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Jimmy Carter: The 'Fresh Air' interviews

At 98, Carter is the oldest living president in U.S. history. After serving his term, he worked to promote safe housing, human rights and conflict resolution. Originally broadcast in '93, '95 and '96.

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today, as Jimmy Carter spends his remaining time at home under hospice care after a series of hospitalizations, we look back on his life and listen to excerpts of the interviews I recorded with him over the years. At the age of 98, he's the oldest living president in American history. Peter Baker in The New York Times wrote this summary of Carter's public life.

Quote, "Mr. Carter was a political sensation in his day, a new-generation Democrat who, after a single term as governor of Georgia, shocked the political world by beating a host of better known rivals to capture his party's presidential nomination in 1976 and then ousting the incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, in the fall. Over the course of four years in office, he sought to restore trust in government following the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, ushering in reforms that were meant to transform politics. He negotiated the landmark Camp David Accords, making peace between Israel and Egypt, an agreement that remains the foundation of Middle East relations, but a sour economy and a 444-day hostage crisis in Iran in which 52 American diplomats were held captive undercut his public support, and he lost his bid for re-election to former Governor Ronald Reagan of California in 1980. He spent his post-presidency, however, on a series of philanthropic causes around the world, like building houses for the poor, combating Guinea worm, a parasitic tropical disease, promoting human rights in places of repression, monitoring elections and seeking to end conflicts. His work as a former president in many ways came to eclipse his time in the White House, eventually earning him the Nobel Peace Prize," unquote.

Let's begin with the interview I recorded with Carter in 1993 after the publication of his memoir "Turning Point," about his first campaign when he won a seat in the Georgia State Senate. That was in 1962, the year he decided to enter politics.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JIMMY CARTER: Well, I had come home from the Navy, having been 11 years a full-time naval officer, a submarine officer, started a small business and had never run for elective office. I was a chairman of the Sumter County School Board in the heat of the integration years. I was concerned about the closing down or the subversion of our public school system, and I was disgusted in a way with the slow pace of the civil rights changes in the South. And then along came the bright halcyon days of the one-man-one-vote ruling where the Democratic white rural primary was going to be stricken down. I thought it was a new day in Georgia and the United States where the democracy would prevail and honesty would be there and equality would be ensured.

And so I decided I would run for the state senate. And the only request I would make and did finally make was to be on the education committee. And I entered this little community over in the western part of Georgia, Georgetown, Georgia, and I found shocking fraud, corruption, stuffing ballot boxes, abuse of citizens that was incredible to me.

GROSS: Well, you say you found blatant voting abuse. What's the worst example of voting abuse that you faced during that first campaign of yours?

CARTER: Well, I was ahead in the election going into this little tiny county on the Chattahoochee River, just across the river from Alabama. There was a political boss in the county named Joe Hurst. He was chairman of the of the only political organization, the Democratic Committee. He was a state legislator. His wife was a welfare director. Georgetown was the only post office in the United States, for instance, where all the welfare checks came to the same post office box. And he and his wife would personally deliver the welfare checks to families that they decided should be on welfare.

One of the prerequisites for getting welfare payment was to vote the way Joe Hurst told them. Everyone who voted in my election in that little town voted on an open table in front of Joe Hurst and one of his henchmen, whose name was Doc Hammond. Joe Hurst watched them vote. They put their ballots in a large whiskey box, a pasteboard box with a five-inch hole in the top. And quite often I watched Joe Hurst reach in and pull out the ballots, examine them, even change them when he wanted to, and put in ballots of his own.

It was literally incredible. And he was so powerful that he was impervious to criticism. He didn't even care if I saw him cheating. He had control of a district attorney. He had control of a trial judge. He had been indicted eight times on felony charges, convicted four times, but never served a day in jail or paid $1 in fine. He was so powerful. It was unbelievable to me.

And so I had that to challenge. And many of the people in that little county were intimidated by Hurst. The crucial base of his operation was the county unit system. One vote in Georgetown was equal to 99 votes in Atlanta. And this was all legal. It was perfectly legal until the one-man-one-vote ruling came down.

