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Jimmy Carter: Proud Son

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. In our Wisdom Watch conversations, we sit down with respected elders to ask them to share their wisdom about today's most pressing issues. Jimmy Carter became the nation's 39th president in 1976. It was a time when America's confidence had been shaken by the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War. Restoring the nation's faith in the White House was a challenge. Some people wondered how a man born into a humble farm family in Plains, Georgia had the nerve to take it on. But they probably would not have been puzzled had they known his mother, Lillian Carter, known to just about everybody as Ms. Lillian. Her sprit of adventure, her compassion for the less fortunate and her ability to reach out across boundaries of race and faith were a passion that she passed on to her son. Jimmy Carter has told Lillian Carter's story in his latest book, "A Remarkable Mother." And we're joined now by former president Jimmy Carter, and I need to warn that there maybe some language that might offend some listeners. President Carter, welcome to the program.

President JIMMY CARTER: I'm delighted to be with you Michel, thank you.

MARTIN: We obviously want to spend some time on the book which is quite a remarkable document, but I did want to spend just a couple of minutes on your very much discussed recent trip to the Middle East and your meeting with members of Hamas. What do you think you accomplished?

President CARTER: Well, I met with Hamas and I had met with them three times earlier when they had won overwhelmingly the election to head the parliament and the government among the Palestinians. In January of 2006, they entered the election fair and square. It was fully supported by the United States and Israel. But when they won the election, all of a sudden Israel and the United States decided that no one could talk to them unless they had permission from the U.S. government, and that the people that they lead now in Gaza should be imprisoned and, in effect, starved to death.

In the past, Hamas had insisted that they would only have a cease-fire if Gaza and West Bank were combined. But two days after I left Israel, Hamas did, indeed, offer to have a cease-fire in Gaza alone, which the Israelis rejected. That's the first thing.

The second one was that Hamas agreed to accept the right of Israel to exist and live in peace provided that Palestinian-Israeli peace talks that are now going on produce a product and that agreement is submitted to the Palestinian people in a referendum and the Palestinian people approved. Then Hamas will accept it, even though Hamas disagrees with some of the agreement. So those are some of the things that we were able to accomplish.

MARTIN: Some Democrats have criticized the trip. We were talking to Senator Chris Dodd last week about a lot of things, not just this issue, but he's a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a former presidential candidate. This is what he said.

(Soundbite of interview)

Senator CHRIS DODD: (Democrat, Connecticut): It's not a you know bad idea for other people to maybe, in some other place, to be talking to Hamas. But for a former American president to do that without the sanctioning - we only have one person at a time in the administration that conducts foreign policy. You can have an influence and work with it, but as a former president, you go off and start doing engaging in your own foreign policy, I think it's highly disruptive. And I have great respect for Jimmy Carter, I admire a lot of the work he's done, but I think he has to be more judicious about he utilizes that reputation at a time when we need leadership to try and bridge these gaps.

MARTIN: Why do you think it is that you see your role so differently from so many other leaders within the government of both parties?

President CARTER: Well, in the first place, I was not representing the United States government. I was not representing Israel. I was only representing myself and the Carter Center. And before I left, I had made a long conversation with the assistance secretary of state in charge of the Middle East affairs, for about 20 minutes. I told everywhere I was going to go. I told him everybody with whom I was going to meet and there was never any word of caution or asking me not to go, or anything of that kind. And so I went in good faith and I made my report publicly.

I sent a written report to the White House and to the State Department when I got back, which I always do when I go on a foreign trip. So I don't think that I exceeded the bounds of what a private citizen, who does have some influence and some ability to travel should do, if he is committed to peace for Israel, which I have always been for the last thirty something years.

MARTIN: Why do you think, though, that even people like Chris Dodd, who I think would probably agree with you on any number of things, doesn't agree with you about this?

President CARTER: Well, you have to remember there are a lot political pressures in this country. It's almost impossible for any member of the House or Senate or candidate for president to take any action that's disapproved by the Israeli government. And I understand those political pressures. I felt some of them when I was president, and so I don't criticize any political office holder for making statements that the Israeli government would approve.

MARTIN: Let's talk about your book. I think this is your 23rd.

President CARTER: Twenty-fifth.

MARTIN: Twenty-fifth, excuse me. See, I lost track. Why do you think you wanted to write about your mother now?

