Robert Scheer SI Podcast

Jonathan Alter on Jimmy Carter’s Lifelong Efforts to Atone for White America’s Sins (Part 1)

Raised in privilege amidst the barbarism of segregation, the oft-maligned president eventually embraced the New South liberalism that just swept his native Georgia’s election.
"Jimmy Carter."
“Jimmy Carter.” [Art by Mr. Fish]

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This is the first half of a two-part conversation. The second half will appear on ScheerPost next week.

Jimmy Carter, America’s 39th president, is often seen as a one-term president who was unable to achieve much of note in his four years in office. Yet the Democrat’s legacy is filled with far more accomplishments than his critics like to admit — especially when his post-presidency is taken into consideration. In “His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life,” one of the most comprehensive biographies written on the 96-year-old to date, author Jonathan Alter offers an illuminating account of the former president’s incredible life, which, Alter argues, essentially spans three centuries: “His early life on the farm in the 1920s without electricity or running water might as well have been in the nineteenth; his presidency put him at the center of major events in the twentieth; and his efforts on conflict resolution and global health set him on the cutting edge of the challenges of the twenty-first.”

Alter joins host Robert Scheer on this week’s installment of “Scheer Intelligence” to discuss Carter — the Southerner, the president, and the philanthropist. Scheer, who was interviewed for “His Very Best,” brings a unique perspective to the discussion based on his famous 1976 Playboy interview with the then-presidential candidate in which Carter admitted he had “looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” Speaking just days after Carter’s home state of Georgia elected its first Black senator, Raphael Warnock, Alter and Scheer extensively examine the former president’s civil rights record. The two note that while running for governor of Georgia in the Jim Crow era, he showed a reluctance to support the movement and leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. Alter argues that Carter’s childhood experiences in the segregated South profoundly shaped him, but his early decisions to steer clear of civil rights were largely based on political expediency due to the stranglehold white supremacists held on Georgia. Once elected governor, Carter altered his tone with regard to racism, and throughout his presidency and post-presidency went on to show a strong commitment to civil rights, according to Alter.

Overall, while his legacy might be mixed and misunderstood by many, Carter revealed himself to be a “good man,” Alter tells Scheer, pointing to his efforts on everything from protecting the environment to fighting inequality. Listen to the full conversation as they consider how Carter’s life story is also the tale of a long-broken America and the bravery it takes to own up to its racist foundations.

Credits

Host:
Robert Scheer

Producer:
Joshua Scheer

Introduction:
Natasha Hakimi Zapata 

Transcript:
Lucy Berbeo

Robert Scheer

Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another addition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, a well-known journalist, Jonathan Alter, and his new book is his very best. “Jimmy Carter, A Life.” I just want to jump into this because we’re at a moment when people are thinking a lot about the presidency, Donald Trump is in the midst of, you know, probably one of the great scandals, nightmares of the American presidency. I don’t have to tell people all the details but we forget that other presidents have had their problems, their difficulties with the media. And certainly one of them is Jimmy Carter, the subject of this book. So why don’t you relate Jimmy Carter to the moment that we’re in?

Jonathan Alter

Well, Jimmy Carter, Bob, is the un-Trump, you know, he for, all of his flaws and he certainly had his political problems, he is a man of a genuine decency, integrity, accountability almost to a fault. Like, shortly before he was re-nominated for president in 1980, Dan Rather asked him to grade himself and he gave himself a lot of B minuses and Cs, you know, so there’s tremendous accountability there. And, I would also argue a man of vision, but when he left the presidency Walter Mondale toasted him and he said we kept the peace, we obeyed the law, we told the truth, and we promoted human rights, and that was the toast. And, you know, when you think about it at that time, you’d kind of go, okay, they kept the peace, they told the truth, you obeyed the law, that’s kind of a low bar, right? Sort of like the minimum of what you would expect from a president, but in today’s light, think about that, you know, and nobody got killed when he was president much less, you know, more than 300,000 people dying because of incompetence. So, you know, he stands up. What he has in common with Trump for historians is that they’re both one-term presidents, but really they should be contrasted rather than compared,

Scheer

Okay. But let me jump in there because we all, we look back at history as sort of less troubled than it is now. And, you know, the Nixon administration certainly had its difficulties. Certainly other administrations have gotten people killed in wars that are no longer thought to be justified, whether it was Vietnam or Iraq, or what have you. But I just want to remind people, you know, Trump has attacked the media and you and I are in the media. I interviewed Jimmy Carter and I’ve interviewed a number of these people. And in my interview with Jimmy Carter for Playboy, I just want to remind you and others of this, I asked him about media and he said, “the local media are interested, all right. But the nation’s news media have absolutely no interest in issues at all. Sometimes we freeze out the national media so we can open up press conferences to local people. At least we get questions from them on timber management, on healthcare, on education, but the traveling press have zero interest in any issue, unless it is a matter of making a mistake. What they are looking for is a 47-second argument between me and another candidate or something like that. There’s nobody in the back of this plane — that was the plane with the national press corps — who would ask an issue question unless he thought he could trick me into some crazy statement.” 

