LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Jimmy Carter : Assessing U.S. Politics From a Post-Presidential View

When not flying to Africa, Bosnia, Korea or Haiti, or engaging in other diplomacy that has made him unique among all former Presidents in American history, Jimmy Carter turns a shrewd eye on the domestic political scene. And he frets about the Democratic Party’s uncertain future and the Christian right’s growing influence in the GOP.

During a long conversation at the Carter Center here, sandwiched between meetings with Cuban American leaders and yet another trip to Africa, he faulted President Bill Clinton and the Democratic Party for failing to defend protection of the poor and environmental quality, and for having “totally abandoned” health-care reform.

While he thinks Clinton would defeat any of the “now identifiable” GOP presidential candidates,” Carter believes Clinton would face far more difficulty if the GOP nominee were Colin L. Powell--whom the former President has admired since working with him last year on a peace-keeping mission to Haiti.

Carter, a born-again Christian who teaches Sunday school regularly, knows the Christian right well and empathizes with it--though he criticizes it for “being in bed” with the GOP and questions how its leaders can be so partisan and still qualify for tax exemptions.

Although Carter turned 71 on Oct. 1, he shows no signs of easing his hectic pace. He and his wife, Rosalynn, who travels with him on most of his trips, are acknowledged “fanatics on exercise” and follow a rigorous program of activities.

In addition to his diplomacy and other activities, he’s working on three different books to add to the seven he’s written since leaving office 15 years ago. One, based on a collection of perhaps 200 Sunday school lessons he’s delivered, will be published next year. A book of children’s stories, illustrated by his daughter, Amy, an artist, will come out this Christmas. And he has half-finished a third book about his boyhood years during the Great Depression, but says, “I haven’t even talked to a publisher about it.”

Sitting in his shirt sleeves in an easy chair, he seems serenely at peace with himself, but as always, impatient for action and thoroughly practical in his approach. This year, as for several years past, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize--an honor critics contend he has avidly sought.

But Carter, while saying the Nobel would be a great honor, views it as being of little practical value for a former President, who already has easy access to world leaders and has “no problem if I want to go to Moscow and meet with President Yeltsin and go to Great Britain and meet with Prime Minister Major and so forth.”

On the other hand, he says, it’s an “important credential” for a scientist like Dr. Norman Borlaug, a 1970 Nobel winner who heads the Carter Center’s agriculture program for Africa. North Koreans reacted enthusiastically to a proposal by the center to establish an agriculture program in their country after Carter told them it would be led by a Nobel winner “responsible for the grain revolution in India and Pakistan.”

*

Question: Let’s talk about politics. President Clinton was elected with 43% of the vote and he’s never gotten much over that in the polls. The Democrats have averaged 43% of the vote for President for the past 25 years. Republicans control both houses of Congress now, three-fifths of the governors, a majority of the state legislatures and an increasing number of mayoralties. To stay viable, how can Clinton and the Democratic Party reach beyond that base of the party and bring in other people?

Answer: I don’t see any trend in that direction or any real actions being taken to correct that problem . . . . But unless Colin Powell gets the Republican nomination--which I think is doubtful--Clinton is very likely to be reelected against any of the now identifiable Republican candidates . . . . Clinton’s recent improvement in his polling versus Dole, or versus any other Republican, is primarily attributable to a growing disillusionment with Republicans.

Q: You think a Dole-Powell ticket would be pretty strong against him, though?

A: I think it would be strong. There’s no question that Powell has a popularity that would certainly endure even beyond the next election.

Q: Do you think, though, given his recent statements and what he’s said in interviews and written in his book, that he’s more of a Democrat than he is a Republican? Jack Nelson is the Washington bureau chief for The Times. A: I feel perfectly at ease with what Powell has advocated--I’m a Democrat . . . . I don’t know Colin, except on my fairly intimate conversations with him on two occasions. We talked about a wide gamut of things, and I’ve come really to respect him, his leadership qualities. I think his ambition has certainly not been sealed. He’s, obviously, ambitious.

Q: You and Bill Clinton are the only two Southern Presidents we’ve had in--

A: Since 1840 or something.

Q: Right, over 150 years. And he, although born and raised in the South, is extremely unpopular in the South. To what do you attribute his unpopularity in the South?

A: I saw a poll that shows that he’s ahead of [Bob] Dole in Louisiana. And he’s come up on Dole considerably in Georgia--even. Just two months ago, he was behind Dole, like 2-to-1, and now I think he’s only two or three points difference . . . . For Southern white voters, the race issue is still a tangible, although subterranean, factor. It has been an important factor ever since the Goldwater election in ’64 . . . . Ever since then, the Republicans have very subtly but significantly capitalized on the element of racism, whatever it is, that exists. And that’s a factor that still exists, to some degree. Also, the religious right is very important in the South . . . . People are sincere, deeply religious, Christians mostly.

Q: Do you think, though, that maybe they cross the line in the way they get so active in collecting money in churches and endorsing candidates? Or do you think that’s legitimate?