GROSS: Well, how did you win? How did you get your fair count?

CARTER: Well, I think a lot of publicity had accrued. I couldn't get any published at all at first. The local newspapers, even in Columbus, Georgia, which is a fairly good-sized town, were kind of in bed with Joe Hurst, or they had seen him do this so long that they thought it was maybe acceptable or shouldn't - wasn't really a newsworthy item. Until there was one very heroic reporter from the Atlanta Journal named John Pennington, who came down quite skeptical at first about my allegations. And he, on his own initiative, went into Quitman County, got some old records and interviewed Joe Hurst and all the other people and found out that my accusations were true. And in a few days, this story about my election was a top headline news on the front page of the Atlanta newspapers.

Joe Hurst eventually went to prison for vote fraud and also for dealing in illegal liquor. And when I finally got to the Georgia senate, one of the things that I wanted to do, although I'm not a lawyer, was to revise the Georgia election code to correct some of the patent mistakes that had been deliberately maintained over decades or generations in Georgia to permit this kind of thing. And as we were debating the new election code, one of the interesting amendments that was put forward by a state senator from the town of Enigma, Georgia, an interesting name, was that no one in Georgia could vote in a primary election or a general election who had been dead more than three years.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CARTER: And that was...

GROSS: Interesting cutoff point.

CARTER: Yeah, but there was a very interesting debate about it, too. People maintained that even though, say, a husband died, there was a certain period of time after his death when the wife and children could accurately cast his vote the way he would have voted if he had lived. And so how long after somebody's death do circumstances change so much that you can't really predict how he would have voted?

GROSS: Jimmy Carter, before we go any further, I'm going to ask you for a little lesson in etiquette. Do I call you President Carter, Mr. President, our former President Jimmy Carter - what is the appropriate etiquette when you're talking to a former president of the United States?

CARTER: You know, one of the nice things about our country is you can call me anything you want to.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CARTER: Jimmy suits me OK. There is a custom in our nation that if you have been a governor or ambassador or a judge or president, then you can still retain the title. So if you want to call me President, you can. If you want to call me Jimmy, that's fine.

You know, when I go through Georgia small towns and somebody is an old friend of mine, I know it immediately when they say, hi, Governor. They call this - they still - you see, that - whatever the most intimate relationship is. And when - and the little kids around Plains, when I ride a bicycle or jog by, they - if they are very devout or if their families go to church every Sunday, they call me Brother Jimmy. Hello, Brother Jimmy. And a lot of them just call me - hello, Jimmy Carter. But it doesn't matter to me. I never was much dependent on the pomp and ceremony of the White House, even when I was there. And so Jimmy suits me fine.

GROSS: Now, let me ask you, you've been devoting your post-presidential career to monitoring elections around the world, conflict negotiation around the world, human rights around the world. You also have a project in Atlanta to help empower the homeless and the poor. When you left office, what did you see ahead? What did you think you would do?

CARTER: I didn't know. You know, I didn't anticipate being retired four years early. Fairly quickly, I decided to teach, and I've been a so-called distinguished professor at Emory University. Now this is my 11th year. And I've enjoyed that professorship. I make most of my income on my books. All of them have been very good sellers. But when I left the White House, I didn't really know what I had to do except to build a presidential library, which was almost an impossible task for a defeated, you know, Democrat who didn't intend to run for office anymore. And I wanted to write a presidential memoir called "Keeping Faith," which I did, because I was deeply in debt. And the proceeds from selling off all my business and from the writing of that first book let me pay off my debts. So the evolution of the Carter Center and the different things in which I've been now involved, along with Rosalynn, have been really developments that we did not anticipate when we left Washington.

GROSS: Was there a moment of revelation when you started - when it started to occur to you the role that you could take in this nation and in the world as a past president of the United States?

