Jimmy Carter called me the other day to clear up the confusion in his mind about the lust in his heart. Actually he was returning my call, since I had taken umbrage over the treatment in his current book “Living Faith,” of the Playboy interview I did with him during his 1976 presidential campaign.
Although he refers in his book to the hullabaloo over the interview as “one of the best-known events in U.S. political history,” the story behind the interview that nearly cost Carter the election has never been fully told.
During the campaign, Carter had made a big deal about being a devout born-again Baptist. In the interview, which was conducted over some weeks on airplanes and finally at his home in Plains, Ga., he was pressed on the policy implications of his religious views. The evening before our final session, then-Playboy editor Barry Golson and I had dinner with Carter’s press secretary, Jody Powell, and we told him the candidate still came across as uptight. Powell said he would get Carter to loosen up.
The next day, as the interview was concluding, Carter was asked, one last time, if his strong religious beliefs would cause him to be “a rigid unbending president.” His reply, in the form of a long, uninterrupted monologue that I assumed reflected Powell’s prepping, stressed that he did not feel superior to others but rather shared their temptations:
“I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times. This is something that God recognizes that I will do--and I have done it--and God forgives me for it. But that doesn’t mean that I condemn someone who not only looks on a woman with lust but who leaves his wife and shacks up with somebody out of wedlock. Christ says, don’t consider yourself better than someone else because one guy screws a whole bunch of women while the other guy is loyal to his wife.”
He concluded: “I don’t think I would ever take on the same frame of mind that Nixon or Johnson did--lying, cheating and distorting the truth. . . I think that my religious beliefs alone would prevent that from happening to me.”
I thought at the time that this attack on the late Lyndon Johnson contained the real news. But it was largely ignored by the media until candidate Carter visited Texas and Lady Bird Johnson refused to greet him at the airport. Reporters, led by the ubiquitous Sam Donaldson, confronted Carter as to the accuracy of the Johnson quote. At first, he said it was taken out of context, until I rushed back to the press plane for the taped interview, which I played for Donaldson and others. Carter recanted and made a formal apology to the late president’s widow. That part of the story dropped out of sight and lust dominated the news for weeks.
Sad, because the lies of Johnson and Nixon resulted in the deaths of millions in Vietnam, while Carter’s vicarious adultery hurt no one. I hardly expected Carter to drop 15 points in the polls because of his admission of feelings that everyone knows to be common to the male of the species. True, Carter’s reference to screwing and shacking up was a bit weird for a presidential candidate, but I attributed it to the awkwardness of a painfully priggish man attempting to be hip.
It is a reflection of his continuing discomfort with the subject that he brings it up now, after 20 years of silence, claiming in his new book and in interviews that this reporter had “surreptitiously restarted the tape recorder as we stood at the door.”
Aside from being irrelevant, it is also a calumny. As Carter began his closing monologue, Golson said to him, as heard clearly on the tape, “I’m taking mental notes if you don’t mind.” At which point I said, waving a large microphone, “I’m taking real notes,” and Carter laughed and said, “good,” well before the infamous lust remarks were uttered. Fortunately, I still have those tapes and was able to verify the accuracy of my memory.
During our recent phone conversation, Carter assured me that he intended no disrespect and followed up with a fax: “I can see the reason for your concern about my use of the word “surreptitious” in describing your continuing to record our conversation for Playboy. This was an unfortunate choice of a word, implying that you deliberately misled me about whether the interview was over. The fact is that you and I have an honest difference of memory about these few minutes together. . . I’ve never meant to impugn either your integrity or the accuracy of your reporting.”