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ABC News Interview Interview With Correspondents Harry Reasoner and Sam Donaldson in Plains, Georgia.

August 10, 1977


MR. REASONER. Mr. President, I suppose in 2 or 3 years before your election you were identified as a man who wanted the Presidency as much as any candidate in this century. Now that you've had it for 7 months or so, was it worth it? Are you having any fun?

THE PRESIDENT. Yes. So far, I've enjoyed it. It's been a pleasant life at the White House. I think it's brought our family back together after being divided all over the country for the last 2 or 3 years. I've been pleasantly surprised at the degree of cooperation and harmony that's evolved between me and the Congress after a shaky start. And we are now slowly but steadily putting into effect the campaign promises that I made on Government reorganization, welfare reform, energy policy, a new Energy Department, and so forth.

So, it's been a pleasant life the first 7 months, but I have to say that we've still got a long way to go. I'm learning. It's my first experience in serving in the Federal Government. But I think, in general, it's been pleasant.

MR. REASONER. As you know, Louis Harris' organization, for ABC, has taken a poll on the first 6 months of the administration and on how people feel about you. 1,515 people were talked to. Suppose you'd been one of the 1,515. What kind of marks would you give yourself as a leader and as a person for the first months?

THE PRESIDENT. Well, I think the major feeling that I have is that my own administration has fairly accurately represented what the American people both are and also want our country to be. I've tried to open up the White House and my own decisionmaking process to the public. I've learned from them. And I think that there has been a restoration of the confidence of people in the Government, not because of me but because there's such a deep desire on the part of our people to trust Washington, the Congress, the President, the White House for a change, after the war in Vietnam and the CIA and Watergate revelations.

So, I think to the extent that I've accurately represented what the people wanted our Government to do, it's been a good administration. Many people are impatient, perhaps overly so. We've made some good progress already in economic affairs, but everybody expected perhaps a much more rapid improvement.

When I took over, the unemployment rate was about 8 percent, and now it's, I think, 6.9 percent, which is some improvement. And the economic stimulus package, which is just now being approved by Congress and has been signed into law by me and is now being implemented, I think, will have an additional beneficial effect. I've been disappointed in the inflation rate, but it's this way all over the world almost.

So, I think as far as the tone of the Government and the attitude of our people toward the Government, the marks would be fairly high. As far as tangible results in this first 6 months on economy, they've been somewhat disappointing, but I think the slow progress is there. And we have not had any major breakthrough in foreign affairs, although we have a very coherent program that we are pursuing. We are tenacious and determined to improve the situation in southern Africa and in the Middle East, with the Soviets on SALT and test bans against atomic weapons. Our nonproliferation program has been a shock to some other nations but is making progress. And I think that in the organization of Government, our first budget is now being prepared using zero-base budgeting. So far, the progress has been good.

So, specific--too early to say. Tone, trust--pretty good.

MR. DONALDSON. You've retained a very high percentage of popularity. I think, except for the abnormal situation of Lyndon Johnson, at this point in your Presidency, you have more popularity than any recent President. And yet, that seems to be on a personal level; a lot of people don't like your programs and your initiatives.

My question really is: Down the road somewhere, does this line of Jimmy Carter--personally very popular--but President Carter's programs--not so popular-intersect? And what happens then?

THE PRESIDENT. I don't really believe there's that basic conflict between what I am, what I stand for, what I said during the campaign on the one hand, and our actual programs on the other. It's kind of a shock to certain elements in our society to come forward finally with an energy policy. The oil companies are mounting a massive advertising campaign saying that the Government ought to give them more money for additional exploration, which really translates into profits at the expense of consumers. This creates some confusion during the debate phase in Congress, for instance.

Nobody has attempted for a long time to completely revise the welfare system or to bring some renewed stability to the social security program. We've established a new Department of Energy. And we are addressing the basic question of tax reform and so forth. All these changes that will be coming forward with congressional action upset some very powerful and influential elements in our society.

But I think that after a period of 2 or 3 years, the difference between what I am and what the people perceived me to be during the campaign and what my programs actually are as they wind their way through the Congress--that difference will be narrowed and people will see that there's no difference.


