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Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Good morning, Mr. President

As professional experiences go, interviewing a former president has to rank pretty high. Yesterday I had 15 minutes on the phone with former President Jimmy Carter. Admittedly I was a little starstuck at first.

"Wendy, I have President Carter on the line," said the publicist.

"Good morning, Wendy. How are things in Cleveland?"

"Good morning, Mr. President. Things are fine, wet and crisp as you'd expect in October." Phew! I got through that first comment without fumbling over my words. I was supposed to talk to him about his new book, which I did. But I had a world leader on the phone and felt compelled to ask him questions related to his work on behalf of human rights and freedom and to ask him to respond to his criticism of the Bush Administration. Here's what I learned:

1) He's not so soft-spoken in an interview situation. He was "handling" the interview quite smoothly just like most politicians. The worst experience I ever had interviewing a public official was with George Voinovich when he was governor of Ohio. I had to interview him the morning after Christmas and he managed the entire 45 minutes driving his agenda of "working harder and smarter." When I finally managed to get a question in about his record on education (he called himself the education governor and most in the education community took exception to that moniker), his handler said, "Governor, we have two more minutes." I nearly tossed my pen in frustration.

2) At the age of 80, I get the impression Carter's not holding back in life. He's advocating peace and democracy worldwide through the Carter Center, writing and traveling constantly. Of late he's also speaking out (to the dismay of Republicans) and publicly disagreeing with the Bush Administration's handling of foreign policy. (Many have questioned whether it's acceptable for a former president to question the commander-in-chief. I, for one, believe this commander-in-chief needs to be questioned more, not less.)

More recently he's charged that the election process in Florida (and he even mentioned Ohio) has not yet been been fixed. He's concerned about our loss of integrity in the election process (a point he apparently shares with local voters after listening this morning to WCPN's discussion with the head of Cuyahoga County Board of Elections). The Carter Center, which is in the profession of holding honest elections around the world, will turn its attention and standards for uniformity and integrity and balance in the elections process on its own country this year.

3) When I mentioned that I was traveling to South Korea soon, he told me to keep an open mind. (I think I can manage that.) He claims that the Bush Administration has driven a wedge between North and South Korea over those pesky nukes. It seems that many of South Korea's younger set favor reunification at any cost and, well, that just doesn't sit well with us Americans, what with our aversion to nuclear weapons, terrorism, dictactorships, etc. He heard President Bush describe how he was in the most dangerous spot in the world at the DMZ and Carter says he looked at his wife, Rosalynn and said "that’s where we built eight houses last year." Think I detected a touch of smugness in that remark.

Beyond feeling at his age he's entitled to speak his mind, I can't help but wonder if he doesn't have his own agenda. Who knows…? If John Kerry is elected president there may yet be a position for Carter as special ambassador to North Korea. Or for the Carter Center to be peace broker of the decade, thus earning it a much-coveted Nobel Peace Prize. Hmmmm…

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