So let me begin by this comparing Carter and Trump on an issue, the question of immigration, how we deal with the matter of you know, of undocumented residents we had in our own country, which was after all, what catapulted Trump to the presidency. Well, Jimmy Carter dealt with that issue. He had a program of amnesty that he was dealing with that didn’t do well. And the press never was that much interested in it, was it? 

Alter 

No, I mean, first of all, I think you’re being a little modest, your interview, the really famous or, for Carter, infamous Playboy interview in September of 1976 was, you know — it’ll be prominently mentioned in Jimmy Carter’s obituaries. This was a huge development at that time when it came out, he plummeted in the polls. It almost cost him the election in 1976. So this was really an intersection between you and American history. So I just want any listeners who don’t know that about Bob to understand how big a deal this was at the time. I actually think that the answer in that interview, of course, it was when he said “I have lust in my heart” that made the news. But the answer that you just quoted is quite interesting both as a reflection of Carter’s resentment toward the press, which was even more pronounced when he was governor of Georgia.

But also I think a lot of what he was saying was true. You know, I more than you, Bob, actually was in that traveling press corps over many, many election cycles from 1984 through 2008, I was, you know, one of the boys and girls on the bus and you know, I, and a few others would try to ask these candidates in both parties issue questions that were related to immigration or other policy matters. But the vast bulk of the questions were just what Jimmy Carter described. They were political questions, they were campaign questions. They were questions about campaign issues, not governing issues. And so this is, I believe, a fairly accurate indictment of the national press corps that Carter unloaded. And the other thing I would say is that when he did help hold press conferences, which was happening on a regular basis when he was president and was asked very substantive questions at those White House press conferences — because the White House press corps is different than the traveling campaign press corps — when he was asked those questions he acquitted himself extraordinarily well because the depth of his understanding of government and the way government works, even though he’d never been in the federal government, was tribute to not just his intelligence, but his diligence and learning how to do his job and learning what was involved in running the federal government.

Scheer

So, let me jump in there and we’ll get to immigration after, of course, that they did have that in common. But I agree with you. I think Jimmy Carter first of all, he did care. He helped make a caricature of Jimmy Carter as kind of the yokel from the Georgia, you know, hinterland little town of 400 people, Plains. It was all sort of a movie set. But the fact is, Jimmy Carter comes from, one could argue, a patrician Southern background. Certainly, I felt that way. He was from the richest family in his area. He is a product of the meritocracy. He was able to get into Annapolis, helped, as your book points out. And the book is so rich. Let me just tell people right off the bat, even if they don’t find this conversation so rewarding, even though I thought I knew a lot about Jimmy Carter, I spent a week with this book this last week. I couldn’t stop reading it. And I love the fact that you actually reported the story from beginning to end. It is the essential book to read about Jimmy Carter. 

There are a few other stabs at his story but this one really lays out the issues . . . of American politics because in order to become president, Jimmy Carter had to play a game. He had to invent a fable about himself, or with Jody Powell and Hamilton Jordan, his young campaign advisors. And they set that fable in kind of a folksy rural part of Georgia. They downplayed the racial tensions, they downplayed class issues and everything else. And what your book does is takes us through a much more complex story of what America is all about and what ails it. So why don’t we just begin with that, instead of the sort of image of the New South suddenly launched. Jimmy Carter was very much a product of the Old South, and your book really goes into that in great detail. And it was a very nasty place. We have a kind of gentrified version, particularly of liberals in the Old South, of which Jimmy Carter certainly became one. But they were in a world of horrible pain and abuse of people, going back to slavery, but certainly when Jimmy Carter was a young person going off to Annapolis and then he returned after his stint in the Navy, the fact is he was dealing with the Old South. Why don’t we begin with that?

Alter 

Well, you know I think people know a little bit about Jim Crow and they can remember the signs on the water fountains, “Whites Only” — that doesn’t begin to tell you what it was like. This was white terrorism, white terrorism, and this was the world that he grew up in. And that white terrorism, obviously, mostly terrorized Black Georgians. And by the way, he was in arguably the meanest county in Georgia… 

Scheer

…with the meanest sheriff.

Alter 

Martin Luther King described the sheriff Fred Chappell as, quote, the meanest man in the world. This guy made Bull Connor in Alabama look like a nice guy. We’re talking cattle prods on 14-year-old Black girls, right? So this is rough stuff. And Carter sugar-coated it, he’s running for president, so he has to sugar-coat all of this, all of the state-sponsored violence that’s going on in his backyard.

