Jimmy Carter: My presidency was a success

10:42 AM, Sep 20, 2010   |    comments
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You don't often hear a U.S. president, past or present, talking about his mistakes and shortcomings in office. But that's what you will hear now - from the 39th president of the United States, Jimmy Carter.

It turns out that during his four year term President Carter kept a diary that he is now publishing, along with an often-harsh critique of his own performance in the White House.

His tenure, which correspondent Lesley Stahl covered as a CBS White House correspondent, was tumultuous. The problems he confronted kept mounting and people wondered if he was cursed by a dismal economy, poor relations with Congress, and a nightmarish standoff over 52 Americans taken hostage by Iran.

After just one term he was trounced by Ronald Reagan.

Now Mr. Carter takes a look back at those years in excerpts from the diary he dictated into a tape recorder seven or eight times virtually every day he was president.

In his office at the Carter Library in Atlanta, the former president, now 85 and still flashing his famous smile, showed Stahl some of the 5,000 pages that make up his diary.

"When American citizens get this book, what do you think's going to surprise them the most?" Stahl asked.

"I think the absolute unadulterated frankness of what I had to say. I'll just give you one example. Ted Kennedy," Carter replied.

If there's anyone Carter fumes over in his diary, it's Ted Kennedy, his nemesis. Here's what he wrote when they clashed on health care: "Kennedy continuing his irresponsible and abusive attitude, immediately condemned our health plan. He couldn't get five votes for his plan," Stahl read from the book. "He drove you up the wall."

"I don't know if I ever got up the wall," Carter replied.

But his comments on Kennedy are harsh, even now after his death.

"The fact is that we would have had comprehensive health care NOW, had it not been for Ted Kennedy's deliberately blocking the legislation that I proposed in 1978 or '79," Carter said.

Asked if he blames Kennedy for the failure, Carter said, "Exactly."

"Health care. His issue," Stahl remarked.

"Exactly. It was his fault," Carter said. "Ted Kennedy killed the bill."

"Just to spite you?" Stahl asked. "That's the implication."

"That's the implication," Carter agreed. "He did not want to see me have a major success in that realm of American life."

It still smarts that Kennedy ran against him in 1980. Back then, he poured his resentments into his diary, in frustrated, snarky outbursts - the hard-working, born-again peanut farmer up against privileged Kennedy royalty.

"You write, angrily, 'He's my age, but unsuccessful. He was kicked out of college,'" Stahl read. "You know, you could've left that out of the book."

"I didn't try to conceal anything. I tried to put down exactly how I felt," Carter replied.

"Well, you went at each other," Stahl pointed out.

"But you know, I felt like he went after me. I was the incumbent president. I didn't go after him. But he decided that he was going to replace me as a Democratic president," Carter replied.

When he turns to focus on himself, he admits his critics "had a valid point" when they accused him of "micromanaging" and that he went too far with his no-frills, anti-imperial approach - as when he carried his own bags and wore cardigan sweaters in the White House.

"You may have 'de-pomped' a little too much," Stahl remarked.

"One of the most unpleasant things that surprised me was when I quit havin' 'Hail to the Chief' every time I entered a room but there was an outcry of condemnation," Carter remembered.

So he had to reverse himself.

He gave Stahl a tour of his living quarters at the Carter Center, where he stays when he's in Atlanta.

By the look of it, he's a no-frills ex-president too. In their small master bedroom, Carter and his wife Rosalynn sleep on a simple Murphy bed that pops out of the wall.

The president and Mrs. Carter spend time there with their children, 12 grandchildren, and five great grandchildren.

While at the center, Stahl encountered the Carter's daughter Amy, who was nine when she moved into the White House. Now 42, she is pregnant with her second child.

Stahl asked her and her brothers Chip and Jeff about life at the White House.

"The worst thing was a little bit of intrusion by the press," Chip joked. "But we had Amy to take all the scrutiny. ...You know. So, Amy got that. We didn't."

"You got a lot of it, Amy," Stahl acknowledged.

"I did, you know, I really, it's hard for me to remember that," Amy replied.

Now, breaking her silence after 30 years, Amy says this about her time in the White House: "There was a house full of people. All the people who worked there were so wonderful. I was young. It was fun."

It was fun? Who didn't think 'Poor little Amy' was unhappy back then? She seemed bored, reading books at state dinners and was hounded by the press her first day at a public school in Washington. The little girl looked woebegone in press photos and footage.

"I look so morose, but I think that's just an accident. I was more worried about the first day of school in a new place...I don't think I even noticed the press being there. That's overall a very happy time for me," Amy explained.

But not so happy for her father, who now admits he alienated too many members of Congress, whom he described as "a bunch of juvenile delinquents."

He tells about some Democrats who approached him with a quid pro quo: We'll vote for your bill if you'll appoint our choice for U.S. Attorney.

"And here's what you write: 'I told them in a nice way, to go to hell,'" Stahl read. "Look at you! Almost deliberately antagonizing them."

"There were times when a Congress member would try to blackmail me, or when a Congress member would make a demand that I thought was inappropriate," Carter explained.

"And they would say it's the normal give and take of getting legislation done. But you considered it blackmail," Stahl remarked.

"In a few occasions, yes," Carter replied.

Congress thought he was "sanctimonious" and he writes that he made things worse by proposing too many unpopular bills, like the treaty to give back the Panama Canal and lifting price controls on gasoline.

Even Mrs. Carter told him he was doing too much.

"And he would always say to me, 'Suppose I don't have a second term.' And he was right. Because he got an awful lot done for the country. He's not a failed president," Rosalynn Carter told Stahl.

That image of "a failed president" haunts the Carters.

"How do you think you got into this big mess?" Stahl, then CBS' White House correspondent, asked President Carter during a press conference.

