One enduring trait that people remember about President Jimmy Carter is his honesty and forthrightness — some would say to a fault.
Perhaps the most famous example of that came in an interview with Playboy magazine in 1976 when, as a presidential candidate, he said, “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.”
That trait was on full display Tuesday when Carter and his wife, Rosalynn Carter, spoke to a packed Hanner Fieldhouse as part of Georgia Southern University’s Leadership Lecture Series.
When he was asked what it was like to return to private life after serving as president for four years, he drew laughter from the audience when he quipped, “I was not nearly as unhappy as my wife was.”
Rosalynn Carter confirmed that she took his defeat to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election much harder than her husband did.
“He was right about me, I grieved,” she said, drawing more laughter. “But he was my husband and he had been hurt. I think it was natural for me to grieve about that.”
True to her husband’s statement that she is “much more of a politician than I am,” Rosalynn Carter gave her take on where the country was headed at the time.
“We had the country going in the right direction,” she said. “We were at peace. He was working on environment, he was working on education. It just seems that now we are bringing it up again after all of this time, so I just knew he would have been a better president than the one that followed.”
Jimmy Carter noted that he only spent 12 years in public office — four as state senator, four as governor of Georgia and four as president — which amounts to a small fraction of the 88 years he has lived.
“When I left the White House, I didn’t know what I was gonna do,” he said. “I did do an analysis and I realized at my age, 56, my life expectancy was 25 more years, and what was I gonna do with my life? And I must say that the best time of my life has been since I left the White House, and part of that was because I was in the White House.”
He explained that being in the White House — with the access to world leaders and other key players, such as scientists, that serving as president provides — has gone a long way toward allowing him and his wife engage in the humanitarian work they have for the past 30 years through the Carter Center. It also put him in a position to talk with people that others in American government won’t talk to, such as the leaders of Cuba and North Korea, he said.
In fielding a question about meshing his personal beliefs with his responsibilities as president, Carter brought up the sensitive issue of abortion. He explained that he used this illustration “not to be bragging about myself, because I don’t know if I made the right decision, but because it illustrates a point.”
“I’m a Christian. I never have believed that Jesus would approve abortions unless the birth endangered the life of the mother or if the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest,” he said. “When I was elected president, I was sworn to uphold the laws of America as interpreted by the Supreme Court. And as you know, Roe v. Wade permits unlimited abortions in the first trimester or until the baby is viable.
“Well, I had to enforce the law,” he continued. “So how did I reconcile it? I can’t say that I did a good job. So I did comply with the law, but I tried to do everything I could to minimize the need for, or desire for, abortions.”
He explained that he introduced the Women, Infants and Children program to help women provide for their children who otherwise might not have the resources, and that he did what he could as president to try to make adoptions easier.
“I never felt comfortable with laws that permitted abortions just as a means of contraception too late,” Carter said. “So that’s been a conflict in my life. I think it’s the only one I remember that has bothered me between my own religious beliefs and moral values what my duties were in public office.”
History remembers 1979–1980 as a challenging time for the U.S. — the ongoing Iranian hostage crisis and the spike in gas prices, both of which were effects of the Iranian revolution, along with the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, which escalated Cold War tensions between the U.S. and USSR and led to an American-led boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow.
Carter said the hostage crisis was what likely helped him lose to Reagan in 1980. That started in November 1979 when more than 60 Americans were taken hostage after Iranian revolutionary militants took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held more than 50 of them captive until minutes before Reagan took the inaugural oath of office in January 1981.
“The last three days I was in office, I never went to bed, I never went to sleep,” Carter said. “I just negotiated with the Iranians through intermediaries to bring about the release of the hostages. On Inauguration Day, when I left the White House — I say involuntarily retired because of the 1980 election — I found out the hostages were on the airport in an airplane ready to take off at 10 o’clock in the morning. And the flight took off at noon, five minutes after I was no longer president. And I can say that was one of the happiest days of my life.”
Jason Wermers may be reached at (912) 489-9431.