And, you know, I questioned him closely about this. And at one point he said: Look, I never claimed to be part of the Civil Rights Movement, that’s for damn sure. You know, he didn’t bother to meet King when he was in the Georgia state senate in the early 1960s, never met him before he died. He later became very closely associated with daddy King. But you know, in the fifties and sixties, Carter was ducking the Civil Rights Movement. He was on the school board, eventually chairman of the school board in Sumter County, Georgia, in the years after the Brown vs. Board of Education. I went over the minutes of those school board meetings — not only did they defy the US Supreme Court and not integrate their schools, they never even mentioned the Brown decision, which kicked off this backlash and a whole new series of Jim Crow laws in Georgia and elsewhere.

So, you know, when they finally — partly through Carter’s efforts — they finally got some school buses for the Black kids who, before that, if you lived far from school, it was your problem, If you were Black — if you were white, you had a nice, shiny new school bus. So, they finally got some used school buses under Georgia law. They had to have a black bumper on those buses to indicate to other motorists that there were Black children aboard. Think of like 40 bills like that passed the Georgia state legislature. One of them said, if there’s even a single Black child in a white school, that school must close under Georgia state law. So then it gets even worse because — you know, Bob about Koinonia, this interracial farm, you’re one of the few people who visited there in that period — and there was a boycott against the farm because it was interracial. And, you know when I first learned that Jimmy Carter observed the boycott — he has this farm supply business, he won’t sell anything to this interracial farm — and I am thinking, wow, that’s pretty terrible of Carter. And then I learned that Carter had a competitor, another farm supply business that broke the boycott and sold to this interracial farm. What happened to that guy’s business? It was dynamited. So, the terrorism here with most of it directed at black Georgians, but also at whites who would dare to take part in the Civil Rights Movement. And Jimmy Carter in those years was intimidated.

Scheer 

Yeah, we’re doing this interview at a time when a Black preacher is now going to be one of the senators from Georgia. And at that time, my goodness, you know, of course Black people were struggling, would be shot for trying to vote, and Jimmy Carter — and I’m not putting them down in that respect, I’m putting down all of us, all whites, because people in the North were not as sensitive as they should have been to this. And by the way, I had visited Koinonia Farm in 1960. And so when I was covering Carter doing the Playboy interview with him, I … it occurred to me, wait a minute, I’ve been here before. I had gone through — because the reason I visited Koinonia Farm it was a great experiment of people — Hamilton Jordan, who ended up being key to Carter’s whole success, it was his uncle Clarence and his wife, Florence Jordan, then there was another fellow named Jack Singletary, who had gone to Annapolis, just like Jimmy did, but then…

Alter 

Did you know Jack Singletary, did you know him?

Scheer 

Yes, I interviewed Jack, well, after, when I was doing Jimmy, he was still alive. I interviewed him and I interviewed Florence — cause I’m in your book…

Alter 

Yeah. I didn’t know when I interviewed you, when I interviewed you for my book, I didn’t know that you had met Jack Singletary.

Scheer 

Oh, he was an enormously impressive guy. Well, look, of all the good news about America — and I’ve said this before in these podcasts — out of the crazy quilt of American culture, you throw up a lot of interesting people, rebels, people who want to do the right thing. And they believe in at least the spirit of the country, and the people at Koinonia Farm, by the way, who were operating on some sort of Christian basis, utopian basis https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugh_Carter felt their reading of scripture and their idea of Jesus was that you had to embrace people irregardless or irrespective of their skin color. And they were incredibly brave. But when I started looking into it again in ’75 or ’76, when I was interviewing Jimmy Carter in the run-up to the election for that Playboy interview, no one in the press corps, or very few people, were even interested, they were buying the movie hype of Jimmy Carter, the charming hick from Georgia. 

Most of them flew into Atlanta and then went out to Plains [Georgia] and so forth and they were buying into this idea of the “New South.” And I remember somebody at that time told me, you know, Bob, beware the New South is the Old South, plus air conditioning, you know, and when the press corps would leave, [bait tycoon and local politician] “Uncle Hugh,” Jimmy’s, you know, cousin — I went into his store with Jody Powell, and he was back to his old racism … and he had opposed Jimmy on, even when Jimmy made his tentative moves to integrate … not integrating, but allowing Black people to observe the first Baptist church in Plains, where he was doing Sunday School. But when the press was there, good old Hugh was as friendly and as hip as you wanted. And, you know, so what I’m trying to get at is, one reason we still have racial tensions in America is the damage done by segregation after slavery was so destructive. And Jimmy Carter actually, his fear, his intimidation before becoming governor — and then that’s when he begins to transformation, because obviously the country is demanding a new South, or they’re not going to have any economy or anything, he hitches his wagon to that.

