ATLANTA — I've known Jimmy Carter for 30 years--since he was a Georgia state senator and I was a reporter for the Atlanta Constitution. I've known him as a governor, as the nation's 39th President and as the country's busiest ex-President. He's always been a man in a hurry, a man with a lot of goals.
When I interviewed him recently for an hour-long documentary, Carter talked about the triumphs and failures of his presidency and about what he hopes to accomplish now. He has so many plans and they are so sweeping in their goals that someone quipped he may be the only man to use the Oval Office as a steppingstone. Yet Stephen E. Ambrose, the biographer of Dwight D. Eisenhower, recently referred to Carter as the "greatest living ex-President."
Carter was so unpopular as President that, in July, 1980, he received the lowest rating of any President in the last four decades--21%. That's three points lower than Richard M. Nixon when he resigned over Watergate. Carter's approval rating had climbed to only 34% when he left office in 1981.
Since then, however, Carter has continued his efforts as a peacemaker and advocate of the world's poor, monitoring foreign elections, working to eradicate a crippling insect parasite in Latin American, conducting seminars on foreign policy and lobbying on behalf of peace in the Middle East. Perhaps not coincidentally, his popularity has risen dramatically. In a recent Times Mirror poll, his rating eclipsed that of his archenemy, Ronald Reagan, 70% to 63%.
In some ways Carter has not changed since his presidency. He's still proud, self-righteous, single-minded and bent on pursuing lofty goals. He doesn't hesitate to skewer a political enemy like Reagan.
But he's changed, too. He is far more introspective, more willing to admit his own mistakes and failures, even to laugh at himself. One of the nice things about not being President, he said, is that he is free to make his own decisions without worrying about what Congress, the press or even the voters might think. For Carter, that means enjoying life as he never has before.
Question: A lot of international lead ers come here to the Carter Center. You've flown all over the world on behalf of humanitarian causes, on behalf of peace. What would you say is your most important mission since you've left office?
A: We operate under the general framework of what we call waging peace. It's an active intrusion into troubled areas to bring a better life to people.
We look at it in a fairly generic sense. It's not just negotiating to end a war. It's not just supervising an international election to bring about democracy to Haiti or the Dominican Republic or to Panama or to Nicaragua. But it's helping to alleviate suffering. In that way we not only reduce the likelihood of civil wars, domestic wars, direct and indirect human rights oppression, but we also get to know people and their families and their villages in a way that I would never have been able to learn while I was an incumbent President. I go to many places in Africa and Asia to see why farmers can't triple their production of food grains, or why we can't eradicate Guinea worm, or why we can't do away with the blight of river blindness . . . . As of the first of last October, just before Iraq invaded Kuwait, there were 30 major wars in the world that we were monitoring--a major war being one within which more than 1,000 people had been killed on the battlefield. Of those 30 . . . they were all internal wars, domestic wars, civil wars, wars between neighbors . . . . (Some) are horrendous in scope--a million people have already been killed in the Eritrean-Ethiopian government war; 260,000 died in one year in Sudan.
The tragedy is that the United Nations and the Organization of American States and the Organization of African Unity--even our own government and other governments--are precluded from being involved in these domestic wars because it's improper or illegal for us, for them--the institutions--to communicate with revolutionaries who are trying to overthrow a government that's a member of the United Nations.
So this leaves a horrendous vacuum in the world, in very destructive wars. That is a vacuum that the Carter Center is trying to fill.
Q: I know you feel deeply about the Middle East and you worked hard to bring about the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. What did you see as the cause of what led up to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait?
A: It's not very popular to even give Saddam Hussein credit for rationality, and I'm not saying the invasion was justified.
Q: But you don't buy he's a madman?
A: No. I think he has a very shrewd ability to analyze things from a parochial point of view. He does not have any acquaintance with the Western World. He has been isolated basically in Iraq, so he doesn't understand the outside world much, but there was a long history there. Let me give you a few examples.