CARTER: Yeah, in a way there was. I didn't anticipate or understand at all then the tremendous crying out around the world for someone that has been president of the United States to help with issues. Let me just give you one quick example. At the Carter Center now, we monitor all the conflicts in the world. We do this every day. There are more than - a few more than 30 major wars on Earth. Almost all of them are civil wars with horrible devastation. Somalia is just a highly publicized one. They're just as bad in Sudan or Mozambique and other places. The problem is that those civil wars cannot be addressed except on the very rare occasions by the United Nations or the U.S. government. It's totally inappropriate for any representative of the U.N. to communicate with a revolutionary group that's trying to overthrow or change a government that's a member of the U.N. So most of these civil wars go unaddressed or even unrecognized by the American or industrialized world.

And so we go into those areas. I don't have any restraint on me. Because I have been president, I'm famous enough and welcome enough to go to an African nation to meet with the ruling leaders, for instance, and also to meet with the revolutionaries and see, if they are tired of war or convinced that they cannot win on the battlefield, would they agree to let us mediate and try to bring about a cease-fire, at least long enough to orchestrate an election? They may not be willing to sit down in the same room or to acknowledge one another through a direct negotiation.

But as you may know - I'm sure you do - science or the science of politics is self-delusion. Everyone who is running for office, for mayor or for president or whatever, believes that if the election is honest and if the people know me and know all these other jokers running against me, surely I will win. So if we can convince both sides or let them convince themselves that they can win if the election is honest and if I can help guarantee that the election will be honest, they see a way to become president of that nation without continuing the war on the battlefield. So that is a kind of thing that I see very clearly now, which I did not understand at all, even when I was president.

GROSS: Jimmy Carter, recorded in 1993 after the publication of his memoir "Turning Point." Last month, he announced that he would be spending his final days at home under hospice care. We'll hear more of my interview with Jimmy Carter after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF WES MONTGOMERY'S "FOUR ON SIX")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 1993 interview with Jimmy Carter, one of several conversations we're featuring with him today. When we spoke in '93, Carter had just published his memoir "Turning Point." He was elected president in 1976. I asked him about the high points and the low points of his inauguration day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CARTER: Well, I don't remember any low points. The high point, obviously, was assuming the role of a president of the greatest nation on Earth and trying to keep a secret we had planned a few days ahead of time to get out of the limousine for the first time in history and walk down Pennsylvania Avenue as - you know, as just one of a people. And that secret was kept, one of the few secrets, by the way, that we kept while I was president. And it was a glorious reception. The weather was cold.

I remember that my mother, who always knew how to take the starch out of people's cells and bring people back down to Earth - I was very full of myself. And when we left the reviewing stand and started to walk to the White House for the first time, really, the news media gathered around us, and my press secretary, Jody Powell, said, don't anybody talk to the news media. Everybody wants to have an interview. And I complied with Jody's request. But typically, my mother said, Jody, you can go to hell; I'll talk to whom I choose. And the TV folks and everybody got around, and they said, Ms. Lillian, aren't you proud of your son? And I waited with great pleasure to hear my mother's response. And Mama said, which one?

GROSS: (Laughter).

CARTER: So she took the wind out of my sails. That's one of the things I remember about Inauguration Day.

GROSS: What was the most disorienting part of your first day and night in the White House?

CARTER: You know, the aura of the White House and the humility that you feel occupying the same quarters as those great men was overwhelming. Also, what do you do the next day? You know, I still - I had pretty well gotten my Cabinet firmed up quite early after the election. And what do you do the next day to deal with a multitude of issues? I had a very fine agenda. I couldn't get much support originally from the Congress, although finally my batting average was about the same as Lyndon Johnson's or John Kennedy. I was - I have to say, though, as a bottom line, that I was quite confident in my - of myself. I wasn't plagued with trepidation that I was inadequate for the job. That may be presumptuous, but anybody who decides I want to be president of this great country has to be somewhat presumptuous. So I wasn't plagued with an inferiority complex. I felt that no matter what came up - well, that I could handle it as well as anyone.

GROSS: What about during the hostage crisis? Was there ever a point where you wished that you weren't president, where you wished that you didn't have this terrible burden on your shoulders?

