Jimmy Carter photo

Interview with "U.S. News & World Report"

September 13, 1976

Q. Governor Carter, you have described yourself as a populist. Just how do you define "populist"?

Governor Carter. I tried to define it when people asked me whether my acceptance speech in New York in July was liberal or conservative. I told them I thought it w'as a mixture of the two: A populist speech designed to show that I derived my political support, my advice and my concern directly from people themselves, not from powerful intermediaries or representatives of specialinterest groups.

"Populist" is a word as you know, that comes from populus—people—and I think the people have been the origin of my own political incentives and my political strength.

Q. Which of out previous Presidents would you call yourself most akin to in philosophy?

Governor Carter. We've had a lot of great Presidents. My own personal favorite is Harry Truman. He revered the Presidency itself, and he used it in an aggressive fashion. The long-range concepts he had of foreign interrelationships, the courage he showed when he dealt with the firing of General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean war—all these are things that I admire.

Q. Do you regard President Truman as a populist?

Governor Carter. I don't know, but I do think there was a cohesion within the Populist movement of different kinds of people who in the past had been excluded from having a proper voice in their own government.

There was an aversion to inequities that had been built into the government structure by the powerful. In many ways, Truman did represent that concern.

I lean toward letting people themselves decide their own government and to having a guaranteed equity of treatment—a removal of the undue influence of special-interest groups—openness of government, a closeness between the President and the people themselves.

Q. Do you mean by that an activist, perhaps even an aggressive Presidency?

Governor Carter. I think so.

Q. What do you think will be the single most important issue influencing voters between now and November 2?

Governor Carter. I don't think that issue has changed. It is the desire to restore respect for and trust of the government within the consciousness of American people. The damage that has been done to people's atittudes toward government has been severe in the last few' years. We feel that we've lost the confidence in our government, the sensitivity of government to people's needs. The integrity of government, the openness of government have been damaged severely.

Vietnam, Cambodia, Angola, CIA revelations, Watergate—all those things have tended to destroy the pride and the respect that has been a natural feeling of people toward our own government. We have been disconcerted, we've been alienated and embarrassed—sometimes have been ashamed of our own government.

Our public opinion polls show that concern about government ranks far ahead of unemployment and inflation in voters' minds. So the campaign may depend on the question: "Which candidate can I trust to restore to my own government the things that are important to me?"

Q. Have other issues receded in importance?

Governor Carter. They are mirrored in many ways, depending on the individuals, as self-assessed needs.

Some people are intensely concerned about agricultural policy. Others are concerned about unemployment, particularly those that are unemployed. There's a general concern about the creeping tendency toward government intrusion into our private lives. There's a concern about the weakening of local government as contrasted with the federal government. There's concern about the gross, uncontrollable bureaucracy that's built up in Washington, the secrecy in the White House and in the Congress, the unwarranted influence of special-interest groups, the lack of a comprehensive and competent welfare system, inadequate health care, unfair tax structure.

But specific issues are just part of it. The other concern of people is whether they can trust this candidate to do something about it. Can they trust this candidate to care about them? Do they have to go through some powerful intermediary to get to the candidate and his consciousness about what their needs and their families' needs are about?

Q. Are you suggesting a Jacksonian approach to an open White House? Would you go that far?

Governor Carter. Not with mud-filled clodhopers—not that kind of concept.

But I would restore, for instance, the "fireside chat" format [used by Franklin D. Roosevelt] for explaining complicated questions to the public. I would restore frequent live press conferences that have now been abandoned.

I would press for a comprehesive "sunshine" law in the federal government—to open decision making meetings to the public. I would act through Executive order, prior to the time a law could be passed, to initiate more openness in government.

Q. Governor, does the Carter-Mondale ticket have particular vulnerability among Roman Catholic voters?

Governor Carter. I don't believe so. Among the leaders within the Catholic Church there is an open, expressed concern about the abortion issue, about my Baptist beliefs that is not mirrored among the average citizens in the country who happen to be Catholic. It's something that we discern as a potential problem, but the public opinion poll results now show that there's no distinguishable difference between the support for me by Protestants as contrasted with the support from Catholics.

Q. What do you feel are the strongest features of the Democratic ticket in terms of voter appeal?

Governor Carter. For one thing, the disaffection with the present Washington establishment, a feeling that there is a continuity present between Nixon's Administration and Ford's—not the Watergate disgrace, but that Ford is not exerting leadership to correct the deficiencies that existed when Nixon was here.

