GEORGIA — Georgians have mixed feelings about the only U.S. president to be born in the Peach State, Jimmy Carter. The guy who recently sat down to interview Carter about his career, said, he too, has mixed feelings about America’s oldest living president.
On the one hand, MSNBC’s “Hardball” host Chris Matthews thinks President Jimmy Carter was courageous for staying true to his peaceful self and not starting a war with Iran to get the U.S. hostages back after they were held captive for more than a year. Carter was also courageous in Matthews’ eyes, and most of the world, when he brokered peace talks at Camp David between Israel and Egypt in 1978.
But is there anything Carter, who turned 94 Oct. 1, regrets about his presidency? Matthews asked Carter and the answer was unexpected.
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“I asked him about mistakes and things he did when he first came into office that didn’t help him at all,” Matthews said to Patch. Carter’s answer, Matthews said, was mistakenly getting rid of the President’s Anthem.
“Getting rid of ‘Hail to the Chief’ when the President walks in the room. He did that as part of his bringing down of the imperial presidency because it took away from the prestige or the stature of the office and [Carter] said that was a mistake. It was a big deal. When you think of Hail to the Chief, you think of the president. And without that, it takes away from the eminence of the office. [Carter] said people want that to be part of their presidency. They want that sort of heroic stature, that marshal, rousing, 19th century feel. It really does have a power to it. (Matthews hums the tune.) There’s something wonderfully jaunty about it. I think in a way [getting rid of it] took something away from the presidency.”
Matthews is in a position to know the former president well, having once been his speechwriter in the 1970s. Matthews even interviewed Carter in Mexico once, when Matthews worked for the San Francisco Examiner. This relationship, forged through the years, is what allowed such an open conversation with the former president during an interview that will air Sunday on MSNBC, as part of its Headliners series, at 9 p.m.
“[I was] working for the president of the United States in the unusual role of speechwriter and now I’m a broadcast journalist and he is very friendly,” Matthews said. “We have a friendly relationship. It’s a different connection.
“And so when I sat down with him he was very open and I could ask him questions I could never ask him when I was working for him. It’s a different relationship after all these years and I think he knows me enough to trust that these interviews are going to be respectful — maybe more than respectful — that I would really try and find good things to say and a way to understand him in a way that he wants to be understood.”
Delving deep into Carter’s career for the first time, gave Matthews a sense of Carter’s strengths and weaknesses.
“President Carter was really good, in fact, excellent in what he could do himself. For example, when he ran for president, he really did it almost retail. In places like New Hampshire, Iowa, going door to door, person to person. He really did an extraordinary amount of retail, as they say in politics, just person to person. And he really did figure it out. The idea that he could run as a southern, deep south businessman, farmer, person who really wasn’t part of the Washington world — the big shot world. And he could play against type. He would let [other politicians] compete for who was the biggest big shot. And he figured out that that would be appealing to people. He figured out a lot himself.
“I think his problem was running a big bureaucracy, having to deal with all of these different personalities, cabinet members who weren’t particularly loyal to him. I think that was more of a challenge for him.”
While Matthews thinks it was courageous for Carter to have avoided war, he said looking weak is what made him a one-term president and got Ronald Reagan elected.
“I also think he didn’t want to kill anybody. That sounds pretty basic but a commander in chief has to use the military and part of that is shooting bullets at people. It sounds idiotic. It sounds like an eight-year-old talking but that’s really what it comes down to. Presidents have to guard the country; they have to protect us. They have to use their guns enough to show they’re loaded and they’re going to use force. And I think he was really against the use of force. I don’t know if he was a pacifist, but he was definitely a dove. I think that hurt. What if he just said, ‘If you don’t release those hostages in 20 days, we’re going to attack?’ You can’t bluff in that world, either you do or you don’t. Would that have been something that would have been morally justified? He said no. That was his answer. His answer was, ‘get the hostages home,’ and take some humiliation in doing it. But you don’t get anybody killed doing it.
“He was very proud of the fact that he never had any combat casualties in his four years,” Matthews said. “I’m not sure that’s something a president should be proud of. I think conditions warrant actions sometimes and you have to be ready to act. You can’t dictate the circumstances where you might have to use military action. I’m no hawk either; I can tell you that.
“I think Reagan said to the world, ‘Don’t mess with me.’ The Russians were impressed when Reagan broke the strike of the air traffic controllers. ‘We’re dealing with somebody new here,’ they said. And it meant something to them, the Russians. [Carter] was perceived as weak and that’s how Reagan got elected.”
Carter’s presidency is known for various historic milestones, such as the Camp David Peace Accords between Israel and Egypt, and that’s where Matthews said he showed his mettle.
“Talk about courage. Being hawkish in the Middle East is smart American politics today, but taking on [Israeli Prime Minister Menachem] Begin and pushing Begin to cut a deal and [ Egyptian President] Anwar Sadat and ending the threat of war, was Carter’s doing. And I don’t think Reagan did anything like that. And that took a lot of political courage in a way Carter never really benefited from. That’s a fact. And that’s, to me, courage. Our relationship with Panama needed to be changed or we would have faced endless terrorism down there and he said, ‘No, I’m going to make a deal and turn [the Panama Canal] over to the Panamanian government.’
“Carter would make these decisions, which were profiles in courage. Carter has a heart. And he brought peace to [Egypt and Israel] and never got a whole lot of credit for it.”
Matthews said the one thing different about Jimmy Carter than other presidents, is that he never wanted to be a celebrity.
“Look at the other presidents. They spend a lot of time after being president chasing dollars, like ex-movie stars. They start doing speeches for money — whatever group wants to pay. I’m not knocking it, but the Clintons are out there on the road, going all over the country for money. And that’s something that Carter would never do. I think it shows by the fact that he worked with Habitat for Humanity and helped with elections in Africa. He’s really tried to take advantage of the prestige of the former presidency and put it to good use and I think that’s extraordinary. He may be the only one who has ever done it. And he’s done it his way, which is plain. There’s nothing glamorous about it.
“When they worked with Habitat for Humanity that wasn’t a PR stunt. Rosalynn [Jimmy Carter’s wife] had her nail apron on and she carried 2x4s around. He’s not a saint. He’s doing something he likes to do. He likes the plain life. He doesn’t like big city. That’s a rarity.
“He did a lot of things with living off the land for a guy who didn’t have much money. He was able to put together a campaign based on a human connection to people and I think that was something to emulate.”
If you enjoy the interview Sunday, look at Chris Matthews’ New York Times best selling book, Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit, which will be on sale in paperback form Monday.
He said he’s also working on a book detailing some of his own life’s adventures.
“I’m trying to make it into something exciting to read,” he said. “I spent years in Africa. I spent a lot of years in public life flying around with Carter, covering the Berlin Wall, covering South Africa, covering Ireland. I’ve done a lot of wild stuff. I want to find a way to make it fun to read and hopefully inspiring.”
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