Alter 

Right? So, basically, I believe that the second half of Jimmy Carter’s life, when he has done all these things — you know, they name children after him in Africa — and he basically integrated Georgia government, and then he moved the United States from tokenism to diversity, when he became president, and all of his other contributions … I believe that was at least partial atonement, that he was spending the second half of his life making up for what he did not do — and arguably could not do — in the first half of his life. So, you know, at a certain point, he took it from — and he would do little things like try to integrate his church, which was not integrate, as you say, [but to] allow blacks to cross the threshold and observe in the churches, you know, and he was even defeated on that, and he would not join the White Citizens Council and, you know, they knew in his area that he was liberal, but he still had to duck in the Georgia state senate.

And then when he ran for governor, he actually had to appeal to racists — the second time he ran for governor — and he didn’t say anything racist, but he needed the rural vote, which I think as everybody now knows who’s been watching these most recent Georgia run-offs, you know, those are the conservative, racist areas. So Carter was running against a guy who was left, a former governor named Carl Sanders. And so he had to go for that rural vote. And so he actually paid a call on the founder of the White Citizens Council, paid a call on a virulently segregationist former governor just before the election, in order to win that election. And, this is in 1970. And when I asked him about it, you know, he basically said — and it was a very uncomfortable interview that I did on this subject; one of many interviews I did with Jimmy Carter for this book, and this one was the most awkward — about the 1970 campaign, which was basically a dog-whistle, code-word kind of campaign. And he finally says, look, “I, you know, if I had to do it over again, yes, I could have denounced these segregationists, but then I wouldn’t have been governor.” So, you know, he was making a politically expedient decision that he would, you know, if he was part of the Civil Rights Movement, he wasn’t going to be in politics. It was that simple. And so the question for me historically, is, okay, what does he do when he wins? Not, it’s not just how you got there; at a certain point he whispered to Vernon Jordan, “Watch what I do, not what I’m saying in the campaign.”

And you know, Vernon Jordan and others you know — Vernon Jordan is, of course, the civil rights leader, who was head of the National Urban League and was a Georgian — and they’re going, well, do we believe this guy? And then what happens is in his inaugural address as governor of Georgia, on the advice of his Jewish Cessna pilot, he says, “The time for racial discrimination is over,” and this just lands like a thunderbolt. And the whites I interviewed, they boycotted the inauguration, they turned on their heels, they walked out, they said he betrayed us. And the black Georgians who were there, they’re going, “He said what? He said the time for racial discrimination is over? Our new governor? Are you kidding me?” And then he made good on it. He puts up King’s portrait in the Georgia state capitol and you know integrates the Georgia judiciary and a whole lot of other things.

So, you know, this story is an American epic really before he gets to the presidency — and obviously a long time before he gets to what he’s famous for now, his former presidency, post-presidency — and these early years are riveting for me, they were riveting for me to research and to learn about. And I actually, you know, I worked five years on this book, Bob. A good chunk of it was peeling away the sugar-coating that you’re talking about, that Jimmy Carter had put on those early years, to find out the truth of what happened. And, you know, what I found out was, what I found was a good man in a bad place.

Scheer 

Well, a good man in that he ended up wanting to right wrongs, but, you know when these folks up the road at Koinonia Farm were being shot at and you know, harassed in every single way — and, you know, after all, Martin Luther King was jailed [in] really the only significant town —  Plains was not really a [town], it’s a little village, a hamlet — Americus. And that’s where Martin Luther King was jailed. And you humiliated, and despite, you know, Jimmy’s concern about civil rights, he never bothered to even reach out to Martin Luther King — a point you made in your book. I’m recommending this book. It is a long book, 680 pages, if you leave out the index, but well worth it, I want to hasten to add, because people want to deny history. History makes us uncomfortable, OK. 

And I agree with your basic assessment. Of course, let me just put that out there [that] in my own article that accompanies the Playboy interview, I said, I concluded this is a good man, and this is a man who wants to do the right thing. And he’s done it over his life. He’s been the most, certainly the most spectacular in fact, I’m more enthusiastic about Carter as an ex-president than you are. But I think, you know, he’s certainly a man of great decency and questions himself and wants to be right with some notion of God, which is a good thing to worry about, not just about yourself but, you know, the fact of the matter is, you know, here was the national press corps traveling with the guy; we write about all of these candidates, and we never asked a question of him: Why didn’t you meet with Martin Luther King? 

Alter 

I know, it amazes me, Bob, actually looking back on this, you know, the reporting on Carter’s background in 1976 was really bad. One woman, Betty Glad, an academic who’s since died. She wrote a book in 1976, ‘77, where she went back and she tried to peel away some of the myths and did a good job with it. But you know, she didn’t have access to a lot of things. But, other than Betty Glad there was very, very little journalism that really tried to, to tell you about that.