A: I don’t see how they can qualify for a 501(3)(c) tax exemption when they’re so patently raising money for particular political causes and supporting blatantly Republican candidates, almost across-the-board. There’s no doubt in my mind that the Republican Party has gotten in bed with the religious right, or vice versa. I don’t know who made the move.

Q: But a lot of them do get that tax exemption?

A: Oh, yeah. Pat Robertson and others, their organizations very skillfully avoid paying taxes on those contributions. Jerry Falwell is the same way. There’s been some tests of it at the lower levels of court, and they’ve always won. So that’s a part of it. That’s what Colin Powell would have to address as a potential candidate in the Republican primaries.

I know these people, I live among them. They’re my friends. If you feel that an embryo in a female is a human being, it’s not an idle commitment. It’s something for which you would really work, and even risk your reputation or give up your business time or even sometimes risk your life. It’s not a frivolous thing. The same people who are very devout think that it’s God’s mandate that our schools encourage prayer. If there are a few Jews or non-Christians in the class, they think they ought to be Christians.

Q: Aren’t they also basically anti-homosexual?

A: Oh, yeah, they are. If you read the Bible in selected verses, this is one of the sins. So you start talking about gays and you start talking about abortions, start talking about public schools--all of which Colin has not measured up to their inflexible standards--they’re going to have a hard time accepting him as a Republican, and they will get out and work to be a delegate. They have a closed organization.

Q: You mentioned that neither the President nor the Democratic Party seems to have reached out to try to build a new base. What can they do?

A: Well there’s an element of consistency, of staunchness that is very important. It’s not just in foreign policy, and Colin Powell has mentioned this several times. I don’t disagree with him. But in environmental quality and protecting of the very poor and destitute, and some of the priorities in budgeting.

If there are things in which Clinton believes, or any Democrat--as it was with Ronald Reagan, who was looked upon as very staunch--if the Republicans pass a bill over White House opposition, veto it. Don’t just say I might veto this bill and then not veto it. Also, there’s a matter of shifting from one major issue to another.

President Ford and I have been extremely active as co-honorary chairpersons of an organization . . . to evolve a comprehensive health program for this country. We were delighted when Clinton committed himself to do it. Now it’s totally abandoned. We had a meeting, trying to keep the idea going, and I looked at some notes from the meeting. When I left office, 15 million people were uninsured for health--now it’s 41 million, a third of whom are children. The last year I was in office, in 1980, $250 billion was spent on health care. This year, a trillion dollars--four times as much. It will double again in 12 more years. To me, this issue far transcends fiddling around with the welfare program.

Q: What do you think of your fellow Georgian, Newt Gingrich, as Speaker? Do you think he’s seriously interested in running for President?

A: No. I don’t really.

Q: Or do you think he’s just promoting his books?

A: I don’t know; I haven’t talked to him about this, but I don’t think he’s a serious candidate for President--particularly since Colin Powell is on the fringes of the scene as well. Newt has always had an extremely high negative factor that doesn’t change--35% of the people have a negative reaction to him, and he hasn’t done anything to address that. He’s a brilliant man. He comes across with a sharp, incisive mind, like a razor blade. He doesn’t try to moderate and to appeal to different groups--which is admirable in some ways, but at the same time he’s not building up a political constituency. I don’t think he’s going to run.

I think inevitably, and naturally, Newt and his influence have peaked. He was riding kind of a glory train early in January, February, March as a new Speaker who could really exercise discipline within the House, and I think that just with the passage of time, the news media, Gingrich has become one more player on the national scene, rather than a higher authority than the President--or some things that were said about him back then.

Q: What do you think about the “contract with America,” overall?

A: I’m just thankful it’s not going to go through.

Q: You see it as extreme in some measures?

A: Yeah. And abusive and without any sort of consideration for basic things that are important to me. Once you make a list of all that they promised and what actually gets signed into law, you’ll see that it’s been kind of a fruitless search. I think what they have done, though, is created a forum within which these issues can be debated. But now you see a lot of Republicans changing their position on welfare. How can you say that if a girl, say a white girl 15 years old, has a second child she doesn’t get food for this kid? Those kind of extreme things that were very popular a few months ago are now being moderated even among the Republicans themselves.

Q: Do you think they’ll back down on Medicare, the $265 billion in cuts in seven years?

A: Yes, I think they’ll back down . . . . I would guess that Medicare reform might go the same way that health-care reform went last year, eventually just kind of fritter away.

Q: Where do you get the energy? How do you stay on top of the game? When I call down here, you’re on the roof or you’re draining your pond or you’re going to Africa or you’re just back from somewhere or you’re making furniture.

A: I stay in good physical shape. Rosalyn’s almost--she’s an expert on nutrition--and we’re both fanatics on exercise. We jog or ride bikes or play tennis or climb mountains or do something like that pretty regularly. And what I do here at the Center, what I do with Habitat, what I do at home, are things that I really enjoy. They’re not burdens. They’re stimulating and challenging and exciting and unpredictable and adventurous, and often gratifying. We have the ability, and also the inclination, to select things from almost an unlimited agenda.*