CARTER: Well, you know, about 2 o'clock in the morning in April when we tried the rescue operation and it - and we couldn't succeed, that was perhaps the high point of despair in my presidency. And I knew that I had to get up early the next morning, about 6 o'clock, and prepare to go on all the morning talk shows and explain to the American people that the rescue operation had failed. That was a very dismal point. Also, we knew that an accident had occurred and that one of the helicopters had flown into an airplane and that eight people had died. And I had to notify those families during the night that their loved ones had perished in a secret operation. There's no way that anything else that happened during the four years could equal that as a time of discouragement and despair.

GROSS: Yeah. You told us a little bit about what your Inauguration Day was like. Let's skip ahead to the inauguration of your successor, Ronald Reagan. What were you feeling that day as you realized that the hostages were going to be released on his watch, not on yours?

CARTER: Well, I didn't realize that. I had not been to bed for three days and had negotiated in the most meticulous detail the release of the hostages. Everything was all agreed, and the hostages were in the airplane ready to take off at 10 o'clock that morning Washington time. So we were just waiting to get word that they had cleared Iranian airspace. And when I went to the reviewing stand, when I relinquished the presidency to Reagan and he made his inaugural speech, before I left the reviewing stand, I was informed that the plane had indeed taken off, and the hostages were all safe and free. I have to say that I didn't even think about the fact that it happened a few minutes after midnight - I mean, after noontime. I just knew that they were free. And that was one of the most glorious and happy moments of my entire life.

GROSS: Even though it wasn't on your watch.

CARTER: Well, to me, I didn't even think about it. But obviously that became the major story among the news media, that it happened about 20 minutes after I was no longer president. To me, that was insignificant, but it has still prevailed. Even your question indicates that it was a historically important fact that it happened a few minutes after I left the White House as a president rather than while I was still in office. I didn't even consider that as a major factor then. It was the news media, I think, that made that a major factor.

GROSS: Jimmy Carter, recorded in 1993. After a short break, we'll hear excerpts from other interviews I recorded with Carter in which he talked about his work as a mediator, negotiating an end to wars and ethnic violence, his deep religious faith and his insistence on keeping church and state separate when he was president and his reflections on getting older. As I record this, he is at home under hospice care. We'll end the first half of our program with Aretha Franklin singing at Carter's inaugural gala in 1977. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) God bless America, land that I love. Stand beside her and guide her through the night from the light from above. From the mountains to the prairies to the ocean white with foam, God bless America, my home sweet home. God bless, bless America, my home sweet home. This is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. We're looking back on the life of Jimmy Carter and listening to excerpts of my interviews with him. As I record this, he's spending his remaining days at home in hospice care. After his presidency, Carter became one of the most sought-after mediators in the world. He negotiated with military rulers and tyrants.

In 1995, I interviewed Carter about this work. He'd recently brokered a cease-fire in the bloody Balkan War, which put him across the table from the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, who was later convicted of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Let me ask you a question that I'm sure a lot of people have wondered about. You have such a strong human rights record. What is it like for you to sit opposite someone like Karadzic, knowing the war crimes that he's guilty of? Do you have to enter negotiations with someone who was a tyrant in a fairly nonjudgmental way and be as cordial and open as you possibly can?

CARTER: Well, I'm cordial and open. The only thing I have to offer is my own integrity and an element of objectivity. I don't have any ax to grind. My ax is - to grind is to try to bring peace and an end to human rights abuses. But it doesn't mean that I go in ignorant of past crimes. And I have to just realize that these people have committed crimes. In most cases, crimes have been committed on both sides. They may be much more onerous on one side than the other, but quite often, it's the scorned person or the despised person or the unsavory people in international judgment that will need someone to listen to their position as was the case with Kim Il Sung and with the provisional government in Haiti and as with the Bosnian Serbs.

GROSS: If you were able to turn back the clock and have the knowledge and the experience as an international mediator that you have now, would you have handled the hostage negotiations with Iran any differently?