Scheer 

Let me give you a good exception, was Judy Woodruff, who had been a local reporter in Atlanta, and she was working for the Today Show. I don’t want to burn her or anything here, but I remember she was having trouble getting … she knew what was going on, she knew the South, she knew it quite well. And I remember she was one of those people you know, who really wanted to get into more of the texture. She knew the good old boy thing was fraudulent, you know, and she found resistance, as I recall, I can’t, you know … but I remember. And then Ken Rich from the LA Times was somebody who went up to Koinonia Farm to at least check that…

Alter 

OK, well that’s interesting. I mean, Judy Woodruff, just, she just interviewed me for the news. And she was a reporter for the local station in Atlanta and she covered Carter when he was governor. And then she covered him when he was president, for NBC news. And she’s a very good reporter. So obviously there were some exceptions, but, you know, the larger…

Scheer 

But the network wasn’t interested, that was my point. I remember some specific stories because I watched her recording and I said, Wow, you know, she’s really doing a great job. And then half the time she wouldn’t [be able to] get the thing on [the air].

Alter 

Your point, I think for, for readers or possible readers of my book is that this is a very textured story, a very complicated story, about a very complicated person. And, you know, with Trump, like we know who he is, and many of us have known who he is for a long time. So, no matter the horrible things that are happening, they’re not really surprises. With Carter, there’s a layering to him and a layering to the history of this country and the history of his region that, to me was very compelling to research. And, so you know, I’m not trying to write a history of the New South or the Old South or anything, but using him as a way of illuminating not just the Jim Crow South of the 1950s and ‘60s … and of course it starts in the ‘20s and ‘30s when he’s growing up. But, you know, his father’s a white supremacist, his mother is a nurse who nurses Black patients and goes to Black churches. He’s mostly really raised by an illiterate Black woman farmhand, a third parent for him who teaches him about faith and nature. But, you know, I can’t write a whole history of the 20th century — the 1970s of course, is very much associated with Carter — but what I can do is explain how his epic life was shaped by, and in some cases, in the 1970s and in our own time, shaped the world, with his, what became, really considerable contributions to humanity.

Alter 

And what I concluded, Bob, was that even if I could have written about the whole 20th century, it wouldn’t have been enough because this guy is the only major American figure who you can argue effectively lived in three centuries. He’s born in 1924, but it might as well be the 19th century, even though his family is well to do by the standards of the era, the area … he has no running water, no electricity, no mechanized farm equipment. They do have a telephone that’s run by chicken wire, but very, very few amenities. And, you know, a system one step up from slavery — the sharecropper system — feudalism, he’s growing up in feudalism. So that’s the 19th century, [and, as president] obviously a vital part of the 20th century. And now, as a former president, he’s on the cutting edge of, of all of the big issues of the 21st century — democracy promotion, conflict resolution, global health — those are what the The Carter Center deals with. So this is an epic story.

Scheer 

Okay. I don’t want … you know, we’ve spent a lot of time on the pre-presidential period, and I want to get to the rest — and if you’ll indulge me, I think we’re going to have to go a little longer cause we, we still haven’t gotten to the heart of your book — but the reason I want to stress this is you’re right, it was the step up from slavery, sharecropping. And most of the people he was raised with were these Black people, right. And they were sharecroppers. His own father never would have picked cotton. He thought it was backbreaking work and his father was kind of a businessman type and investor and could buy up land. And … the reason this book is so important [is] we have to get reacquainted with history or we can’t understand the dissatisfaction, anger and the unsolvable problems of America.

And, you know, if people always ask when you bring up questions of compensation for slavery and segregation, you know, or any of these issues, you know, well, get over it, we’ve all had our problems and no, you know, it’s true — Jimmy Carter didn’t have rural electrification because it required a federal program really to get that going. And it’s true, they used the outhouse and so forth, but if we’re going to make an analogy with slavery, his family was in the place of the slave owners, just as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were, they didn’t have to do the backbreaking work. There were poor whites who did some of that. But it was Black labor that ran the economy of the South. And that did the cotton picking and everything else. And the system was, whether you were an enlightened Southerner, it would certainly — not his father and not his uncles and so forth — but Jimmy became an enlightened southerner. You were still the oppressor, people still … I remember once talking to Willie Brown who grew up in Mineola, Texas — he was the top politician in California, before becoming the mayor of San Francisco — he talked about the sight of his own father having to step away on the sidewalk when even young white teenagers were walking by. And if we don’t get that, we don’t get the American story, which is really largely a story of exploitation and brutality towards the other, whether they were Native Americans or Blacks, or what have you.

