Around the Institute

Former President Jimmy Carter Talks Racism, Foreign Policy, Gun Violence, and More

June 25, 2015  • Catherine Lutz, Guest Blogger

Above, watch the full conversation featuring former President Jimmy Carter and former first lady Rosalynn Carter.

In a frank discussion of international affairs, racism, and gun violence at home, and the wide-ranging global work of the Carter Center, former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn offered an intimate glimpse into their personal, professional, and political lives, while doling out sharp criticism of the way some issues are being handled today. The discussion was the first event in the 2015 McCloskey Speaker Series in Aspen, CO.

Carter, 90, spoke of growing up during segregation in a predominantly black town in Georgia with all African American playmates, where he was “very unaware of racial distinctions.” But the pride he expressed in his color-blind family turned to cynicism when he opined on the fallout of the recent shooting at Charleston’s Emmanuel A.M.E. Church.

While South Carolina would “finally” lower its Confederate flag, the former president said, echoing Gov. Nikki Haley’s announcement earlier that day, people should consider the example of Georgia, which did away with the Confederate flag 12 years ago, but then rejected the state’s governor in the next election.

In terms of gun violence, “the NRA is not going to relinquish its almost disgusting influence over state legislatures and the Congress,” Carter said. “We’re going to continue to have a plethora of guns in the United States, and I think the NRA is going to prevail, which is a dastardly thing to happen.”

On foreign policy, Carter said that respect for the United States is probably lower in the world than when President Barack Obama was first elected.

“I can’t think of many nations in the world where we have a better relationship now than when he took over,” said Carter. “But I don’t blame him, because circumstances have evolved.”

Calling Secretary of State John F. Kerry one of the best the country has ever had, Carter said that the recent historical trend has been for the United States “to relinquish its unquestioned domination of the world’s politics, economy, and cultural influence.”

Asked by Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson whether that’s a good or a bad thing, the 39th American president said it could be a good thing, because of “brink” countries such as China and Russia rising to fill in some of those roles. But the question is, how does the United States fit into this new world and still accomplish its goals as a superpower?

“A superpower’s goal should be to be the champion of peace, and to be the champion of human rights, and to be the champion of the environment, and to be the most generous nation on earth,” Carter said. “Now we’re the most warlike country on earth, we’re laggard in addressing the problem of global warming, and we’re violating about 10 of the 30 paragraphs of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

Carter, one of the 11 Elders, a group of global leaders he described as “has-been politicians,” had marked thoughts on specific international and domestic issues as well: for example, that Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposes a two-state solution and wants to take over most of the West Bank; that Saudi Arabia bombing Yemen is “a serious mistake;” that the United States needs to repair relations with Iran; that it also needs to find common ground with China in order to take positive action on serious issues, such as global warming; and that while Edward Snowden violated the law and should be tried if he ever comes back to the United States, his revelations on mass data collection by the government have been beneficial to the country in the long run.

He also recently acted as an unofficial ambassador between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the United States, suggesting a plan to Kerry that Putin had floated about a five-country coalition to take meaningful action in Syria. Carter noted that Kerry went to see Putin the following week, although to date, nothing official has resulted from that visit.

The Carters also spoke about the work that the Carter Center does in some 80 countries around the world, often filling in the gaps that governments and global NGOs leave open. Starting to promote peace around the world, the Carter Center also has programs on human rights, women’s equality, the environment, fighting tropical diseases (its efforts have all but eradicated guinea worm), domestic caregiving, and mental health issues, for which Rosalynn Carter has a particular passion.

As first lady, she fought for a bill that would have, among other things, given parity to mental health services under insurance. One of her “greatest disappointments” was that the bill, passed in the final days of the Carter administration, was shelved by President Ronald Reagan. But since a similar law was passed in 2008, and with work being done by the Carter Center in the field of mental health — such as a mental health reporting program for journalists — Carter said she “hopes the stigma is lifting a little bit now.”

As avid outdoorspeople and dedicated churchgoers, the Carters also spoke about their personal passions, which often intersect with their beliefs. On a recent trip to Russia, the Carters went fly fishing, catching scores of Atlantic salmon. Jimmy Carter said he told Putin about it, strongly urging him to protect that river.

The former president also said he’s particularly interested in women’s rights, and the couple told stories about how their marriage (now of 69 years) was strengthened after Rosalynn had become an equal partner in their home and business interests. Jimmy lamented that he had to swallow his belief in women’s rights and human rights in order to maintain a valuable US alliance with Saudi Arabia, which he called “one of the chief culprits” in women’s inequality.

He also told the story of withdrawing the couple’s allegiance to the Southern Baptist Convention — in which he had been active for 70 years — when in 2000, that body made women subservient to men in the church in a number of ways. Still an avid parishioner and Sunday school teacher in their hometown Baptist church, Jimmy noted that, “Our Baptist church demonstrates that women without question should be equal in the eyes of God.”

Perhaps the most humorous moment of the event came when the Carters spoke of their friendship with the late gonzo author Hunter S. Thompson, whom they got to know after then-governor of Georgia Carter gave a speech that Thompson admired. Jimmy talked about late nights with Thompson in Aspen, and an incident when the author built a fire in front of Carter’s press secretary’s hotel room, in protest for denying him an interview with the president. Rosalynn laughed about Thompson’s complaints of “little white things” (most likely hallucinations) in his guest bedroom at the Carter residence.

Many thanks to Lifetime Trustee Jim Calaway for facilitating President Jimmy Carter’s visit.