CARTER: No, I tried. You know, through every possible means, official and unofficial means, I tried to negotiate with or to communicate with the Ayatollah Khomeini. But he issued orders in his autocratic or - way that no Iranian was authorized to speak to anyone who represented the U.S. government in the hostage thing. So we tried to get all kinds of people to open up some sort of discussion with, with the Iranian officials, to get our hostages out. And it was fruitless until the last few days of my presidency.

The last three days that I was president, I never went to bed at all. I never even went over to the White House. I stayed in the Oval Office to negotiate with the Iranians indirectly through the Algerians. And it was that negotiation that finally brought about the release of the hostages. From 10 o'clock that morning until noon, when I went out of office, they sat in an airplane at the end of the runway in Tehran Airport. And as soon as President Reagan was sworn in, the plane took off. But that was a result of a last-minute negotiations through the Algerians.

GROSS: That was an excerpt of my 1995 interview with Jimmy Carter. The following year, I spoke with him about his memoir, "Living Faith." As a Southern Baptist, he was considered a progressive evangelical. I asked him about how he approached his faith in the years following his presidency.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CARTER: Well, I've got more time now to devote to my church and my duties as a Christian in a nonpolitical fashion. I just don't have any ambitions or interest in ever seeking another public office. And the Carter Center's work in which Rosalynn and I devote almost all of our time is strictly bipartisan in nature. So now I'm able to teach Sunday school every Sunday that I'm in Plains, which is about 2 out of 3 Sundays. Last year, I taught 36 times. And some other aspects of our life are directly related to Christianity.

But I don't want to imply that when I was president that I abandoned my faith or found a basic inconsistency between what I believe in religion and what I did as a politician. I think, almost always, they were compatible. There were a few times when they were not completely compatible, but I took an oath of office before God to support the Constitution and laws of my nation. And I did. And if I disagreed with some of the laws or felt that they were not completely compatible with my religious faith, I just obeyed the law.

GROSS: That's an interesting way to look at it, though, that you took an oath before God to actually serve the country. And so you felt that you had it straight with your religion, that you were in this office to serve the country. And it wasn't about your personal religious convictions when it came down to certain issues. It was about what you thought was best for the country or in the majority interest.

CARTER: Two or three aspects - one is that I believe in the separation of church and state, so I was very careful not to have religious services in the White House or to have religious meetings in the White House. I went to church on Sunday, when I was in Washington, at the First Baptist Church. At Camp David, we had a private religious service. And there were very few times when I felt any discrepancy at all. But I had to interpret the Constitution as the Supreme Court ruled it to be at that particular moment.

There were two issues on - for instance - I'll just give you an example where I felt that - well, I just couldn't believe that Jesus Christ would favor abortions. And I also can't believe that he would favor the death penalty. And fortunately, all the time I was governor, all the time I was president, there was never a death penalty imposed. On abortion, the Supreme Court had ruled that Roe v. Wade was applicable. And I, obviously, as president, enforced that interpretation of the Constitution. But I did everything I could to reduce the need for abortions. So that was the main thing that come to mind.

GROSS: While you were in the White House and while you were campaigning for president, did you feel that a lot of Americans misunderstood or misinterpreted what it meant to you to be born again?

CARTER: Well, that was obvious to me because the No. 1 news story of the entire 1976 campaign was an interview that I gave with Playboy magazine. And all I did was quote part of the Sermon on the Mount. And it became an issue that almost cost me the election. The Playboy interviewer turned off his tape recorder, started to leave my home, and he said, you claim to be a born-again Christian. You claim to be perfect. American citizens are imperfect. How can you claim to be willing to govern them fairly? And I said, well, you've completed misinterpreted my religion. Our religion teaches us that all of us have sinned, come short of the glory of God, that we should not judge other people. And Jesus taught us not to try to distinguish between degrees of sinfulness. If we hate our brother, we should not criticize someone who commits murder. If we have lust in our heart for a woman, we should not criticize a person who commits adultery.