MR. DONALDSON. You mentioned energy, and you are quite correct--some interest groups, of course, are chewing away at the program. Perhaps Russell Long will in the Senate. But I had in mind the total American people. They don't want to pay a gasoline tax apparently, and they don't want to conserve in the tough ways. Did you miscalculate the mood of this country?

THE PRESIDENT. No. I think that the mood of the people is there--very supportive of a comprehensive and strict and profound energy policy designed, first of all, to conserve energy, to put the increased cost of energy equal to what it actually is worth, but to return those revenues back to the people directly in tax reductions or better programs, better insulated homes, more efficient automobiles, research and development in solar energy, and so forth. I think when the whole program is passed, they'll begin to see that although oil and gas is going to cost more--and by the way, the oil and gas companies will make more profits than they are now--the benefits to be derived from that will be long-range.

There's a growing awareness that our increasing imports of foreign oil is hurting our economy. It creates inflation. It means that we import more than we export. And this has got to be turned around. But there's no way to have a popular energy program. I think it's accurate to say that on generalities, the people are strongly in favor of a new, very tough energy conservation program. When you get down to specifics, where they have to cut a little themselves, perhaps they're not so much in favor of it.

But I think the shift toward coal, the savings in oil and gas consumption, the better insulation of homes, more efficient automobiles--these things are bound to come. And when they finally arrive, the people will, I think, favor them.


MR. REASONER. Mr. President, at a news conference a couple of weeks ago you said, very understandably, that if you had made some mistakes, you didn't propose to list them. [Laughter] If we mentioned a couple of things some people think have been mistakes, maybe you'd have some comment.


MR. REASONER. In foreign affairs, the suggestion has been made that both in the SALT talks and in the Mideast that you have tended to perhaps be too open, that you have come out with what might seem to be an inflexible American program and just--it's sitting up there for everyone else to shoot at. Have you changed your attitude on how to do this kind of thing since you've taken office?

THE PRESIDENT. No. I think it's best for the American people to know the reason why we have not had a Middle Eastern settlement in 30 years or maybe 2,000 years and to understand not only our own Nation's positions in seeking a compromise or an agreement that might lead to permanent peace but also to understand, as best we can, the difference of opinion that exists between Israel and Egypt and Jordan and Syria and some of the other nations in the Mideast. I think the American people ought to understand and know the facts.

To the extent that there is an open debate in the Congress, in the news media, among the people themselves, I'll feel much more secure, when we take a strong position, that I have the backing of the Congress and the American people--that we ought not to evolve a complicated position in a sensitive area like the Middle East in secret and then spring it on people or negotiate privately.

No one can expect miracles. As I say, this is something that's been sought after for generations--this peace in the Middle East. We may or may not be successful, but we're going to continue to try in a very determined and tenacious way. And I'm going to continue to go public with the American position.

In the SALT talks, we've developed a comprehensive proposal to present to the Soviets. We are doing it both privately and, to some degree, publicly. We want a complete end of testing of nuclear explosives, both military and peaceful explosives.

We have put into effect a new policy on nonproliferation to try to prevent nations that don't presently have atomic explosives from developing them. This has upset some of our allies in Europe who want to sell factories and machines that can make explosive material. But I think we ought to be tenacious about it.

And I think it's good to let the American people know the facts behind the controversies and the debates. Obviously, . when these kinds of debates are made public, it creates an image of confusion and a lack of a comprehensive policy, and it shows that our Nation is not a dictator for other countries.

We have to put forward ideas, and maybe over a period of time we'll have some progress. I think we will. But I've never had any doubt that the American people ought to be as thoroughly informed as possible and also involved in the decisionmaking process.


MR. REASONER. Keeping on the Middle East for just one minute, a number of Israeli leaders in private say that you have made drastic changes in America's attitude toward Israel and that they regard you with considerable trepidation. Are you aware of that feeling, and do you think there is justification for it?

THE PRESIDENT. Yes, I'm aware of that feeling and also many other feelings. There's no single attitude among all Jews in the world or all Israeli citizens. To the extent that Israeli leaders genuinely Want a peace settlement, I think that they have to agree that there will be an acceptance of genuine peace on the part of the Arabs, an adjustment of boundaries in the Middle East which are secure for the Israelis and also satisfy the minimum requirements of the Arab neighbors and the United Nations resolutions, and some solution to the question of the enormous numbers of Palestinian refugees who have been forced out of their homes and who want to have some fair treatment.