"The public will have to judge how big a mess it is," the president replied.

The country was in a big mess, with gasoline lines and double-digit inflation. And he seemed powerless to deal with it. He writes that his own loyalists asked: Can you govern the country? And he tells about a brutal meeting with his cabinet.

"They told you that you had an image of weakness. You write that they told you this...a lack of esteem in the public eye, and they just beat up on you," Stahl remarked.

"I think they were telling me that the public image of me was that I was not a strong leader. That I should not only arouse support from affection, but also from fear," Carter said.

Asked if he changed and started to operate from fear, Carter said, "Maybe a little bit more than I would have earlier."

He tried inspiring the country with his so-called "Malaise speech," but it came off as lecturing Americans about their wasteful ways.

"Too many of us now tend to worship self indulgence and consumption," the president said during the televised address.

Then, talk about everything that can go bad going bad: Iran captured 52 Americans and held them hostage for the entire last quarter of Carter's presidency. There was an attempt to rescue the hostages, but it had to be aborted and people began calling on Carter to bomb Tehran. He refused.

"We went through four years. We never fired a bullet. We never dropped a bomb. We never launched a missile," Carter pointed out.

Asked if that was because of his religious views, Carter said, "That's part of it. Because I felt that our country should be, as a super power, the champion of peace."

"And some people will criticize...have criticized that attitude as saying that in Jimmy Carter's time, we didn't look as strong. We didn't look like a super power," Stahl pointed out.

"There's no doubt that usually a president's public image is enhanced by going to war. That never did appeal to me," he replied.

Carter argues that despite the image of failure, he actually had a long list of successes, starting with bringing all the hostages alive.

He normalized relations with China; brokered a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, deregulated railroads, trucking, airlines and telephones; and his energy conservation programs resulted in a 50 percent cut in imported oil, down to just 4.3 million barrels a day.

"Unfortunately, now we're probably importing 12 million barrels a day, since part of my energy policies were abandoned," Carter told Stahl.

"Well, and you built solar panels on the roof of the White House," Stahl remarked.

"That's right, which were ostentatiously removed as soon as Ronald Reagan became president," Carter replied, laughing. "He wanted to show that America was a great nation. So great that we didn't have to limit the enjoyment of life."

"And the public seemed to like that better than they liked your message, which was 'We have to be limiting," Stahl said.

"That's right," Carter agreed. "America responded to that quite well."

But when all is said and done, and many will be surprised to hear this: Jimmy Carter got more of his programs passed than Reagan, Nixon, Ford, George H. W. Bush, Clinton or George W. Bush.

"I had the best batting average in Congress in recent history of any president, except Lyndon Johnson," Carter said.

"And yet, as I say, there's the sense that you were a failed president," Stahl said.

"I think I was identified as a failed president because I wasn't re-elected," he replied.

The lesson: getting a lot of legislation passed, even when it's significant, is not enough.

"A lot of critics of yours when you were president say that you've been a fantastic ex-president. You hear that all the time," Stahl said.

Carters reply? "I don't mind that."

President and Mrs. Carter now devote their lives to fighting disease in poor countries and resolving conflicts, as when he recently obtained the release of an American held in North Korea. It's been a life of good works and good reviews.

In 2002 he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts at global diplomacy. But he was called "undiplomatic" when he broke the code that ex-presidents don't criticize their successors.

"About Reagan, you said 'If I had been president for four more years, we wouldn't have had a resurgence of racism and selfishness."' Now that's pretty pointed. That's an ouch," Stahl pointed out.

"Yeah, I don't remember when I said that but I can't deny that I felt that way," Carter said.

Asked if he's suggesting Reagan stoked racism, Carter said, "No, I'm not."

"But that's what that kind of suggests," Stahl remarked.

"There may have been times when I was too outspoken in criticizing an incumbent president. I can't deny that," Carter said.

And that's probably why he's had frosty relations with other ex presidents: he chided Bill Clinton over Monica Lewinsky and called George W. Bush "the worst president in history."

And when George H. W. Bush was in office, Carter wrote a secret letter to the U.N. calling on the Security Council to vote against the resolution to go to war against Saddam Hussein.

"To write and ask the UN Security Council members to vote against the United States," Stahl said.

"I also sent a copy of the same letter to President Bush," he pointed out.

Asked if he went too far, Carter said, "I felt very deeply about the fact that the war was not necessary."

And he told Stahl he doesn't regret that.

It's been 30 years since the Carters moved back to their old house in Plains, Ga. He has said they left Washington "in despair."

Asked if either of them ever miss Washington, Carter said "I didn't." But his wife said - surprisingly - she did.

When they're in Plains, they both work on their books and on keeping in shape. Though he's no longer the physical fitness fanatic he was as president when he jogged up to 40 miles a week.

Asked if he's still running, Carter said, "I had to quit running when I was 80 years old because my left knee began to swell up as a result of an injury that I suffered when I was 70-years old on the ski slopes."

If you happen to be in Plains, Ga., you just might catch a glimpse of the former president and first lady swerving along the back roads in their latest form of exercise: on a "trike."

It's been a good life, and if the Carters were in despair 30 years ago, they are now very clearly at peace, with their lives and their legacy.

"With everything that President Obama's going through, almost the worst insult that people say is that 'My God, he could be worse than Jimmy Carter,'" Stahl said.

"I can't control what people say about comparing me with Obama. But I hope that Obama will have as successful a term as I had in dealing with our nation's domestic and international affairs. And if he does, I'll be very proud of him, as I happen to be proud of myself, having had a successful administration when I was in office," Carter replied.

President Carter wanted us to know that after he left the White House, he and Teddy Kennedy patched things up and that the senator worked closely with Mrs. Carter on mental health issues.

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