interesting to know how many of our American children have ever stood on the side of a trout stream. Or have actually been in a wilderness area far enough not to hear automobiles on a nearby highway. It wouldn't be many, I would guess.

Indy: Does the FutureForce program in Atlanta have an outdoor element?

Carter: Yes. Yes, we do two things. We have taken our children down to Fort Benning to go through the paratroopers leadership school. I've been down there with them. We also take them up into the north Georgia mountains to get an outdoor experience. We bus them out, maybe 30 or 40 at a time. It not only lets them see that there are beauties in nature that don't require money, but it binds a small group together.

If you have 8 or 10 kids that are walking a trail together, and having to cross a stream together, and spending a night in the tent or trying to build a fire, particularly when it's raining, and cooking something outdoors, there's a camaraderie there and almost a fraternity feeling that we share a common fate and we depend on each other, maybe even for our survival.

Indy: Maybe the most important aspect of the book is the issue of race.

Carter: It is. I think so.

Indy: It's becoming increasingly clear that issues of racial equality have been one of the most important elements of your life in public office.

Carter: In a way I was lucky in growing up in a little community that's still there and [in which] I didn't have any white playmates. So all my early life was [spent with] black children and their parents. It created in me a consciousness of equality. The leader of our group was whoever won the last wrestling match, or whoever caught the biggest fish, or whoever could run the fastest. It wasn't who was white and who was black, or whose daddy had the most money.

So that sense of equality and mutual respect is something that I had that not many people had who were my age. That's been very valuable to me the rest of my life.

Indy: Do you still feel that natural comfort with other races?

Carter: Yes, I do. For instance, when I was running for governor, when I was running for president, I could go into a church that was African-American, and I felt absolutely at home. If they asked me, "Would you like to get in the pulpit and say a few words?" I knew the cadences and I knew the emphases and the text and the rhythms of the worship service. It paid rich dividends for me politically.

One of my worst tests was when I ran for president the second time in the Democratic primary against Ted Kennedy. The Kennedys, obviously, their family was very popular among black Americans. I still got 85 percent of the votes. I think one reason was they came from Massachusetts and I came from South Georgia. [smiling, laughing]. I was at home with them. I wouldn't say I was any more deeply committed to civil rights than Ted Kennedy was, or his brothers, but I was one of them. So I think it paid rich dividends for me to be part of their culture.

Indy: Is it part of the mission of FutureForce and The Carter Center to continue breaking down racial barriers?

Carter: Well, it is. The Carter Center has programs in 65 nations in the world. Thirty-five of those countries are in Africa. And they're all in what you might call Black Africa, south of the Sahara Desert.

What The Carter Center does, and what all of our people do, is we actually are in the villages and in the homes of the people who are suffering from particular problems. We have an ability to take large contributions -- I just met the representative here from Pfizer, they make pharmaceuticals that we need in Africa. They give us pharmaceuticals free. A dose of medicine that might prevent a disease may not cost them more than, I'm just guessing, seven cents.

But how much does it take to get that dose of medicine 100 miles from the nation's capital in Burkina Faso or in Niger or in Nigeria? We're the ones who actually deliver the medicine to people, so I would say that our people are overwhelmingly involved in nations that are primarily black.

Indy: You write about seeing the New Deal in action as a kid on a small farm. You call it your first experience in seeing the difference between political programs as envisioned in Washington and their impact on the people you knew. How does The Carter Center ensure that those gaps aren't perpetuated?

Carter: Well, that's why The Carter Center is so valuable I think. Sometimes we'll go into a nation in Africa, say Ethiopia or Uganda. And their leaders may have never heard of a disease that we come in to treat. The president of the country or the prime minister may very well be a former major who was a successful guerrilla fighter in overthrowing the colonial powers and now he's in office. He doesn't know anything about health care. He doesn't know anything about medicine. So we provide that bridge between a government that says, "OK, you can come in," and the people out in the remote villages that need the services. The Carter Center sort of fills the gap between government and the people who need it.

Pakistan was the first country [in which] we started eradicating Guinea worm. We went into Pakistan, and President Zia and his minister of health had never heard of Guinea worm. They only had two cases of Guinea worm in the whole country the previous year, according to their hospital records. [But] the first village that we went into, we found 1,200 cases of Guinea worm. And Guinea worm is a disease -- I need not describe here to you -- where people don't want to go to the hospital. They can't afford surgery, and there's nothing you can do about it once you get Guinea worm in your body.

So I would say that we have been able to provide a service that would probably not ever have been provided by the people's own government, even if they had all the money they needed. That's the essence of it.

Indy: You've been in the Navy, you were in the submarine force under Admiral Rickover, you were a very successful businessman, you were governor of Georgia, you were president of the United States. What chapter of your life has been the most satisfying?

Carter: This period, since I left the White House. I've been able to capitalize on all my previous knowledge, and ability and experiences, training, education.

When I left the White House, I was confronted with an almost unlimited menu of things to be chosen by me and Rosalynn. I could have gone on the lecture circuit and made $50,000 a speech. I could have served on 10 or 12 corporate boards of directors. We decided that we would organize The Carter Center. And we have an incredible number of opportunities or specific requests each year to take on projects around the world. But we, and our staff, with [Executive Director] Dr. [John] Hardman and others, we chose the things that we think we can do most successfully that other people are not doing.

And then we have time for recreation with our family, with our grandchildren. We now have 11 grandchildren. We still keep our family together. We live, both of us, where we were born and raised. It's a rare thing for a first family, for both people to come from the same little town. We own and operate the same farm that's been in our family since 1833. We go to church with the same people we worshipped with when I was a child [smiles].

Everything about our lives is both enjoyable and, I would say, adventurous and unpredictable. And gratifying.

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