These three basic elements are there. And we are trying not only to put forward our own ideas but to search among the different disputing nations for some common basis on which they can reach agreement. We can only act as an intermediary to the extent that the different countries trust us.

So, we've tried to be fair. We've tried to be open when possible. We've kept confidences when they have been given to us in confidence. And I don't know that we can reach a final solution. We are hopeful that we can, and I think world opinion is very powerful on disputing nations when there is a consensus about what ought to be done.

So, we'll continue to labor at it, taking slings and arrows from all directions, criticisms, publicly in nations when privately the leaders say we are willing to do this when we come out publicly for the same position. Quite often for domestic political consumption there's an adamant, very disputive, and antagonistic attitude taken on the part of some leaders. But we are willing to accept this consequence. I don't know how to guarantee an ultimate success, but I am willing to accept the criticism that comes from all parties as we struggle for success.


MR. DONALDSON. Mr. President, you talked a moment ago about one of your accomplishments. You said very proudly that the restoration of confidence in government was high.


MR. DONALDSON. And all the polls show that people give you high marks for integrity. Against this background, what are you going to do about the problem of Bert Lance?

THE PRESIDENT. Well, the inquiry that's going on now by the Comptroller of the Currency concerning Bert Lance's banking practices before he came into the Government, I think, is a healthy circumstance.

When allegations are made in the news media or from private sources, it's incumbent on the Government to investigate those. Bert Lance is cooperating with the Comptroller. I have confidence in both the Government officials in the Treasury Department and also in Bert Lance. And as I've said before, I don't know the details and don't want to become involved in the details of what went on in 1975 or prior to that time. But I have confidence that both the Comptroller and Bert will make the facts known to the public and let the situation be judged accordingly.

MR. DONALDSON. But I think you have a higher problem than perhaps past Presidents because you had a higher standard. The question is not illegality. As I understand it, most of these investigations are not dealing on the question of illegality, but simply propriety of a man who might have been able to do something that is common practice in the banking field and yet personally benefit, whereas, the ordinary citizen--and you ran against people who didn't pay their fair share--wouldn't benefit. Don't you have to hold Mr. Lance to that higher standard?

THE PRESIDENT. Yes, I think so. And I believe that Bert would agree that a high standard has to be maintained. I'm not aware of any improprieties that have been proven against Bert Lance. Allegations or accusations have been made against me, Bert Lance, and many others. But I have complete confidence that when all the facts are known that the situation will be judged by the American public to have been handled properly.

MR. DONALDSON. You know, one more question on this subject. Harry Truman, whom you admire greatly, had one failing that many people found as a failing. He stuck by his friends too long.

Now, at some point aren't you going to have to make a hard decision as to the good of your administration, maintaining the integrity that people have in your administration, versus a friend?

THE PRESIDENT. I don't have any qualms about that. I believe that if anything should be proven concerning Bert Lance that's either improper or illegal, that Bert would immediately take the initiative to either resign or step aside or offer to.

I don't have any concern about Bert Lance and his attitude toward me, my administration, his responsibility to the people. As I said before, though, it's something that ought to be decided between the Comptroller and Bert with a thorough investigation. All the facts ought to be and will be made public, and then a decision will be made accordingly. But--

MR. DONALDSON. But the buck stops there.

THE PRESIDENT. That's right. Well, I am ultimately responsible and don't hesitate to accept that responsibility. But I have enough confidence in Bert Lance to know that if any improprieties do exist, that he would take the initiative to step aside. So far, no improprieties have been proven.


MR. REASONER. There are a lot of ways that friends can get you glory or get you in trouble besides improprieties. How do you feel these days about Andrew Young?

THE PRESIDENT. The same as I've always felt. I think that there is now and will be a growing realization of the value of Andrew Young to our country--both his work in the United Nations and also his work among the developing countries of the world, who in the past have been turned away from us almost unanimously.

There has been a time in years gone by when in the very crucial international organizations we couldn't get 20 percent of the other nations to support our positions even when we thought we had the right positions.