And of course, the next question was inevitable. He said, have you committed adultery? And I answered that question. He said, well, have you ever had lust in your heart? And I said, sure. When I was a high school kid, when I was in college, before I married Rosalynn, well, quite often I would look at a beautiful girl, and I would want to have sex with her.

And he said, well, thanks a lot. So he left, and two or three weeks later, Playboy magazine came out. It was the biggest selling issue of Playboy in history. And my public opinion poll dropped 15% in 10 days. So that was those innocent days, 20 years ago. Just because I said that I, you know, had lust as I thought everyone - every man did.

But then the news reporters went all over the country asking famous preachers and TV evangelists about the issue. And they all said, no, no, I've never lusted after any woman except my wife. So it made me look, you know, both sinful and also, I would guess, equivocating on an important issue.

GROSS: We're listening to my 1996 interview with Jimmy Carter. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CUONG VU AND PAT METHENY'S "SEEDS OF DOUBT")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with Jimmy Carter in 1996 after the publication of his memoir, "Living Faith."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: How did you approach your prayer life in the White House? You say in your book that other presidents have brought in Billy Graham to organize, you know, worship for them, but you didn't want to do that in the White House. You thought it was a - it violated your sense of separation of church and state. So what did you do?

CARTER: Well, I worshipped as I would if I had not been in public life at all. I went to Sunday services at the First Baptist Church in Washington, which was the nearest Baptist church to the White House. Most of the weekends we'd tried to go to Camp David, we had a chaplain from a nearby Army base come and preach a sermon. We sang hymns together. And as far as my personal prayer life was concerned, I would say it was much more frequent and maybe on average, more heartfelt than any other time in my life, because I felt that the decisions I made were affecting the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

I never prayed for popularity. I never prayed to be reelected, things of that kind. I prayed that I could keep my nation at peace. I prayed that I could extend the advantages of peace to other people, say, between Egypt and Israel at Camp David. When the hostage crisis came along, the prayer that I made was that all the hostages would come back home safe and free, that I would not betray the principles of my nation or do anything to embarrass it. And I think in all those cases, my prayers were answered.

I think God always answers our prayers. Quite often God's answer is no. We don't get what we ask for. And then the obligation, if we have faith, is to find out within ourselves, why. Are we asking for selfish things? Are we asking for things that are unjustified? Are our prayers in accordance with God's will?

Those are the kind of things that I've learned over a long lifetime, as you know. And those are the things I try to describe in "Living Faith."

GROSS: What was your sense of prayer when you were a child, and how has your sense of prayer changed as an adult?

CARTER: Well, when I was a child, say, when I reached the age of 10 or teenage life, I had some very serious doubts about what I heard in church, what I heard in Sunday school, what I heard my own father teaching. But I wouldn't express my doubts to anybody. And I thought I was very sinful not to have absolute and total faith. Now my faith is stronger. I can see the various aspects of a deep Christian faith.

I realized that as I was at the age of 15, I'm still searching. I'm still trying to learn. I'm still trying to stretch my heart, stretch my mind. I learned two or three times in my life that my faith could sustain total doubt in God. I rejected God a few times. I felt that God had betrayed me, that I could not depend on my faith at all. And I had to go through a very difficult and unpleasant healing process.

I've learned over a period of a long lifetime, 50 years of marriage with Rosalynn, how sadly mistaken I was in dealing with her. When we first got married, I was an arrogant young Naval Academy graduate. Rosalynn was a very shy, timid, younger person from Plains, Georgia. I totally dominated her. I didn't show any sensitivity when she was distressed. I was just impatient. When decisions were to be made about our family's life, I didn't consult with her. I just made a decision and informed her what we were going to do.

And that was in my formative stage as a mature human being. I've learned to correct some of those mistakes. So prayer life for me has paralleled in awareness and growth and in significance my evolution as a human being. And I hope that I'll continue to improve in the remaining years that I have.

GROSS: Tell me if this is too personal, OK? What were the times in your life that you thought God betrayed you?