Alter 

Absolutely. So one of the interesting things about Jimmy Carter is he reviewed a lot of this in his own work and in his poetry, you know. He wrote a book of poetry that came out after he left the White House. And his best book is called “An Hour Before Daylight.” And it almost won the Pulitzer Prize, twenty or so years ago. And he does confront some of what you’re talking about in this book. And, for instance, when he is about 12-years old, 12- or 13-years old, I don’t think he can remember the exact age — suddenly he has these black friends, AD — Alonzo Davis — the closest of them. And I interviewed another one who is still alive. And, you know, he would … Carter didn’t lie, but sometimes exaggerate, and in some of his accounts, he’d say all of his friends were black when he was a kid — not quite true — but several of his closest ones were.

And they would, when they were little, they would horse around, wrestle, box. You know, the Black kids were allowed in the Carter house — couldn’t use the outhouse ever, they had to shit in the woods and no use of the outhouse — but they, you know, in other ways they, because they were kids, they could ride in a car with the Carter kids … then suddenly when he’s about 12 years old, 13, they get to the pasture gate and the black kids open the pasture gate. And Jimmy, little Jimmy, first thinks this is a trick, there must be a tripwire here. Are they playing a joke on me? No. Their parents told them, Mr. Jimmy is now old enough so you got to defer to him, you have to open the gate for him and let him go through first. So AD, his friend AD, opens the gate for him. Carter wrote — it’s actually a wonderful poem; not all of his poems are good, but “The Pasture Gate” is a good poem — and, you know, he opens the gate and Jimmy goes through. 

And then afterwards — and this is not in the poem, it’s something that I learned afterwards. AD says to him, “I’m not going to call you Mr. Jimmy.” And Carter says, “I don’t want you calling me Mr. Jimmy, ever.” Because they were the same age, you know, and, and he shouldn’t have to deal with them as if he was a master, you know? But you’re absolutely right, Bob, a lot of these things that from slavery, they are extending right into this period, and not just the use of the N-word, like shot through society.

Scheer

Yeah. And, you know, you could be enlightened … and Jimmy certainly became, because when he went, as you point out in the book, when he went into the Navy, went to Annapolis, and then he was served in the Navy and had … by then the Navy had been integrated. Everybody forgets World War II, the great fight for freedom, we had a segregated armed forces and the Navy only became integrated, was the first service — because the ships required, if you were going to work, being in fairly close proximity — when Harry Truman desegregated the Navy. And so … but everybody wants to forget that, you wonder … you know, you can’t forget it — history can be ignored, but it can’t be forgotten.

Alter 

So to Carter’s credit, when the first black midshipman arrives at Annapolis in 1945, this is before the desegregation of the armed forces and West Point had been barely integrated and Annapolis was, you know, slower. They finally accept a guy named Wesley Brown and he’s on the cross-country team with Carter. And he is, you know, they’re all hazed. I mean, the hazing rituals that I recount from Naval Academy are unbelievable, but you know, get down under the table and eat like a dog, you know, and all sorts of beating them. So this guy’s hazed and Carter stands up for him. And Wesley Brown later reported this, this is not just Carter’s account of standing up for him. It comes from Wesley Brown, the first Black midshipmen. And he does the same thing when he’s aboard a submarine. So he knew, somehow he knew the right thing to do.

I think it’s because of Rachel Clark, the the black woman who signed her name with an X who I was describing earlier, and, you know, the fact that she raised him and because his mother was relatively enlightened on race and actually was the only person in the whole county who had a nice word to say about Abraham Lincoln, which made her an eccentric, Jimmy’s mother. But he does manage to, you know, have the right values from a really, quite an early point. But then in the period I was describing earlier, after Brown vs Board of Education, when he’s trying to make his way in business and politics, he ducks. So for the 17 years, the first 17 years after he came home from the Navy, he’s ducking, and he’s trying to deal with these changes and he knows the right thing to do. And he knows that he and Rosalynn, his wife, are the only liberals in the whole area. And it’s kind of like being a dissident in the old Soviet Union who has to hide its real views. And then, you know, eventually he emerges. So I know people are wondering like, when are they going to talk about the hostages? But, you know, I deal with the hostages, Iranian hostages, the Iran — all of it gets a lot of treatment in my book, but I hope people understand that, you know, in many ways, this part, at least from the reviews and reaction of readers, that this part comes as more of a revelation when you really get into the details…

Scheer 

But you can’t understand Jimmy and you can understand America without going into that history, that’s why I’m dwelling on it, but let me get to … it informs everything and what informs it, what happens to Jimmy as something that’s a sort of central theme of your book for me as a reader — it’s not stated as the central theme — which is, Jimmy is a product of the meritocracy and the meritocracy that’s required by a modern, internationalist, global, multinational economy, is really the Jimmy Carter story. Provincialism, and segregation is a manifestation of provincialism among everything else, evil and so forth, but it’s sustained by provincialism. And what happens after World War II, and when Jimmy Carter is now in the Navy that’s been desegregated, is that segregation is an embarrassment in the eyes of the world. 

