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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Jimmy Carter : Assessing U.S. Politics From a Post-Presidential View

October 15, 1995|Jack Nelson

ATLANTA — When not flying to Africa, Bosnia, Korea or Haiti, or engaging in other diplomacy that has made him unique among all former Presidents in American history, Jimmy Carter turns a shrewd eye on the domestic political scene. And he frets about the Democratic Party's uncertain future and the Christian right's growing influence in the GOP.

During a long conversation at the Carter Center here, sandwiched between meetings with Cuban American leaders and yet another trip to Africa, he faulted President Bill Clinton and the Democratic Party for failing to defend protection of the poor and environmental quality, and for having "totally abandoned" health-care reform.

While he thinks Clinton would defeat any of the "now identifiable" GOP presidential candidates," Carter believes Clinton would face far more difficulty if the GOP nominee were Colin L. Powell--whom the former President has admired since working with him last year on a peace-keeping mission to Haiti.

Carter, a born-again Christian who teaches Sunday school regularly, knows the Christian right well and empathizes with it--though he criticizes it for "being in bed" with the GOP and questions how its leaders can be so partisan and still qualify for tax exemptions.

Although Carter turned 71 on Oct. 1, he shows no signs of easing his hectic pace. He and his wife, Rosalynn, who travels with him on most of his trips, are acknowledged "fanatics on exercise" and follow a rigorous program of activities.

In addition to his diplomacy and other activities, he's working on three different books to add to the seven he's written since leaving office 15 years ago. One, based on a collection of perhaps 200 Sunday school lessons he's delivered, will be published next year. A book of children's stories, illustrated by his daughter, Amy, an artist, will come out this Christmas. And he has half-finished a third book about his boyhood years during the Great Depression, but says, "I haven't even talked to a publisher about it."

Sitting in his shirt sleeves in an easy chair, he seems serenely at peace with himself, but as always, impatient for action and thoroughly practical in his approach. This year, as for several years past, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize--an honor critics contend he has avidly sought.

But Carter, while saying the Nobel would be a great honor, views it as being of little practical value for a former President, who already has easy access to world leaders and has "no problem if I want to go to Moscow and meet with President Yeltsin and go to Great Britain and meet with Prime Minister Major and so forth."

On the other hand, he says, it's an "important credential" for a scientist like Dr. Norman Borlaug, a 1970 Nobel winner who heads the Carter Center's agriculture program for Africa. North Koreans reacted enthusiastically to a proposal by the center to establish an agriculture program in their country after Carter told them it would be led by a Nobel winner "responsible for the grain revolution in India and Pakistan."

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Question: Let's talk about politics. President Clinton was elected with 43% of the vote and he's never gotten much over that in the polls. The Democrats have averaged 43% of the vote for President for the past 25 years. Republicans control both houses of Congress now, three-fifths of the governors, a majority of the state legislatures and an increasing number of mayoralties. To stay viable, how can Clinton and the Democratic Party reach beyond that base of the party and bring in other people?

Answer: I don't see any trend in that direction or any real actions being taken to correct that problem . . . . But unless Colin Powell gets the Republican nomination--which I think is doubtful--Clinton is very likely to be reelected against any of the now identifiable Republican candidates . . . . Clinton's recent improvement in his polling versus Dole, or versus any other Republican, is primarily attributable to a growing disillusionment with Republicans.

Q: You think a Dole-Powell ticket would be pretty strong against him, though?

A: I think it would be strong. There's no question that Powell has a popularity that would certainly endure even beyond the next election.

Q: Do you think, though, given his recent statements and what he's said in interviews and written in his book, that he's more of a Democrat than he is a Republican? Jack Nelson is the Washington bureau chief for The Times. A: I feel perfectly at ease with what Powell has advocated--I'm a Democrat . . . . I don't know Colin, except on my fairly intimate conversations with him on two occasions. We talked about a wide gamut of things, and I've come really to respect him, his leadership qualities. I think his ambition has certainly not been sealed. He's, obviously, ambitious.

Q: You and Bill Clinton are the only two Southern Presidents we've had in--

A: Since 1840 or something.

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