CARTER: Well, one of the most distressing times was in 1966. I had been a state senator two terms. I thought, after prayer, that I should run for governor of Georgia. I mounted a massive campaign all over the state, frantically shaking hands, asking people to support me. My opponent was a racist named Lester Maddox, whose symbol was a pick handle that he used to beat African Americans over the head if they tried to come into his restaurant and buy some fried chicken. When the results came in, Lester Maddox had won. And I had lost. And I couldn't believe that the Georgia people preferred him. I couldn't believe that God would let this happen. So I had a complete renunciation of my faith. And my sister, who lived in Fayetteville, N.C., Ruth Carter Stapleton, was a very famous evangelist. My mother called her and told her that I was - had this attitude.

So Ruth came down to Plains. And we went out in the woods. And Ruth tried to console me, which was impossible. And Ruth quoted a couple of verses from the second chapter of James, which was a foundation of Ruth's ministry, which is a very happy ministry. Anyway, James says, according to God, that no matter how horrible a mistake we made or how total our failure might be, or how abject our despair or how great our loss, that if we have, first of all, courage and then if we have patience, and then if we are wise enough to seek wisdom from God, any catastrophe can be changed into a blessing. I told Ruth that this was complete baloney - that wasn't the word I used - that it was ridiculous. And Ruth said, Jimmy, you have to have faith that this is true. She said, why don't you just forget about politics for a while and just respond to any opportunities you have?

So just a few weeks later, I was asked to go as a lay witness to Lock Haven, Pa. A group of volunteer Baptists from State College, which is where Penn State University is, had called every family in the phone book. And they had identified a hundred families, none of whom had any religious faith. And I was asked to go and visit those families. So I knocked on the door. Some received us with open arms. Some wouldn't open the door. And at the end of a week, I had experienced for the first time in my life a genuine presence of God, a sense that the Holy Spirit was with us. We had 48 people who accepted the Christian faith. And that was a turning point in my life. I then began to see that no matter if I was elected to any future office or not that there were other things in life. When we do have a setback in politics or in business or whatever, we need to have faith that we can find an alternative that would give us much more significant priorities in life.

GROSS: The interview with Jimmy Carter we just heard was recorded in 1996 after the publication of his memoir "Living Faith." After a break, we'll hear his reflections on aging recorded after the publication of his memoir "The Virtues Of Aging." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TERRI LYNE CARRINGTON, JOHN PATITUCCI AND LEWIS PORTER'S "PEOPLE GET READY")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Today, we've been looking back on the life of Jimmy Carter through a series of FRESH AIR interviews with him. He's now spending his remaining time at home under hospice care. We'll end today's show with our 1998 interview recorded after the publication of his memoir "The Virtues Of Aging." Carter was 56 when he left the White House in 1981 and was hardly ready to retire. He had, perhaps, the most productive post-presidency in American history.

In 1998, after the publication of his book "The Virtues Of Aging," I spoke with him about getting older. He was in his mid-70s at the time. After his presidency, he and Rosalynn returned home to Plains, Ga., and faced something many retired couples face, more time home together - perhaps too much time. He and Rosalynn learned they needed to give each other a lot of private space, to keep separate, except for times that they'd scheduled to be together. I asked him how they first realized that too much time together was the source of tension.

CARTER: Well, it was after I left the White House that we found that we would be confronting each other in the same house all day long and not have a job outside. Although, we do a lot of things now outside that we didn't anticipate then. Also, when I lost the election in 1980, I discovered, to my horror, that a very successful business that I had put into a blind trust when I went to the White House was now $1 million in debt.

We had moved back to Plains, Ga., a town that had a population of 600. Our last child was leaving home. We didn't have a job. We didn't know what in the world we were going to do. And so Rosa and I have evolved a lifestyle over - after some difficulty, I might admit, in adjusting to each other - so that we respect each other's privacy. We know now, after a number of years, what times of day we get together. But during the work periods, when we're writing a book, for instance - books, that's how we make our living now, writing books - we respect each other's privacy. And we don't encroach on it.