Also, there is an advantage in the youthfulness of our ticket—averaging 50 years old. I'm 51 and Mondale is 48. This gives rise to the feeling that we might be innovative.

Q. You have said that you anticipated a very personal, vicious attack against you and Senator Mondale in the campaign. What is your evidence of that?

Governor Carter. It's just a surmise. We should be ready for a very highly combative and hard-fought campaign.

Q. On what points do you expect the attack?

Governor Carter. I've noticed that there have been statements made that if I were elected, the farmers would have the decisions made for them by the Washington bureaucracy, that we would have a termination of export sales overseas, and other ridiculous things of that kind. I've made just the opposite remarks.

There have also been comments made that my promises to the American people would be grossly liberal, that the budget would be unbalanced, and that there would be no tight management of the federal spending policies— all of which I think is unjustified.

There have been statements made about Senator Mondale's liberality on some issues. I think basically his stand on the "litmus test" kind of things—concerning busing, for instance—is about the same as mine: I'm against forced busing; so is he, I'm not in favor of a constitutional amendment to try to outlaw busing, and neither is he.

Q. Charges have been made that your policies are going to re-ignite inflation—

Governor Carter. I don't think my policies would contribute to increased inflation.

Q. Do you expect the Republicans to zero in on the inflation issue?

Governor Carter. They are in an indefensible position:

We have an inflation rate of roughly 5 percent that is going to go up between now and November. I don't think we had that kind of inflation rate for 30 years before Nixon became President.

We've got the highest unemployment levels in 25 years.

We have had in the last three budgets 160 billion dollars in deficits— greater than all the accumulated deficits that existed from World War II right on up to 1974.

Q. It sounds as if you re running against Richard Nixon and not Gerald Ford. Is that your strategy?

Governor Carter. I haven't seen any change in direction or an attempt to change the policies that Nixon established since Ford has been in the White House. I think Ford has been a dormant, inactive President who has just enjoyed his domicile in the White House but has not addressed any of the problems that I see in the management of government.

I don't know that Ford has continued the disreputable tragedy of Watergate attitudes that disgraced the White House. I don't attribute that sort of scandal to Ford at all.

But as far as just adopting what Nixon's policies were and continuing them, I don't think there's any doubt that there's been almost absolute continuity there.

Q. From the point of view of geography, in which regions of the country would you say that you are weakest?

Governor Carter. I would say New England and the industrial midsection of the country—in the Illinois-Indiana-Michigan area. But I would not write off any state.

Q. Will you campaign in all 50 states?

Governor Carter. I don't think it would be possible to go into all 50 states during this brief period of time.

In general, I'll go where I can contribute most to the Democratic ticket, including myself and candidates for Congress or governor, U.S. Senate. And Senator Mondale will go where he can contribute the most.

Q. If you win the election, Governor, should the nation expect rapid changes in policies—a quick succession of messages to Congress?

Governor Carter. Yes. In some areas, I would be ready for proposals immediately:

I would like to have complete authorization to reorganize the Executive Branch of government, giving me as much authority as possible.

I would like to be ready to propose welfare reform.

I would seek whatever minimal authority is necessary to start a complete assessment of tax reform in a comprehensive way—and, as I've mentioned, the "sunshine" law: the openness of government.

I think I would be ready for the first stage of implementing an adequate health care program for the country. This would take three or four years, and I-would want to be careful to phase it in in a way that would be minimal in extra cost.

Q. Congress willing------

Governor Carter. I intend to keep all my promises. It may be that the Congress would not cooperate in some of those areas. If not, I reserve the right to go directly to the people of this country and present my case there.

There may be a danger, with so many proposals, that they will get in each other's way. But I think a compensating factor would be my inclination to capitalize on whatever mandate I get in November. The longer one waits on a controversial matter, the less chance he has of success. Q. You mentioned a reorganization of the Executive Branch. What do you have in mind?

Governor Carter. The elimination of unnecessary agencies and departments, regulations and paperwork. That is going to take a long time. I want to get the authority immediately and have a presumption of congressional support as we initiate a long, detailed study. It would take at least a year.

