An interview with our extraordinary 39th president

It was a thrill for me to chat for a while with ex-president Jimmy Carter in Atlanta in 1989, in the service of writing a children’s book eventually entitled “The President Builds a House,” about the work of Habitat For Humanity, and for which he had agreed to write the introduction.

Carter was leading the volunteer crew that would build 20 houses in a week in an Atlanta neighborhood. An editor for Simon & Schuster had asked me and photographer Margaret Miller to do the book and to donate part of our royalties to the charity.

This work site was no photo-op for the Carters. Then 64, the former president was scrambling around on roofs and inside half-made structures, his hammer frequently in use; his wife Rosalynn was almost as active, helpful and collegial in many ways. His son Chip was also there, pitching in.   

These were gentler times.  The Carters were being guarded by a lone Secret Service agent, who had been with them in the White House and had chosen to be on their permanent detail.  I spoke with the agent briefly; it was clear that he adored both Carters and felt well-treated by them. Chip, too, was most admiring of his parents’ charitable activities.

I had previously chatted with President Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office, along with presidential spokesman Larry Speakes, with whom I was to write a book; and had spoken in an EOB office with then-vice-president George H. W. Bush on a prior documentary project involving Nigeria.  In my presence, Reagan, who was just coming back from an illness, and Speakes engaged in a sort of Gallagher and Shean comedy routine, feeding each other cues about the need for a line-item presidential veto for the federal budget. Bush had been quite knowledgeable and thoughtful about Nigeria, which he had visited in official capacities. Both Reagan and Bush had been impressive in their own ways, but neither was as impressive as Carter, who in our chat was articulate, authoritative, thoughtful and responsive to my questioning.

I had begun being aware of Carter when he was governor of Georgia. I was then commuting to Atlanta monthly to film a documentary there on an unusual school and the involvement of an NGO called Project Propinquity; people with Propinquity were interacting regularly with the governor, and a few of them would later join his administration.  All had quite favorable views of him and of his devotion to the public good and Christian ideals, which they shared.

I thought that Carter had been a reasonably good president who had had to fight severe headwinds and tailwinds, which had eventually resulted in his loss of the presidency after one term.   

In 1989, my first query to Carter was why he had become so involved with Habitat.

“Jesus was a carpenter,” he began, and continued on in that vein, stressing Habitat’s “Biblical” mandates to house the poor and to lend money without interest. We had a fine chat.  His theme was that while we often feel as individuals that we can’t do much to solve such big problems as poverty and lack of good housing, we can, through volunteering to work with organizations such as Habitat.

By 1989, Carter was already also involved in supervising elections around the world, as well as in putting together the Carter Center; and so near the end of our chat, I asked him if he knew what Woodrow Wilson had told reporters about his future plans upon leaving the White House after the 1921 inauguration of his successor. Carter indicated that he did not. Having written a book about Wilson (Edith and Woodrow), I did, and had the pleasure of telling Carter.  Wilson had said that he was “going to teach ex-presidents how to behave.”

I opined to Carter that he was doing just that, and in a far more effective way than Wilson had, and that his doing so was a great help to the world as well as constituting a tutorial for future presidents.

As for the introduction to our book, Carter asked me to write up my notes from our interview in the form of such an introduction and send it to him for approval. I did.

He didn’t change a word.     


Salisbury resident Tom Shachtman has written more than two dozen books and many television documentaries.

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