Everybody in the world is pointing their finger, when you criticize them, they say, what about the South? You know, what about what’s going on there? Your baseball is segregated, your army was segregated. And so the establishment in America, the overall establishment decides — just as it had decided at one point earlier that slavery could not continue — decides that segregation cannot continue the separation of the South. And Jimmy gets that message loud and clear when he goes off to Annapolis. And in your book, you describe his transition once he’s governor, it’s very clear and you interview him, [Hamilton] Jordan, you know, and others, Jody Powell — I did the same thing — and they’re very clear, he’s going to be a one-term governor because, you know, after all, his lieutenant governor is Lester Maddox, you know, an overt racist, and racism is still alive and well, even in the ‘70s, in Georgia — amazing to think, now that Georgia seems to sharply be changing, hopefully — but you know, they make a decision, Jimmy makes a decision I’m going further with this. I’m going to try to be president, and I’m going to shed this it’s time for a break. 

And he starts to do these things, as you recount in your book, that require courage. He does challenge the segregation as he does things as governor. And he, and you also, in your book, you describe he is embraced by the American establishment, not to indulge conspiracy theories here, because I don’t think the Trilateral Commission and all that is some great conspiracy — what it is, is a manifestation of an establishment and Jimmy is taken to school, right, even while he’s governor, about what the needs are of a multinational economy operating in the world. And indeed one of the reasons Georgia has moved in the last few years is because multinational companies are there, there’s a new workforce. There are people wanting to get away from the antiquated ways, right, of racism. It’s an intrusion. And Jimmy Carter picks up on all that and fashions himself as governor, precisely to be an attractive presidential candidate.

Alter 

Yeah. I mean, he starts running for governor after he’s been in office for, excuse me, he starts running for president after he’s been in office for only about, less than two years. He’s sworn in at the beginning of 1971, exactly 50 years ago. When he, as I said, he says, the time for racial discrimination is over and by the fall of 1972 — and this is four years before the 1976 election — he has already decided that he’s running for president. And so much of what he does in the second half of his four-year term as governor — he’s not by law allowed to run for reelection as governor of Georgia at that time, but as he told me, he would not have been reelected even if he had been allowed to, because he had alienated the racists who had put them in office —

and so he starts meeting the national Democrats, you know, Hubert Humphrey, Edmund Muskie, George McGovern, Ted Kennedy. And he realizes, hey, I’m smarter than these guys. And I know more about government because they’re senators and they don’t understand where the rubber meets the road when these programs come down to the states. And he’s a very confident guy with a high IQ, his emotional intelligence, not as high — kind of the inverse of Franklin Roosevelt who was described as second-class intellect, first-class temperament. Carter is first-class intellect, maybe second class temperament, in terms of reading the room, understanding politically, you know, what he should do to get things done. But having said that, as both governor and as president, he got a lot more done than people remember, so much more. And his foreign policy was so much more important and successful than people remember.

But just on the point that you raised, you know, I don’t think he ultimately became a creature of the establishment despite being on the Trilateral Commission when he was governor and, you know, hiring Zbigniew Brzezinski as his national security advisor, Cyrus Vance as his secretary of state — and this was seen at the time as being kind of a sellout to the American establishment — I don’t think that was really quite the case. I think he was always an outsider and he always thought for himself, and he was not, he was nobody’s fool. He was nobody’s puppet. And…

Scheer 

Well, I’m not suggesting that I’m saying he is a centrist, in fact there’s … he is actually the person who set the model for Clinton and for the new Democratic Party. 

And let me, we’re going to end this right now, I’ve been promising that for an hour, but I think it’s worth listening to, but anyway — but the book is definitely worth reading, “His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.” I’ve been talking to Jonathan Alter and I want to endorse what you just said. First of all, whether we like it or not, we’re going to be controlled by history to a considerable degree, so we better have a clear understanding of it. And in my own complicated article that I ran in Playboy along with the interview, I struggled with this question and concluded really I couldn’t definitively answer the question. But then I ended with a little story about how they were trying to get Carter, the thing you referred to, one of his speeches and he was reading it to them up in his hotel room and they wanted him to cut an attack on the establishment, you know, and he said “No, I have a very strong visceral feeling about that, and I want to use it.” And it was, you know, an echo of his, I don’t know, populism, but his sincerity. And then I wrote, just to show you, after all these months, I said, after all these months, after all the ambiguity and the packaging and the rewritten history, my visceral feeling — oh, he said he had “a visceral feeling about that, I want to use it” — and then I wrote that, after all these months, after all the ambiguity and the packaging and the rewritten history, my visceral feeling is that Jimmy Carter has those visceral feelings.

Alter

Yeah, it’s a good line. 