But there is no question we will reduce the number of agencies. We now have 100 different programs, for instance, that could come under the generic name of "welfare." I don't think we need more than one or two. Nor do we need more than one or two agencies responsible for health care.

We now have had 1,900 categorical grant programs, compared to 150 when President Eisenhower w'ent out of office. The multiplicity of those programs puts an inordinate load on administrative bodies at the state and local levels. That has got to be addressed.

Q. Will reduction in the number of agencies reduce the cost of government?

Governor Carter. As far as the percentage of budget that goes for administrative costs, there w'ould be a substantial savings there.

As far as a total budget is concerned, I don't think it would result in any substantial reduction. But the effectiveness of delivery' services would be substantially enhanced.

Q. How do you plan to cope with high unemployment if you become President?

Governor Carter. My strong commitment is to take the necessary action to bring about full employment, if possible, in the private sector of our economy. I don't favor government jobs as the principal way to alleviate the unemployment question. They cost too much at $8,000 to $10,000 per job.

The government can help to revive construction. It can allocate research and development funds and establish comprehensive proposals on transportation and energy and agriculture. It can try to persuade both industry and labor to be responsible in their demands for increased prices and wages, involving them in the decision making processes. Those kinds of things would have a cumulative effect in creating jobs within the private sector.

There are, however, a couple of areas where I would want to have federal jobs available. One is the chronic welfare recipient who is able to work full time. About 1.3 million welfare recipients have nothing wrong with them physically or mentally. I would like to have, perhaps in a welfarereform package, a requirement that they be retained, then offered a job— and if they don't take a job, I w ouldn't want to pay them any more benefits.

Another problem is unemployment among young people. We now have about a 20 to 23 percent unemployment rate among young Americans; 40 percent among black young Americans. I would like to pursue the concept of an approach like the CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps] program we had during the depression years, this time oriented more to the urban areas than to the woods and rural areas.

Q. What is your thinking on tax reform?

Governor Carter. I don't think we'll ever have comprehensive equity established within the present income tax structure if you do it one section at a time or piecemeal, because the public has no idea what's going on. My premise would be to start from scratch rather than simply revise today's system. Many aspects of the present tax system, of course, would be part of the final result.

Q. Can you indicate, at least broadly, your own approach?

Governor Carter. I would have as a major goal the drastic simplification of the tax structure. It now consists of about 40,000 pages in the Tax Code. I would treat all income basically the same. I would tax income only once. I would have a truly progressive tax structure so that those who have higher incomes would pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes.

There are some things in the current system that I would certainly want to preserve; the ability to make legitimate contributions for charitable purposes, for example. But I would want to make sure the foundations that were established for that purpose don't abuse the privilege.

I'm concerned about the effect of delayed tax payments on profits overseas. I think it contributes to excessive unemployment in our nation when, for example, one of our corporations overseas makes a million dollars and reinvests it in, say, Italy because that way they don't have to pay any taxes on it If they bring it back to this country to reinvest it—to create new jobs—they have to pay taxes. That bothers me, and my inclination would be to abolish that privilege.

On the other hand, the present right of a corporation overseas to deduct income tax payments made to another government is a legitimate thing and ought to be continued.

Q. When would you expect to present to Congress such a comprehensive tax reform program?

Governor Carter. The first part of 1978. I would want to let advocacy groups, from consumer advocates to the multinational corporations, be involved in the deliberations—probably in my presence—as well as professional analysts and economists. I don't expect to achieve any unanimity, obviously.

I would also want to be very sure that representatives from the Congress, both the House and Senate, were involved in the detailed discussions—hopefully, at the initial stages of the study. I would be the one responsible for selling the proposition or the proposal to the people and to the Congress.

Q. Are you in favor of federalizing the entire welfare system?

Governor Carter. No, I don't see any possibility of that. The approach that I took as governor was to try to remove from the local governments as much as possible the financing of statewide programs. I would take the same concept to the federal level. I don't think the property tax or the sales tax is a good base for financing the welfare system of our country.

But I wouldn't propose to put the full responsibility for welfare payments onto the federal government. It may be that we would freeze the state contribution and let the federal government assume the responsibility for financing any increase in future cost brought about by broader coverage or by inflationary trends.

But there needs to be some predictability about it. Mayors and governors and their compatriots of the state governments should be able to predict ahead of time how much they're going to have to pay.

