Jimmy Carter is the 39th president of the United States. He was born in 1924 in the small farming town of Plains, Georgia, the son of a peanut farmer. He received a bachelor of science degree from the United States Naval Academy in 1946. In the Navy he became a submariner, serving in both the Atlantic and Pacific fleets and rising to the rank of lieutenant. Chosen for the nuclear submarine program, Carter also took graduate work at Union College in reactor technology and nuclear physics.
In 1946, he married Rosalynn Smith. When his father died in 1953, he resigned his naval commission and returned with his family to Georgia, where he took over the Carter farms and became active in the community, serving on county boards supervising education, the hospital authority, and the library. In 1962 he won election to the Georgia Senate. He lost his first gubernatorial campaign in 1966, but won the next election, becoming Georgia's 76th governor in 1971.
Carter served as president from 1977 to 1981. During his presidency he negotiated a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, signed the Camp David Accords and the SALT II treaty with the Soviet Union, and established diplomatic relations with China. On the domestic side, the administration's achievements included a comprehensive energy program conducted by a new Department of Energy; deregulation in energy, transportation, communications, and finance; major educational programs under a new Department of Education; and major environmental protection legislation. He lost his reelection in 1980 to Ronald Reagan, in part because of the Iran hostage crisis, in which 52 U.S. citizens were held hostage by Iranian revolutionaries who overthrew the government.
In 1982, he founded The Carter Center. Actively guided by President Carter, the nonpartisan and nonprofit Center addresses national and international issues of public policy. In 2002, Carter received the Nobel Peace Prize "for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development."
Question: Why has America led the world in innovation for so many decades?
Jimmy Carter: Well America has always been a country of innovation and dynamism, entrepreneurship. And I think that one of the things that has made our country great too is its heterogeneous population where people come here from all over the world. And quite often, the people who do leave their own nation and come to an unknown destination, like the United States, are inherently adventurous, so we’ve had that adventurous spirit that has embedded itself collectively in the American consciousness.
I think all of those factors combined have made it possible for us to be in the forefront of change, social change as we had to accommodate people from different societies and different religions and so forth, and also changes that have taken place in innovative science because America has had the best university system in the world for a long time. And so we have been innovators, not only in the discoveries as proven by Nobel Prizes in chemistry and physics and that sort of thing, but we’ve been able to put that into practical application with new gadgets that people admire.
Question: Is America falling behind?
Jimmy Carter: We’ve had a serious problem in our country in recent, I’d say few decades, in becoming more inclined toward consumption and gratification on how much we own, rather than having a spirit of innovation and dynamism and producing new products. It was in the 1970s that our nation first became a consumer nation, that is, we bought from foreigners more than we sold to foreigners. And increasingly, that has been a blight on our economic system—increasingly every year. And now we have an enormous trade deficit, that is we buy from foreign nations, particularly China and others, a lot more than we sell them. And it means that they are producing the products that we use. And we used to be the main producer of goods to be sold to our competitive nations that were fairly well off, in particular to the countries that were very poor. That’s changed now.
So I think we’ve lost the competitive edge that we had a number of years ago.
Recorded November 30, 2010
Interviewed by Andrea Useem