Jimmy Carter offers another chapter on tumultuous presidency

October 19, 2010

By Warren Kagarise

Former president brings book tour to Costco

Jimmy Carter owes a lot to Richard Nixon.

Sure, the Watergate scandal set the stage for the Washington outsider persona Carter cultivated on the stump in 1976, but the former peanut farmer credits Nixon for something else: the reason he started a diary.

Former President Jimmy Carter signs copies of ‘Living Faith’ during a 1996 stop at the Issaquah Costco. File

Back in the early 1970s, Carter and future first lady Rosalynn attended a White House reception.

Carter, then the governor of Georgia, had not met a president before.

“Nixon reached out to my wife and he shook her hand and said, ‘Young lady, do you keep a diary?’ Rosalynn said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Well, you ought to keep a diary to let people know in future years what happened to you at the White House,” Carter recalled in a phone interview last week.

The idea lingered and Carter, then a little-known Southerner, put pen to paper. Nixon, of course, preferred to tape record.

Carter recounts the prescient scene in the opening pages of “White House Diary,” the annotated, edited and candid account of a tumultuous era.

The former president — in the midst of a national tour to promote the tome — is due in Issaquah next week to sign copies at Costco. (Carter last appeared at the local Costco on a 1996 book tour.)

“I think a lot of people are intrigued by my personal insights into the struggles and achievements and doubts and fears and accomplishments — and sometimes failures — of an incumbent president,” he said.

Carter, 86, outlined parallels between the political squabbles of a generation ago and the present day.

“Many issues carried over from my time — and I had a very difficult time dealing with them — and are now on the desk of President Obama,” he said.

The nettlesome struggle to foster peace in the Middle East, questions about energy policy, a hostile regime in Iran and a lethargic economy — for the record, Carter did not use the word “malaise” — continue to shape the debate in the other Washington.

Carter, in a Southern drawl as thick as peanut butter, decried the demise of bipartisanship and the outsized influence of money on elections.

“Now, there are billions of dollars being spent in gubernatorial elections, in elections for the House and Senate, as well as the presidency,” he said. “A lot of this money has been spent — and is still being spent — on strictly negative advertisements, which try to destroy the character of your opponent, no matter whether that person is good or bad.”

The former president said the animosity between Democrats and Republicans forged on the campaign trail then poisons the political process after the election has concluded.

“President Obama has been suffering from having inherited a terrible economic situation, and he has had no help from the other side in addressing it,” he continued.

Carter, too, had to battle recalcitrant Democrats in Congress, especially as Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy gathered steam to challenge the president in 1980.

“I had wonderful bipartisan supporters,” Carter recalled. “I had great support among the Republican Party in the Senate and in the House, particularly in the last two years, when I didn’t have the support of the so-called Kennedy faction of the Democratic Party, the very liberal Democrats. So, I had to turn to the Republicans.”

Kennedy indeed battled Carter to be the Democrats’ nominee, and the bruised president collapsed to Ronald Reagan in November 1980.

Carter provides a detailed account of the squabbles, shortfalls and triumphs in the 592-page “White House Diary.” The thick tome includes only about 20 percent of the entries Carter kept as president. The rest, he said, should be made available to scholars and journalists next year.

“White House Diary” also includes memories of everyday life in the executive mansion — a relentless onslaught of appointments, briefings, meetings and travel.

Despite the surroundings, “we tried as best as we could to have a normal life,” Carter recalled. For a time, 9-year-old daughter Amy attended public school. The family boarded Marine One for weekend escapes to Camp David — a 35-minute helicopter trip from the South Lawn — and to rural Pennsylvania for fly-fishing.

“The best thing,” Carter said in the interview, “is when you get out of the Oval Office and go back into the White House living quarters, to try to relax and be in regular life.”

If you go

Former President Jimmy Carter signs “White House Diary”

  • Noon
  • Oct. 27
  • Costco, 1801 10th Ave. N.W.

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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