Now I think there's a growing feeling among those small and poor and weak countries that they can trust us for a change, that there's someone in our Government who can listen to them with an open mind, represent the best interests of the United States, and still represent their best interests as well.

Andrew Young is intelligent, courageous, articulate, accurately represents the position that I and the Secretary of State and others have evolved for our own country and is building up trust in our country among the nations who didn't trust us before.

He's a great national treasure, in my opinion, and he has my complete confidence and I think I have his complete confidence.

I might say that there has never been any difference of opinion on basic issues among Andrew Young, the Secretary of State and the National Security Council or myself.


MR. REASONER. Mr. President, you've been sleeping in the White House for nearly 7 months now. You campaigned sort of against the White House and Washington and the establishment and the bureaucracy.

Have you changed your attitude about that? There was a comic strip the other day that said that you were going Washington, you are now an insider. [Laughter]

THE PRESIDENT. Well, I feel more and more like an insider. I think the thing that's made me naturally come to that sense of my position has been the increasingly good relationship between the White House and the Congress.

I've been deeply grateful at the spirit of cooperation and harmony that has evolved because of the leadership in the House and the Senate--I might say, on many occasions both Republican and Democratic leadership.

We face some tough decisions in the future that's going to require bipartisan support--Middle East questions; normalizing relations with China, if they want normal relations; how to deal with the Panama Canal treaty, which has been attempted for 13 years and which is now approaching a final conclusion; how to evolve our Nation's position on the matter of nuclear weapons or comprehensive test bans; the degree of commitment to different aspects of defense capability. All these matters involving defense and foreign affairs have got to be based on a bipartisan support.

But I feel part of the Washington Government now, not in an embarrassed way, but in a natural way. And I believe that there's been a restoration of harmony and cooperation and mutual purpose between the White House and Republicans and Democrats in the Congress, which is very healthy for our country.


MR. DONALDSON. Mr. President, the day before you took the oath of office I asked you if you thought you were just going to be an ordinary President or whether you had a chance for greatness, and you said you thought you had a chance for greatness.


MR. DONALDSON. Now after 6 months of looking at the problems and finding that the bureaucracy doesn't move as rapidly as you might have thought and the Congress doesn't roll over as you might have suspected, what's your estimate?

THE PRESIDENT. Well, that's hard to say. I think it's primarily dependent on both the support that I can maintain among the people of the country and the Congress for the next 3 1/2 years. A 6- or 7-month period is brief in the historical trends that relate to problems that have been there for generations. And if all of our programs are adopted, then I think this administration will be a great one.

But we're going to have a lot of failures and a lot of frustrations, and I think the American people have got to realize that the Government can't provide magic answers for difficult questions and problems. But I think history would have to decide that 20 years from now, looking backward, rather than for me to decide after just 6 months of experience in Washington.

We've got some great ideas and goals. I think the American people have seen a substantial rebuilding of pride in our country. I think that all the polls and my own relations with American people have indicated that there's a renewed sense that our country stands for something that's clean and decent and open, that the American people have more of a participation in the decisionmaking process.

I think there's a general feeling that when we make a mistake, that the mistake is not concealed but is instantly revealed. I think the frequent news conferences and the frankness with which we've discussed formerly secret issues has been constructive.

But as far as whether greatness or mediocrity will result from this administration, it's just too early to say.

MR. REASONER. Mr. President, one final question. We're sort of taking a poll, too. How would you rate Sam Donaldson as a White House correspondent? [Laughter]

THE PRESIDENT. I tell you, it's too early to say. [Laughter] Maybe history will reveal whether Sam has been adequate or below average or great. But after just 7 months, I've not been able to decide. I've put a lot of time in thinking about this question--[laughter]--but so far the answer has escaped me.

MR. DONALDSON. You've wasted your time, thank you. You owe about $10,000 back to the American people. [Laughter]

MR. REASONER. Thank you, Mr. President.

THE PRESIDENT. Thank you very much, Harry, Sam.

Note: The interview began at 11:30 a.m. on August 10 at the Pond House in Plains, Ga. The transcript was released on August 14 when portions of the interview were broadcast on an ABC News television program at 10:30 p.m.

Jimmy Carter, ABC News Interview Interview With Correspondents Harry Reasoner and Sam Donaldson in Plains, Georgia. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/243886

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