Scheer

So I want to say, having read through this book, and, as I say, it’s worth the 680 pages because it leaves one with a sense that we have in Jimmy Carter someone we have underestimated as to his contribution, as to his earnestness — let me use that word — we also have underestimated the importance of his religious concerns, his struggle with ideas in the best sense of struggle with religious [beliefs], within oneself about these ideas. And I think your book does, well, it’s the best book to read about Jimmy Carter and to read about a whole period of American history. So let me just recommend that, “His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life, and it’s been an incredible life. Hopefully, it goes on a bit longer, but at least we now have in your book, a very interesting, important record. 

Let me thank Christopher Ho at KCRW FM for putting these shows up, Natasha Hakimi for writing the introduction, Lucy Berbeo for doing the transcription, which this time it’s going to be quite a bit of work, but again, will help establish the historical record. And I want to thank the JWK foundation which gives us some funding to do this in memory of a really terrific writer, Jean Stein, who I know would have found this discussion very interesting. 

So for another one, see you next week, for another edition of Scheer Intelligence.

8 comments

  1. Glad to see this being subtitled as Part 1, because I did think early on in the podcast there needs to be a Part 2.

    I was in elementary school when Carter was president, I have vague memories of him. However now that I’m older and allegedly wiser, I strongly think he’s one of the most overlooked presidents in modern history. Again, while my memories of him are vague, I recall two things back during that time: 1) I felt he seemed like a decent guy back then (I was a kid, so sue me), and 2) my family all supported Gerald Ford. It was South Carolina in the 1970s, Nixon’s Southern Strategy was still fresh, and the hardline Nazi culture that comprised (and still does) the Confederate States was all-in on whoever the Republican was. Didn’t matter that Ford was largely an empty candidate who’s only meaningful ‘accomplishment’ was pardoning a proven presidential criminal. The Confederacy would have dug up Hitler’s corpse and voted for it.

    Despite the recent Democratic senatorial victories in Georgia, that North Carolina is (supposedly) a swing state, that Arkansas has legalized medical marijuana use and other isolated incidents, the South is still hard-right today to the point even people of color are voting Red. I still see it every day. So it doesn’t surprise me that Carter had his internal struggles with race when he was young. I too have my hiccups with it to this day. It’s impossible to expect a white person born in the South to grow up without being poisoned to one degree or another with racism. Yes, it’s that bad here.

    I hope Part 2 delves into Habitat for Humanity. It’s been said that Carter was a better ex-president than a president. Can’t disagree. He like Trump was in over his head. But I don’t know of another president who has done so much work for the public good as he has. In this era of presidents frolicking around and earning six figures for speaking for 45 minutes, Carter stands out as a far better human being despite the bar is breathtakingly low.

  2. I’ve noticed recent liberal efforts to (once again) reframe the Democrats’ war on the poor in terms of racism. As always, people of color are disproportionately poor while the great majority of US poor are white. The issue is a survival-of-the-fittest capitalist system that maintains a bold defiance of reality.

    1. I’ve noticed that many leftists who think the evil of capitalism is the only issue facing Earth’s life forms have recently (once again) been reframing suffering as only an economic one and white privilege as some fanciful creation of academicians or social media influencers. Can we not hold multiple truths at the same time? America is brutal to the poor AND brutally racist. How is that even controversial? Are some “Marxists” really more like national socialists?

  3. As I recall, the Carter Presidency had little or nothing to do with remedying racial disparities. Carter’s claim to fame, or infamy as the case may be, was his re-upping with the military, after Vietnam had understandably left a bad taste in people’s mouths. I remember Carter not being upset with Reagan’s military spending, but rather, being upset Reagan took credit for it, when in fact, it was Carter’s dirty deed.

  4. Jimmy Carter was the first president I voted for and I remember several things;
    One, Ted Kennedy lost to him and was such a sore loser he would not congratulate Carter & refused to shake his hand. I believe the result of that was the DNC, with top down candidate selection and the lurch to the right.
    Two, OPEC was formed, where the “third world” oil producing countries nationalized their oil industries much too the “chagrin” of American industrialists. The results of that are still reverberating.
    Three, Carter understood energy and the importance of transitioning to solar and wind, he understood nuclear power and did not place it in the front of the line since it has significant issues. The oil interests simply could have none of this.

    Carter wasn’t ahead of his time, he was right on time, it was the the business community – those Eisenhower referred to in this quote “…among them are a few other Texas oil millionaires and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid” who were behind the times but fought successfully for their own survival, at a cost to all of us.

  5. Thanks for fleshing out details about Carterʻs life and the genuine moral courage he showed at certain points. It is a shame that his courage did not extend to closing the School of the Americas in Georgia. The training of Central American death squads continued unabated under Carter, as did the murders. Archbishop Óscar Romero in El Salvador was assassinated during Carter’s term. Yes, Carter was far better than Trump, but let’s keep some perspective. Both were faithful servants of the empire.

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