Interview with President Jimmy Carter: Free Elections

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Female Speaker 1: In celebration of the reopening of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum and the former president's 85th birthday, we sat down with Nobel laureate Jimmy Carter to talk about the highlights of his presidency and his hopes for the Carter Center.

President Carter: You want to go first?

Female Speaker 2: Yes. How did your post presidential career emerge?

President Carter: Well, my post presidential career was forced on me because I was involuntarily retired as a result of the 1980 elections when I was not re-elected. At the time that happened, I was one of the few - one of the youngest survivors of the White House. I realized just from statistics that I had 25 more years of active life in prospect. What am I gonna do with 25 more years? I didn't want to be involved in commercial affairs. I didn't want to go on the lecture circuit and just make a lot of money making speeches. I didn't work for corporate boards, so what am I gonna do? I knew that both I and my wife had a great potential influence around the world. Having been president of the greatest nation on earth, we obviously had access to everybody we wanted to meet - famous scientists, famous doctors, political leaders, educational leaders, so we had a potential of really helping in many parts of the world in ways that I would say unpredictable and adventurous and exciting, sometimes disappointing, but most of the time gratifying. We decided to start by helping people end or prevent wars. That was the original concept of the Carter Center. We're gonna form a place here where people that had a conflict going on in their country, or they were threatened with a conflict or a war, could come here, and I would help negotiate between them and maybe prevent a war. That was the original idea. So, when we got started with that idea, it soon became clear to us that a much greater and more all pervasive need was to help people with combating diseases. These are diseases that are not known anymore in the States or in Europe or in Japan or any rich country. They've been gone for a long time, diseases with which you probably never have heard - dracunculiasis, onchocerciasis, lymphatic filariasis, schistosomiasis, dracoma. But these are diseases we don't know about anymore, but they afflict hundreds of millions of people still throughout Africa and Latin America and in the poorest and most isolated countries in Asia. So, that's what we found was the greatest need that existed among the poorest and most neglected and suffering people in the world. Nowadays, ¾ of the Carter Center's work in both money spent and personnel effort is in the dealing with what we call neglected tropical diseases. That's the name that the World Health Organization has given these diseases because they had, before the Carter Center, been neglected. They're not anymore neglected because we devote our time to trying to address them.

Female Speaker 2: What about the Carter Center's work with free elections?

President Carter: When we started trying to end wars and prevent wars, we found that quite often inside countries where the civil war is about to emerge that you would have maybe two armies headed by two generals fighting each other in the same nation. We soon discovered that having an election is better than negotiating because I could go to both of the generals and say, "Look, why don't you let the people of this country decide who should be their next leader instead of you fighting for it because we believe that the people will choose the best person to be the president." This is a part of politics. It's kind of a politics of self delusion. Both of those generals would think, "Well, I'm certainly the best person, and if we let the people vote, I'm sure they will choose me." So the Carter Center began to go in and put together a system whereby the people could have their first democratic election in history. Of course, one of those generals was disappointed in the election, so we had to get other people to help us, the United Nations and so forth, to make sure that the loser would accept the results of the election graciously, and also the winner would accept the results of the election graciously and not try to punish, once in office, their opponents that used to be their battlefield adversaries. So that's the way we got involved in the election process. After that, we got involved too in countries that already had democracy, but had a real problem on their hands. Sometimes, the ruling party who was in office would so dominate the whole process and put their own people in to run the election that the opposition parties would say, "We don't have a chance to win. Why should we get involved?" So quite often, those opposition parties would come to the Carter Center and say, "Will you come into our country and make sure the election is honest?" We would agree to do so and let the people stir up such a furor that the ruling party would also agree to let us come in, being fairly sure they were gonna win. But quite often, the ruling party doesn't win. So, we've now been through I believe 75 elections throughout the world, in Asia and Africa and Latin America and so forth all over the world, every one of them a difficult challenge, but every one very important to the people in the country involved. We've been able to promote democracy and freedom and the right of people to make their own choice about who should be their political leader.

Announcer: Be sure to tune in every Wednesday in September for more of our interview with President Carter. To learn more about the Carter Center and its mission of waging peace, fighting disease and building hope, visit And as always, for more on this and thousands of other topics, visit