President CARTER: Well, I think the country is kind of in a quandary with the results of the seven and a half years of maladministration in Washington. But I think people are still searching for what's best about America. And I think more than any other person that I've ever known, my mother exemplified what is best about this country. She was strong, had a dominant will, she was undeterred when she felt right about something. She was willing to cut across the morays and policies of society if she disapproved, and we grew up in an isolated community called Archery, Georgia, in deep, South Georgia, during the depths of the Depression, and during the depths also of a racial segregation that existed almost a hundred years after the Civil War.

My mother was a registered nurse and she paid no attention at all to discrimination against black people. She treated African-Americans exactly the same as she did white people and she was unique, perhaps among the 30,000 people that lived in our county, in doing that. I was filled with admiration for my mother.

MARTIN: Your mother was a trailblazer in so many ways that seem obvious now, but might not have then. For example, she, as you mentioned, she worked outside the home as a nurse at a time when a lot of women didn't do that. As a mother, as person who had children, you know, herself, and I wonder if that gave you a different perspective on women and work?

President CARTER: Well, it did. Mother came to Plains, Georgia, which still has only 635 people, to be trained as a nurse. And her first duties were in the operating room, and then she decided that she would rather go into the homes of the poorest people who couldn't go to the hospital. And so she nursed them 20 hours a day and was supposed to be paid six dollars for that 20 hours a day. Most of the people didn't have enough money to pay her, but that didn't bother my mama.

So, when she was only off duty for four hours a day, it was usually from 10 o'clock at night to 2 o'clock in the morning when I and my sisters were asleep. So, mother, I would say, in a way, sacrificed the intimacy of her own family and dealing with her own children, to serve other people. She never considered that to be a sacrifice, by the way. She considered it to be a gratifying and exhilarating and adventurous experience, and that was the spirit that she demonstrated to me, and I don't think there's any doubt that she made a major impact on me.

When I was elected governor, for instance, you know, in a segregated South in 1970, my inaugural speech was very brief, only eight minutes, but one of the things I said was that I knew Georgia quite well and I say to you quite frankly, the time for racial discrimination is over. Later, when I became president, I announced that human rights would be the foundation of our foreign policy. So, I don't think there's any doubt that those political decisions of mine and policies of mine were derived directly from my mother's experience.

MARTIN: But sometimes kids aren't impervious to criticism and sometimes unorthodox parents are frightening to children. You know, they wonder, why can't their parents just act like everybody else, and I wonder if you ever felt that way?

President CARTER: Well, in a way. Later, in 1964, which is - I'm moving forward a long way from my childhood, mama agreed to be the campaign manager for Lyndon Johnson in Sumter County. And she was about the only white person in the county that was that courageous. She would go to an old, dilapidated hotel then in Americus Georgia county seat, and work for Johnson, and when she came out in the afternoon, her automobile would be covered with scatological phrases written in soap on the sides, and her radio antenna would be tied in a knot. She never let that bother her.

Our children, my mama's grandchildren, of course, also would take a Johnson, a Democrat Party sticker and put it on their bookcases or something. And one of my sons that I wrote in the book, Chip, our middle son, he was pretty well beat-up by his fellow boys who thought that he was a - if you'll excuse the expression, a nigger-lover, because he was for Johnson in those days. But, mama, I guess, she was strong enough that she inspired both me and my wife and also our children, her grandchildren.

MARTIN: Did she ever talk to you about why she took those risks, or did she just...

President CARTER: No.

MARTIN: Just do her thing and expect that her example would speak for itself?

President CARTER: She didn't think that it deserved any explanation. She thought that since racial segregation and the discrimination against her black neighbors was wrong, she tried to correct it. She didn't think she needed to explain it.

MARTIN: You're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. Our guest is former President Jimmy Carter. His latest book is "A Remarkable Mother," a book about his mother, Lillian Carter. To me, some of the most vivid passages in the book are when you describe her service in the Peace Corps in India, which she joined at the age of 70. And she did have some mad cap adventures, but there were just some really heart-wrenching moments where she had to face the conflict between her values and what she was being asked to do. And I just, I wonder, did that - it certainly made an impression on me hearing about it, I wondered, did that make an impression on you and how you think about, particularly in the work that you went on to do and do now, in trying to reconcile very, very different points of view about what is fundamentally right?

President CARTER: Well, it certainly did. Mother wrote voluminous letters to us, and those letters were published in a book while I was president, as a matter of fact. One of them, in anguish, that went on for days and even weeks, was this woman who had leprosy that covered her whole body. She was covered with sores and she crawled across the path that my mother had to walk each morning in order for the woman to get her drink of filthy water out of a mud hole, and mother wanted to take the woman and put her in the clinic and take care of her, and the doctor ordered mother not to tend to the woman because the sooner she was dead, the better. And she was in the last days of her life and it was better for mother not to get contaminated with the leprosy that the woman had.