Q. In the field of health care, what are your proposals?

Governor Carter. We need a better health care and delivery system in this country. We're spending for every man, woman and child in our nation $550 a year. There are vast areas where health care is not available at all. We have little emphasis on preventive health care—less now than we had when I was a boy on the farm.

The crux of the problem lies in the complete confusion that exists in the delivery of health care now. We have 72 different agencies responsible for physical health care. We have 37 agencies responsible for mental health care. We have 10 different major departments that are involved in health care. To have any sort of good health delivery system, you've got to have some way to have a clear assignment of responsibility for the delivery of health care to our people.

Q. Where do you stand on abortion—and on the government's role in the matter?

Governor Carter. I think abortion is wrong and that the government ought never do anything to encourage abortion. But I do not favor a constitutional amendment which would prohibit all abortions, nor one that would give states local option to ban abortions.

Government ought to do everything possible to minimize the need for abortions. We need a comprehensive national program designed to minimize abortions with better adoptive procedures, sex education and family planning.

Q. On foreign policy, would you press for a summit conference with other leaders soon after you took office?

Governor Carter. I would like to avoid very much travel myself during the first period of my administration if I am elected.

I think that a summit conference after the election would be important, but I would prefer that leaders of other countries come here.

Q. Do you feel that we should adopt a tougher approach nt pursuing détente with the Soviet Union?

Governor Carter. Yes, I think so. The Soviets would respect that approach. I would also make our commitments much more public.

I think that the stature of our nation in international councils is darrtayd when the President and the Secretary of State speak just as two people, when there's no bipartisan assessment or support derived from the Congress, and when it's obvious that the American people don't know what is going on. It inherently makes the Secretary of State weak.

Q. In what way would you be tougher toward the Soviet Union?

Governor Carter. We should have been much more aggressive when we attended the Helsinki Conference—or should have been absent in the first place.

We now have in Eastern Europe at least a tentative endorsement by our country of the domination of that region by the Soviet Union. They didn't have that before the Helsinki accords. It was a very great diplomatic achievement for the Soviets to have our promise not to interfere in their control over Eastern Europe.

In response to our yielding on that point, there was an agreement on the Soviet Union's part that they would liberalize their policies toward human rights. They have not fulfilled those commitments.

As we sell the Russians things that they must have—food in their drought years, electronics equipment, heavy machinery—we ought to get a quid pro quo from the Soviets.

I think it was a mistake, personally, to attach the Jewish-migration question to the trade bill: You can't have the legislative body of a sovereign nation requiring publicly that another sovereign nation accede to a certain demand in order to get a very slight favor. But freedom for Jews to leave Russia would be a legitimate and a very strong commitment of mine as President. As we negotiate with the Soviets, they should know that if they could yield on that point, it would greatly improve our relationships.

I think we could ask them to help to resolve the Middle Eastern question, not let them stoke the fires; to help us avoid a future oil embargo; to try to give us stronger assurances that they would restrain Northern Korea from any possible attack on South Korea; to yield on controversial points in the SALT II talks.

There are a lot of things that we need and would like to have from the Soviet Union to insure peace around the world, and there are a lot of materials we have that they would need more of.

Q. Would you envisage moving quickly io normalize relations with Peking—perhaps involving recognition?

Governor Carter. No, I don't envision that. It's an ultimate goal that's good for us to maintain.

Eventually we're going to have to recognize the existence of the People's Republic of China. But I would want to have an assurance in some way, to my satisfaction, that there would not be a military attack on Taiwan and that the Taiwanese people would be relatively independent and our commitment to them respected.

Q. On the Middle East, should the United States underwrite the security of Israel as a way of bringing about a final setlement?

Governor Carter. Not a commitment to send troops, no. But I would let it be known to the world, and particularly the people of Israel, that our backing for Israel in economic and military aid is absolute, that this would be a national commitment of ours. Most Americans would agree with this: to give the Israelis whatever military or economic aid they need to protect the integrity of their country, their right to exist in peace.

I would also play a more aggressive role in searching for some degree of compatibility among Middle East nations. The situation there is fluid. The relationship, for instance, among Israel, Lebanon and Syria has changed in the last few months. That fluidity might create an opportunity for success. The Soviet Union may be seeing that their allegiances or alliances in the Middle East could be more advantageous with permanent peace assured.

