Ever since former President Jimmy Carter accepted a position as University Distinguished Professor at Emory in 1982, he has maintained a special relationship with Emory. In the wake of his recent cancer diagnosis, the Wheel spoke with Carter about topics including his health, politics and advice for students. This is an edited transcript.
The Emory Wheel: How are you feeling?
Jimmy Carter: I’ve been feeling fine. I was a little weak after my operation and so forth treatments, but I’ve felt very good. I don’t have any pain or anything.
TEW: What would you say to college students about facing death?
JC: Well, all of us have to face death, and it’s a matter of being fearful of it and trying to avoid it as long as you can, but you’re not [immortal]. I take care of myself, I exercise, I eat the right kind of food, I go to the doctors regularly at Emory. I do everything I can to prolong my life as much as possible, but I don’t have any fear of when the end comes. I just have religious faith, and I have a gratitude to the wonderful life that I’ve had so far. I’ll be 91 on the first of October.
TEW: Religion has played an important part of your life. A Trinity University study found that only 32 percent of college students today would say that they’re “true believers” in God. What would you say to the remaining students?
JC: Well, I think they’re missing a lot of inspiration and guidance, moral values, ethical values in their lives, by foregoing a relationship with God. I happen to be a Christian, and I believe in Jesus Christ. I look on the life of Christ and his teachings and his words as a set of moral and ethical values for me to follow. It’s a constant aspiration that I have, to emulate him as much as I can. I fail a lot. It’s always a vision of what life can be in its truest and most effective form. God gave us all life, but he also gave us freedom, so we can decide to reject our creator if we want to. But … I think that is foregoing a major element of our life. It can be enjoyable and challenging and unpredictable and adventurous and gratifying.
TEW: Do you think that the pure liberal arts student can still exist in this age of college debt?
JC: When I was going to college and when my children were going to college, there was no such thing as borrowing money and accumulating debt. That’s a more recent development, but I think when I was a student, we never had any thought about that. As a matter of fact, when I was at the Naval Academy, I was paid I think $65 a month to be a student. So, that was not something I had to face … I have 12 grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren, and I know that they’re facing the prospect of accumulating debt. Rosalynn and I, with the income from my books and other things, have tried to help them avoid that being a burden for them.
TEW: You, as a politician, gained a lot of trust from the American people by seemingly making decisions based on moral values and beliefs, no matter the political implications. Do you see any parallels between yourself and Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump?
JC: I had the same kind of freedom, I guess, that Donald Trump has as he finances his own campaign. I financed mine out of the $1 per person check off people’s income tax, and that was a very low amount of money, in the neighborhood of $20 million for the entire general election campaign. So, there are some parallels between it, but I hope that my presentation was more progressive and more enlightened and more, I’d say, humanitarian than Donald Trump’s. I think Bernie Sanders has a very good basic philosophy and basic platform to put forward, and that is to curtail the enormous advantages that have been given since I left office, beginning with Ronald Reagan, to the extremely wealthy people in this country who now control almost the entire political campaign with the stupid ruling by the Supreme Court of Citizens United … I think the entire political structure or system of electing people in our country has gone downhill dramatically in the last 20 years, and I think it’s been subverted into, basically, an oligarchy where the richest possible contributors to the Democratic and Republican party shape not only the outcome of the election, but also the policies of the elected officials.
TEW: What could the United States do to move away from that “oligarchy?”
JC: Well, I think the main thing is ultimately to have a Supreme Court that is enlightened and goes back to trying to increase the number of people who participate in the electoral system and also to eliminate this unbridled pouring of money by rich people into the campaign to decide who’s elected … Another thing that used to be done is to stop the extreme gerrymandering of congressional districts, which has now become almost a plague in our country. I think those three things are what need to be done, and I don’t see it being done with the present Congress to benefit from this system by staying in office. I don’t think it’s going to be done until the Supreme Court rules differently from what they’ve done in the past. And this can only come about when the American people themselves see the deterioration in our country’s commitment to pure democracy as a very troubling development and demand that it be changed. I don’t have much hope that that’s going to be done anytime soon.
TEW: You’ve said that your father’s death made you examine what life is all about. That was 62 years ago … What would you tell the ones who wonder what life is all about when your time comes?
JC: I believe, as I said earlier, that we were created by God, and we were given both life and opportunities and also freedom to make a choice about what kind of life we want to live … I think that everyone should try to follow the tenets that are spelled out in all of the major religions. That is, a commitment to peace, to humility, to service of others, forgiveness, compassion for those who are suffering and love, which is the kind of love that Jesus demonstrated in his own life and teachings. So far as the secular explanation of what I believe, I think the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the highest possible expression by people of the essence of morality and ethical high standards … There are only 30 paragraphs there, and I think those spell out the highest possible standard that human beings could develop in their own lives and their own governments. I wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times a couple years ago that showed that the United States of America was violating 10 of the 30 paragraphs at that time. And so, that’s what I think each person can do, both as a citizen of a nation and also individually.
TEW: What advice do you have for college students as they go into the real world?
JC: I think you have the most freedom that you’ll ever have in your life while you’re a student. Most students don’t have any obligations to a dominating employer, whether it’s a school board or a corporation or whatever. And you also don’t have any obligations to a wife or a husband or children that you’ll have in the future that’ll constrain your freedom. And you have an environment within which you live now, Emory University, that proposes, I presume in almost every classroom experience, the finest aspects of a future life, to remind you of what you can be in your own chosen profession or others, and to urge you to broaden the impact or your influence, stretching your heart and mind as much as you can. Those kind of things give you a great advantage now, but your own choice of profession doesn’t mean that you have to give up the constant goal of expressing basic moral and ethical values, whatever you choose [to do]. And if you can’t find a profession to enter, then my advice always to students, when they asked me this for the last 33 years at Emory, has been to go into the Peace Corps. I think the Peace Corps is a great stepping stone from college, and it won’t be a waste of time to spend 2 and half years in that new environment of a different country, learning a different language perhaps. It’s the best thing you could have on your resume when you seek future employment. No matter what it is, just say, “I served in the Peace Corps in South Africa or India or wherever it was.” So, that’s the kind of advice I would give.