Claiming that the United States has degenerated into "two Americas," former President Jimmy Carter made an emotional bid in Los Angeles on Tuesday to launch a nationwide effort, which he calls Project America, to dispel the "hopelessness" he believes Americans feel about inner cities.
Carter said he has already made arrangements with President-elect Bill Clinton to meet with him, Rebuild L.A. Co-Chairman Peter Ueberroth and others to discuss new ways of encouraging private citizens and corporations to work as partners with residents of inner cities.
The idea is an outgrowth of Project Atlanta, a program he started in Georgia last year in which corporations adopt an inner city community and assign top executives to work inside that community full time.
The former President addressed audiences ranging from conservative corporate heads and community activists to Hollywood stars and banking czars. His stops included a Hollywood recording studio and Plaza de la Raza in East Los Angeles.
"I think it might be good that the disturbances or riots took place in Los Angeles," he said to a burst of surprised applause at an elementary school in Watts. "It woke up America to the fact that there are two Americas. . . . We have slowly but surely built two New Yorks, two Washingtons, two Los Angeleses, two Atlantas."
On one side, he said, are rich people who don't know their maid's last name until they write out their paychecks--let alone invite the maid's children to join theirs for a trip to the beach. On the other side, he said, are people who have lived in poverty so long they are unaccustomed even to being asked to give opinions about programs designed for their benefit.
Rich people, he said, are not merely people "with large bank accounts." Instead, he said, the wealthy in America can be redefined as people who own a home, have a job, and "are convinced the police are on their side."
As he spoke, Arco Chairman Lodwrick M. Cook sat behind him on a wooden stage at 112th Street Elementary School. Cook, a conservative Republican, led the Save the Books campaign that raised $10 million to restore the Los Angeles Public Library after a 1986 fire destroyed the Central Library. Cook said he came to know Carter last year after helping finance his trip to Los Angeles to attend the opening of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
"I hope this is not just another program," said Cook, who was visibly moved by Carter's nonpartisan appeal. "After Watts, I got involved and what we did kind of petered out. . . . This time, we've got to get you involved--\o7 you \f7 involved--one on one. If not, there's going to be a breakdown of society which none of us wants."
In Project Atlanta, over 100,000 volunteers are given tasks to work on. Just as important, Carter said, is that they are told not to worry about any other problems in an effort to make their tasks seem less Gargantuan.
During the small group's meeting with Clinton, Carter said, he hopes to convince Clinton and later Congress of the need for legislation to allow two to 10 American cities to be used for experimental programs to do such things as cutting back 40-page Medicare forms and allowing volunteers to rehabilitate abandoned federal housing.
Speaking without notes, Carter said he did not realize how little real understanding he had of some inner-city problems, and revealed a "hopelessness" he said he used to feel when signing new laws designed to ameliorate drug abuse, teen-age pregnancy, welfare dependency and other difficulties afflicting urban areas.
He said he thought tuberculosis and measles epidemics had been eradicated--until he saw epidemics in Atlanta. He thought he understood teen pregnancy--until an Atlanta social worker told him that 10- and 12-year-olds were getting pregnant. He thought Social Security was every man's right--until a girl told him her grandfather couldn't get checks because he had no address.
To help work out such problems, he said, Project Atlanta is developing videos and workbooks that will be provided to organizers in different cities with suggestions on how improvements can be made.
Carter is leaving Los Angeles today after a two-day trip in which he has met with movie stars such as the liberal Barbra Streisand and the conservative Tom Selleck, Rebuild L.A. board members and teachers trying to eradicate illiteracy.
Monday evening, he met for dinner with a group of the city's power elite who ranged from media figures to movie stars and bank executives.
An aide to Carter said Project America began last year when one of Atlanta's most conservative Republican businessmen suggested to the president of Emory University, where Carter teaches, that the former President dedicate himself to American problems rather than problems caused by poverty and repression in foreign countries, as he has done since leaving office in 1981.
Asked what sort of program he expected Project America to become, the aide, James Brasher, said: "My sense is that it's not a project or a program--it's a movement."
Said one Hollywood figure who attended a Carter event Monday:
"He has the potential to ignite something here. And he is doing it basically by giving a speech about class. It's pretty amazing."