The framework of United Nations Resolution 242 is a general one that everybody has adopted. The interpretation of the language is obviously widely diverse, depending on the point of view. But I think the recognition of Israel as a permanent entity in the Middle East—the non-belligerency status or declaration by their potential adversaries—is important; the willingness of Israel to cede back to other countries major portions of land acquired in the '67 war is an inevitable requirement.

Some resolution of the Palestinian question is certainly inevitable. There are some very serious problems that would have to be addressed, possibly through secret negotiations and through concerted commitments to preserve the peace. One would be control of the Golan Heights and Jerusalem.

Q. In Africa, should the United States throw its weight behind the blackmajority rule in Rhodesia and even in South Africa!

Governor Carter. The historic expressions of our government in favor of majority rule ought to be continued.

The crisis in Rhodesia is much more acute than it is in South Africa. The principle is the same. There's a difference, obviously, between those two nations in that the South Africans have been there for, I think, 300 or 400 years.

Q. On defense, Governor, would you make any fundamental changes in our military structure?

Governor Carter. Possibly. I do favor the continuation of our three delivery systems for atomic weapons until we can negotiate some overall reduction of weapons with the Soviet Union.

We are inferior to the Soviets in our land-based intercontinental mmflrs— greatly inferior. We have a rough equivalency at sea, and we are strongly superior in manned bombers. I think in general we have what is called rough equivalency. I certainly want to maintain that. But I don't think we could give up any of those three elements of international strategic defense.

As far as redeployment of forces is concerned, I don't think we have had a substantive reassessment of strategic deployment since President Truman's time. In the past, a basic presumption has been that we had to be prepared for a major land war in the Far East and in the Western Pacific. I'm not sure that that's still a good supposition.

I don't want to be more specific, but I think a reassessment of our strategic deployment of non-nuclear weapons and delivery systems is needed now.

Q. Turning to the organization of your administration: If you win in November, would you change the role of the Cabinet?

Governor Carter. There would be a much heavier dependence on the Cabinet members to run their departments than we've had in the past. I would not establish a "palace guard" in the White House with the authority to run the departments in the federal government. I don't say that lightly. A lot of people say, "Well, I've heard that before."

When I was Governor of Georgia, we never tried to run the state government just with my personal staff. I chose the best people I could, the strongest advocates for those who received services from their department, and good managers.

I would make sure that every person I put in charge of a major department in the Capital would be a good manager. I would lean, I think, toward people who've had experience—maybe as governors, for instance—and who would be compatible with me. They should be able spokesmen for and have a strong belief in the purpose of their department. For example, I would choose someone to head up the Defense Department who believed in a strong defense.

Q. Given a strong Cabinet, what role do you have in mind for the White House staff? Will it arbitrate disputes between Cabinet members?

Governor Carter. I think not, except that when you have a Director, say, of the National Security Council or his successor, that would certainly be a very strong and influential person.

I would say the appointments secretary would be the one to provide access to me.

And the relationship that I would establish between the White House and the Office of Management and Budget would be much closer than we've known in the past. I think that would obviate the need for a large White House staff. We would make reductions in the size of the staff.

Q. How do you think the style of leadership in a Carter White House would differ from that in the Ford White House?

Governor Carter. I don't detect any leadership emanating from the White House at this point.

I would try to find in my own mind what improvements might be made in legislation and government policy. I'd take on myself the responsibility for being the one to present changes to the Congress and to the people and pursue those changes aggressively once I've decided what ought to be done.

I would also involve the Congress in an intimate way, as much as they would permit me, in the evolution of new proposals.

Q. It has been said that one of your faults as Governor of Georgia was an unwillingness to compromise with the state legislature. Would you anticipate similar problems in dealing with Congress?

Governor Carter. Yes, sir. But there are several things that can be done. I learned a lot as governor, and t think that's one of the things that I did learn.

Q. To compromise more often?

Governor Carter. When to compromise and when not to compromise. The best way to deal with it is to have engendered within the consciousness of the President and the Congress a feeling of mutual respect, as well as continuing consultation and sharing of ideas.

Along with that would come an openness to let the public know what we are doing and to restore the concept in the Congress that their constituents are also my constituents. I have just as much right and responsibility to reach to the people for support as a Member of Congress does.

Jimmy Carter, Interview with "U.S. News & World Report" Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/347537