Jimmy Carter on Hanging With Bob Dylan, Jogging With Willie Nelson - Rolling Stone
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Jimmy Carter in Conversation With Tom Brokaw

The former President on hanging with Bob Dylan, jogging with Willie Nelson, and the Democratic Party’s failures and successes

Jimmy Carter in 2007.

Jimmy Carter, 2007.

Phillip Cheung/Getty

What did you think when the Sixties began to explode beyond the civil rights movement in 1967 and 1968?
Prominent politicians in Georgia – all of them at that time were Democrats – wanted to close down the public school system if any of them were integrated. Most of our people were still voting for racial discrimination – separate but equal – but a few were changing. I was a deacon and a Sunday-school teacher at Plains Baptist Church, and we had a vote about whether we should permit blacks to come into our church and worship. I made the only speech in favor of that proposition. The other deacons were unanimous against it. When we had the vote, the church was packed with 250 people. Fifty-six voted in favor of keeping the blacks out, and my family and one other voted in favor of letting blacks in. That afternoon, I received calls from many of the 200 people who didn’t vote, saying they agreed with me but didn’t want to speak out. Those were difficult times.

How did you feel about Vietnam?
I was kind of remote from Vietnam. My eldest son was a student at Georgia Tech, and he wanted to go. This was before the draft lottery, and he felt it was unfair for poor, non-colored students to be forced to go when he was in a sacrosanct position. So he quit Georgia Tech and served three years in the Navy over in Vietnam. I was patriotic and supportive of my son since I had been a naval officer myself. It wasn’t until I became governor, in 1971, that I turned against the war and began to promote publicly that it should be ended. I saw the disillusionment that our country had with the lies and disinformation about Vietnam.

In 1968 and 1972, the Democratic Party power base shifted radically from older white people to younger, more ethnically diverse groups. Did you worry that it was swinging too far, too quickly?
No. Those were difficult days for white liberal families in the South, but we saw it eventually change. We were fervently supportive of Hubert Humphrey – he was our family’s hero, particularly my mother’s. Mother went to the convention in 1964, and when she died, she still had her credentials that were given her then. But Nixon won by building on the Southern strategy, which had a strong overtone of racism – and still does. It was abominable, but it was very effective.

But you didn’t support George McGovern in 1972.
He is one of the most admirable people I have met, but I didn’t think he had a chance to win. I was strongly in favor of Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson. He had a commitment to basic human rights combined with a conservative attitude toward national defense that was much more in tune with my philosophy and those of the South, and I wanted to see us win the election.

Were you surprised when Hunter Thompson endorsed you on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1976?
No. Hunter was my good buddy. We met in 1972 when I was governor and he accompanied me to a Law Day ceremony at the University of Georgia. I gave an impromptu speech on the failures of the judicial system to protect the rights of minorities and the poor. I pointed out that during the most difficult days of the civil rights movement, no white lawyers in Georgia came forward to stand up for the minorities against the very obvious violations of the law by the establishment. Hunter kept a tape of my Law Day speech, and he would often play it for visitors.

You got caught in some pretty strong winds of change in 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected. What do you think brought that on?
If you look at the record, you’ll see that Reagan only got 50.5 percent of the votes – he didn’t get an overwhelming mandate at all. In fact, I got almost the same majority when I was elected four years earlier. The key issue was the hostages being held in Iran. I guess fate ordained that the anniversary of their being taken was the same day as Election Day. You have to remember that as the election approached in 1980, Walter Cronkite and everybody else on TV were talking about the fact that the hostages had been held for a full year by despicable people.

A second issue was that the Democratic Party was split. I was never able, through my own fault, to unify the party while I was president. When Ted Kennedy decided to run, he condemned me as incompatible with the Democratic principles of the party of his family and of Eleanor Roosevelt. As a result, John Anderson ran as a third-party candidate and got about seven percent of the vote.

The third issue was worldwide inflation. With the war between Iran and Iraq, no oil was exported from either country for about fourteen months before I came up for re-election, and inflation skyrocketed.

Looking back on the Sixties, do you remember music and movies and popular culture changing in those days?
I do, because we were saturated with it. When I was governor, we had three sons of college age, so we were immersed in Bob Dylan, who was a hero of my children. When he came to perform in Atlanta, I invited him out to the Governor’s Mansion. He came and brought the band with him. At that time, he was going through a personal challenge of deciding between whether he should be a Christian or not. He and I went out in the garden and spent a good amount of time talking about his religious phase. So Bob Dylan was a special favorite of us at the time. When I ran for president, I also became deeply immersed in the culture of the Allman Brothers, who performed out of Macon, Georgia – they were my key fund-raisers all over the nation, as a matter of fact.

Did you listen to Dylan’s music as well as talk to him?
Absolutely. I could just about quote all of his lyrics. We listened to him, I wouldn’t say ad nauseam, but almost constantly in the Governor’s Mansion.

