Interview by Bill Moyers
This conversation was recorded on May 6, 1976, six months before Jimmy Carter was elected President.
This interview comes to us from WNET and Bill Moyers Journal.
The Animated Transcript
Bill Moyers has been broadcast journalist for more than four decades, most recently with his show, Moyers & Company. Moyers was elected to the Television Hall of Fame in 1995.
The fact that a person has deep religious convictions doesn’t necessarily mean that that person always thinks that he’s right, that God’s ordained him to take a dominant position. Although I have prayed a good bit, and do, I’ve never asked God to let me be President.
Just to win the nomination?
I never — [Laughter] — I never asked God to let me win a single nomination. Never.
Why not be a pastor or a bishop, and not a President? [Laughter]
You’ve read my book. [Laughter] This came up early in my life, you know, I got home from the Navy, and I was thinking about running for the Georgia Senate and we had a visiting pastor, and he was giving me a hard time about going into politics. He said it’s a disgraceful profession, stay out of it. I got angry, and I turned to him and kind of lashed back. I said, how would you like to be a pastor of a church with some 80,000 members? Because there were 80,000 people In this state Senate district. I don’t look on the Presidency as a pastorate.
I was going to ask you if the President — a pastor of 230 million.
No. Although Teddy Roosevelt said that it’s a bully-pulpit but, no, I don’t look on it with religious connotations. But it gives me a chance to serve and it also gives me a chance to magnify whatever influence I have — either for good or bad, and I hope it will be for the good.
Gives you power, too.
You have been searching for power for the last ten years.
Well I can’t deny it.
Do you need power?
Well, I think so. Not as an unfulfilled, all-obsessive hunger — no. I feel powerful enough now. And secure enough now. Wealthy enough now. I have a good family life now. But I like to have a chance to change things that I don’t like, and to correct inequities as I discern them, and to be a strong spokesman for those that are not strong. So, I can’t deny that one of the purposes that I want to be President is to have power, yes.
I remember that when I was a small child, my life was spent in a fairly isolated way, out in the woods and in the streams and swamps and fields. Plains was the nearest town, population of 600. We didn’t have electricity or running water but we didn’t suffer. I lived a sheltered life. My mom and my daddy were always there. Home was always a haven. I didn’t have but one desire, aspiration that I can remember, and that is going to the Naval Academy. Nobody In my father’s family had ever finished high school before I did. I put into commission, as a pre-commission crew chief, the first ship the Navy built after the Second War and then I went in the first nuclear submarine program. You know, the choice jobs in the whole Navy. Then my father had terminal cancer, and I had to go home to be with him about the last month of his life. I hadn’t seen him since I was about 17 years old. This was ten, twelve years later.
Did you regret that those last eleven years of your father’s life you had really not been in close touch with him?
Well, I would like, obviously, in retrospect, to have been more with my father. I never thought he would die so young but I’ve never regretted a day that I served In the navy. That was an opportunity for me that paid off and I had a chance to travel extensively. I read and studied everything from music, drama, art, and so forth. I stretched my mind, had a great challenge and I never had any regret.
Do you think this is a just society?
No, no, I don’t. I think one of the major responsibilities I have as a leader and as a potential leader is to try to establish justice and that applies to a broad gamut of things — international affairs, peace, equality, elimination of injustice in tax programs, in our criminal justice system and so forth. It’s not a crusade. It’s just common sense. There’s only one person in this nation that can speak with a clear voice to the American people. There’s only one person that can set a standard of ethics and morality and excellence and greatness or call on the American people to make a sacrifice, or answer difficult questions, or propose and carry out bold programs, or to provide for defense posture that would make us feel secure, a foreign policy that would make us proud once again, and that’s the President. In the absence of that leadership, there is no leadership, and the country drifts. So strong President, yes, but an autocratic President, an imperial Presidency, no.
You think that day is over?
Yes, it’s over.
What do you want for your children that you didn’t have?
Well, I have to say that I had almost everything that I could have needed. I worked hard when I was a little child but I’m proud of It. I lived in an isolated area when I was a little child but I’m proud of it. I had a stability there. When things started going wrong in my own life, my father and mother were there, and my sisters and brothers were there, and my church was there and my community was there — that never did change. Never has changed, yet. In the modern day world, you don’t have that. It’s a mobile world and things to cling to are kind of scarce and few and far between. I wouldn’t swap the life I had for the new, modern, fast-moving, open, non-structured, minimal family life. Which Is best, I don’t know. We can keep the advantages of the modern world, but going back to those principles that give stability are things that we’re still searching for. We haven’t found them yet.
1976: The ‘Outsider’ Candidate
As the 1976 Presidential election approached, the American political scene was still reeling from its recent history of failures and stumbles. The optimism of the 60’s had been replaced by the pessimism of the 1970’s, the Vietnam War was a failure, and the specter of Watergate and Nixon’s resignation was still resonating with the American people. The incumbent candidate, Gerald Ford, was the only President not elected to office by popular vote, having taken over from Nixon in 1974.
All of this allowed Carter, the relatively unknown former Governor of Georgia, to narrowly win the White House in ’76. His image as a small-town boy, a rural peanut farmer, and a born-again Christian running on a platform of honesty and All-American values appealed to voters looking for a change.
On being the “anti-establishment” candidate
“I’ve never expressed deliberately any anti-Washington feeling or any anti-government feeling. People say I’m giving them hell, but when I tell the truth, they think truth is hell. I’m not going to disrupt anything when I get here to Washington, if I’m elected. There’s no one that I can think of…that cares more about my government than I do and who’s thought about it more, studied it more and wants to see it run well more, wants to see it returned to the control of the people.”
On the role of Congress
“I don’t think the Congress is capable of leadership. That’s no reflection on the Congress, but you can’t have 535 people leading the nation. I don’t think the Founding Fathers ever thought that Congress would lead this country.”
On military intervention
“I would never again get militarily involved in the internal affairs of another country. Unless our own security is directly threatened…I don’t think the American people need it. We don’t have to show that we’re strong. We are strong.”
On previous Presidents
“We’ve had some Presidents that were incapable of admitting, “Look, I’ve made a mistake.” And that’s been the cause of a great deal of our woe in this country in the last number of years, as you know. Other Presidents said, “Look, I messed up on that one. This is what happened. I was at fault. This is — the people who were culpable. We’ve corrected it. It won’t happen again.”
That freedom with the people, and the absence of the need to constantly prove oneself as being superior, is an important personal characteristic in a President. I think it would prevent another Vietnam or another Watergate.”
Hunter S. Thompson on Jimmy Carter: “He’s Ruthless”
Watch Hunter S. Thompson talk about riding with the Hells Angels on Blank on Blank
1980: The Embattled Incumbent
Carter did have some success during his time in office – he created the Departments of Energy and Education, made some advances in national energy policy, and oversaw the Camp David Accords that established a framework for peace in the Middle East. But, his administration was marred by a stagnant economy and the 1979 energy crisis, as well as his poor handling of the Iran hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Watch Ronald Reagan on Blank on Blank
Carter’s Favorite President Was…
In the interview with Bill Moyers, the soon-to-be President revealed that the first vote he ever cast for President was for Truman in 1948. He also stated that Truman was still his favorite President because, he said, “I don’t believe that Truman ever told me a lie or told the American people a lie.”
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