GROSS: Jimmy Carter is my guest. His new book is called "The Virtues Of Aging." You say one thing we must do nowadays is prepare for long, drawn-out illnesses near the end...

CARTER: Yes.

GROSS: ...Of life now that there's the medical technology to sustain us through long, chronic illnesses. I'm wondering if you have any thoughts about living wills or were you - where, if any place, you'd want to draw the line if you had a debilitating chronic illness.

CARTER: Yes. As a matter of fact, I wrote about that in the book. My father, my mother, my - both my sisters and my brother all died from the same illness, and that is cancer. They all smoked cigarettes, and they died, most of them, prematurely. I've never smoked, and that's one reason I have better health, I think. But when my family members approached death, all of them, for some reason, approached it with great equanimity. My sister Ruth was a famous evangelist, Ruth Carter Stapleton. My brother and my mother were great humorists, and they were still telling jokes and kidding back-and-forth with the family members around their bedside when they were approaching death the last few hours.

My oldest sister, Gloria, was an avid biker. She had a home, you might say, for motorcyclists who were on the way down to Daytona to race. And they would spend two or three days with Gloria while she fed them and took care of them and repaired their leather jackets and so forth. When Gloria was on her deathbed in the hospital - we all knew she was going to die with pancreatic cancer - she had two - the bikers moved into Plains. And two motorcyclists were at Gloria's hospital room door 24 hours a day. And when Gloria finally died, her funeral procession was a hearse. And in front of the hearse were 37 Harley Davidson motorcycles, and carved on Gloria's tombstone in Plains is, she rides in Harley heaven.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CARTER: So you can see that death in our family has not been a sordid, morbid, psychologically wrenching experience. We all know we're going to pass on some time, and we've tried to approach it in a reasonable way. And to get back finally to your question - Rosalynn and I both have living wills. We want to pass away the same way my family members have, without tubes and without an artificial extension of our life that's very costly. So we have ordained already, legally, that we die a natural death.

GROSS: You said that one of the most interesting and gratifying responsibilities at your age is to decide what to do with accumulated wealth and possessions. And you and Rosalynn are planning to leave a substantial portion of your estate to the Carter Center. And I'm wondering how you've both decided what's the right thing to do, you know, by your country and by your children - you know, how much to give to the Carter Center, how much to leave for your children. I think that's - you know, for people who are lucky enough to be in that position, it's a difficult question.

CARTER: In my book, I give some simple advice on what everybody should do. One fact that we can't avoid is that we have - all of us in the United States have a major heir, the same one, and that's the U.S. government. If we don't plan our estate, then a major portion of it, maybe sometimes almost all of it, will go to the U.S. government instead of the people about whom we care or the other projects or the entities about which we are concerned.

So we finally agreed that we would - Rosalynn and I did - that we would have all our children come down home for one Thanksgiving weekend, for instance. And we discussed with them very frankly everything that we owned. And we took them around and showed them the boundary lines of our land. We discussed with them, what do you want us to leave to you? Would you us rather skip you with some of our estate and give it directly to your children, that is, mine and Rosalynn's grandchildren? Rosalynn and I have decided, with counsel from estate planners, how much of our estate to leave to the Carter Center. The point is that no matter who we are, we ought to make some plans about what kind of legacy we want.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

CARTER: I've really enjoyed it. Thank you. You had some good questions.

GROSS: The interview we just heard with Jimmy Carter was recorded in 1998. In February, after a series of hospitalizations, he decided to spend his remaining time at home in hospice care. We wish him comfort and peace.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the medical use of electricity, how researchers are manipulating the natural electricity in our bodies in an attempt to cure or alleviate the symptoms of various diseases including cancer. Electric signals are already being used in pacemakers and implants for Parkinson's disease. My guest will be science writer Sally Adee, author of "We Are Electric." I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF CYRUS CHESTNUT'S "AMAZING GRACE")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Today's edition was produced by Roberta Shorrock, who also directed the show. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. I am Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF CYRUS CHESTNUT'S "AMAZING GRACE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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