How did you feel when he went electric?
When he came back for performances after I had left the governor’s office, we went to hear him. I was disappointed. I really cherished then and still cherish now the original Bob Dylan sound.

Were there any Carter family disputes about the boys and their clothes or hair?
That was during the time of the Beatles, and our sons often got in trouble with their long hair. Driving from Plains to Atlanta, they would be stopped by local cops along the way in the intervening towns just because they had hair down like the Beatles did. But they were pretty defiant. Rose and I didn’t object to the hairstyle at all, but they were pretty much abused as college students because of that.

Did you and Rosalynn ever look at each other at any point when you went to movies or watched TV in those days and noticed the difference in the public acceptance of films, or even language changing?
It took longer for those societal attitudes and changes to seep in to the Southern consciousness. We were still immersed in a very tiny community, and our schools and churches were enwrapped in a very strong conservatism.

Do you and Rosalynn still listen to the music of the Sixties?
Sure. I have a superb collection of music from that era.

You have an iPod?
I have two of them. One is large and holds about 3,000 songs. The other is a tiny one that doesn’t have a screen on it.

Besides Dylan and the Allman Brothers, what artists appeal to you?
I’ve always been very close to Willie Nelson; he’s been my buddy. I’ve been on the stage with him four or five times – I always join him in singing “Amazing Grace” as a culmination of his program. He’s been to Plains twice, and he used to spend the night with me in the White House and go jogging with me.

The Secret Service didn’t worry about controlled substances when Willie was around?
Well, he never indicated an affinity for controlled substances when he was in the White House, so I don’t know.

The drug culture grew out of the Sixties as well. Are drugs overstated as a problem?
I don’t think there is any doubt that the drug culture has shaped at least one major change, and that is the treatment of prisoners. When I was governor, I competed with other progressive Southern governors in who could reduce our prison population the most. We had very innovative programs for that purpose. Every time someone was put in prison, we did a thorough psychological and skills survey of that person and began to prepare him for release. We bragged to each other about who reduced the prison population the most. But now, with the increase of the drug culture, politicians brag about how many prisons they’ve built. We have a massive increase in prison occupancy, and the punishment for drug use has become the pre-eminent basis for overloading our courts and prisons.

Looking ahead, are there other developments that came out of the Sixties that worry you going forward?
I think what came out of that period was mostly positive. The country moved to racial integration, thanks to the civil rights movement, and Vietnam left us with a negative reaction to unilateral action by the United States. What emerged from the Sixties was a commitment to international peace, human rights and shared responsibilities. The Sixties prepared us for a potentially enlightened domestic and foreign policy.

Some people worry that the current generation is only concentrating on getting a good job, becoming millionaires and shunning the public arena.
I don’t agree with that. I’ve been a professor at Emory University for the past twenty years, and I interrelate with a wide range of students. Whether they are going to be ministers or teachers or social scientists or lawyers or doctors, I don’t detect that this generation is any more committed to personal gain to the exclusion of benevolent causes than others have been in the past.

Do you worry, coming out of Iraq, that the Vietnam syndrome will be renewed – that your party will be so burned by the was that it will shun any military involvement?
I’m not sure if worry is the right word. There will be a lessening of commitment to the military, and that does concern me. To preserve the military, a new president must evoke the proper use of the military, contrary to what George W. Bush has done – to defend our country when our security is directly threatened, rather than to launch pre-emptive wars and exclude other countries.

What effect will new technology have on the social constructs of the country?
Our country has developed into one that has extreme differences between the richest and poorest people. Those levels are becoming very gross – but with the progress of iPods and the electronic era, music can actually break down and maybe even merge the cultural life between different economic levels. Even when a family gets above $1 million a year in income, the cultural life of the parents and their children doesn’t deviate remarkably from those of a middle-class or working family.

In the end, what do you think the legacy of the baby-boomer generation will be?
It may be economic catastrophe. When this massive array of baby boomers reaches retirement age, our country is going to face a catastrophic budget crisis. The future looks dismal unless our political leaders face this fact. I don’t think there is any doubt that the retirement age for Social Security is going to be raised, and that older and older people will stay in their jobs.

Do you think the country is ready for a black or a woman president?
I think so. A few years ago, Colin Powell was probably the most likely person to have been elected president had he chosen to run. And we have seen other nations move to elect women as leaders – in Indonesia, India, Pakistan, England, even Nicaragua. I saw a poll a couple of days ago that showed that ninety-four percent of Americans claim they would vote for a black and eighty-eight percent for a woman. So either would be acceptable.

Is that true in the South?
That’s hard to say. Polls don’t reveal the inherent racism that exists on Election Day. There’s always an inclination to say yes when people are asked, “Would you vote for a black?” Black candidates in North Carolina and Tennessee looked like they were going to do quite well in recent elections, but on Election Day they were disappointed. So I’m not sure my previous answer concerning women or blacks would apply in Georgia. I hope I’m wrong.

In This Article: Jimmy Carter, Tom Brokaw

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