This was a horrible ordeal for my mother to sacrifice her lifetime commitment to reach out to the most destitute of people in order to preserve her own health and to comply with the policies or mores or customs of that era.

MARTIN: How do you think that affected you in your thinking about what is to be done in a situation like that where, as we are facing now, you know, you have one sense of what is right to do, and a lot of people think, you know what? No, I don't agree with you.

President CARTER: Well, I don't want to exaggerate the situation, but I think that all of us should be vigilant about discrimination against people that are poor, helpless, destitute, ignored, and bear unnecessary illnesses that ought to be eliminated. And so, I don't think it's an accident that this is the major commitment of the Carter Senate, which Rosa and I have headed for the last 25 years.

Three-fourths of our total budget, and three-fourths of our personal time is spent dealing with what the World Health Organization classifies as neglected diseases. These are diseases that are horrendous in their impact on tens or hundreds of millions of people in the poorest countries, but are no longer known. So, I don't think there's any doubt that this action or commitment or priority that we've established for our post-presidential lives are derived, at least to some degree, from the example that my mother said.

MARTIN: Your mother was what they now call a campaign surrogate, when you first ran for the White House. She was famous for speaking her mind. My personal favorite is when she called you out of a cabinet meeting to fuss you out because she had mistakenly gotten a bill for a dress that she wore to an official function which was kind of pricey. I have to tell you, 450 was kind of pricey for a dress.

President CARTER: It was a lot of money then. Well, she went to a funeral on behalf of the United States of America representing me when a dignitary died. I had a clothing store in Washington take a black gown that she could wear to the funeral, and so, when she got back, she kept the dress. I think she should have paid for it, tell you the truth, but when she got the bill for 450 bucks, she called me at the White House and the operator said, I'm sorry, we cannot disturb President Carter now, he's in a cabinet meeting. And I won't tell you exactly what she said on the telephone, but she said, I'll talk to my son whenever I please. You tell him it's an absolute emergency and he's got to come to the phone immediately. So I went and she said, Jimmy, what the hell are you doing sending me a bill for the dress that I wore and I - of course, it was a family fair so I said, mama, you don't have to pay for the dress. So Rosa and I paid for the dress and mama kept it.

MARTIN: Oh, dear. She was a diva.

President CARTER: Well, she thought she was right and she never backed down.

MARTIN: Could I ask though, did she ever get on your nerves?

President CARTER: Yeah. Sometimes, you know, she would go on Johnny Carson or Merv Griffin's show or even Walter Cronkite's show and she would say ridiculous things sometimes, and I was trying to be president. And I would go to a press conference, somebody would get up and say, Mr. President, how do you respond to what your mother said yesterday? And I would say, oh, no, what did she say? And they would tell me and I would say, my mother has her own life to live, I have my life to live, I'm not responsible for what she says. It kind of reminds me of the problem that Obama has now.

MARTIN: Yeah. I was going to ask you about that, dealing with Mr. Wright. What do you think about all that?

President CARTER: Well, you know, I've been involved in black churches all my life. In fact, the most powerful, richest, most exalted man in Archery, Georgia, where I grew up, was an African Methodist Bishop, William Dexter Johnson. And when he came home to our little community, he would preach in a local church, and so I started going to black services back in those days and now, Plains, which has about 635 people, has 11 churches. The largest and most dominant church in Plains is an African Baptist church. So, I've heard sermons like that all my life where the pastors, particularly if they are older, like my age, still remembers the segregation days and the travesty of white American Christians who condoned racial discrimination.

MARTIN: Mr. President, we're getting the hook when we need to let you go.

President CARTER: OK.

MARTIN: But, I did want to ask you, finally, what would you like us to draw from your mother's story?

President CARTER: I think my mother's life personifies, better than anybody I know, what America ought to be. She believed in peace, humility, service of others, human rights, forgiveness, but she was a dominant. She didn't do that in a service way, yielding to other people. So I thinks strong-willed but still adhering to the basic moral values that make America a great nation.

MARTIN: "A Remarkable Mother" is the latest book from former President Jimmy Carter, also a former Nobel Peace Prize winner. He joined us from the studios of WAMU, here in Washington, D.C. Mr. President, thank you so much for speaking with us.

President CARTER: I've enjoyed being with you. Best wishes to you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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