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Carters answer students’ questions at annual Presidents Day event

By Ken Gustafson

PLAINS — High school and college students from all over Georgia, as well as families from across Georgia and other parts of the nation gathered in the lecture hall of the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site to hear former President Jimmy Carter and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter answer students’ questions. It was part of the annual Presidents Day Celebration on Monday.
The first question was directed to Jimmy Carter. The student wanted to know what the Carter felt about the current state of public education in the country and where it is today. Carter responded first by saying that when he began his career in public service, he was the chairman of the Sumter County school board. He said that the gubernatorial candidates campaigning at that time were raising one finger and saying “No, not one”, meaning that not one single black child would enter a white school. “I decided to save the public school system from shutting down,” Carter responded. “I ran for the State Senate and was eventually elected. I served on the Education Committee. That was the only one I asked for.”
The former president added that he was also the chairman of the Subcommittee on Universities. When he ran for president, education was underneath Health and Wellfare Departments. “It was Health, Education and Welfare,” Carter said. “Health and Welfare were powerful organizations and the Education Department was practically non-existent.” Carter explained that the role of the Education Department at that time was mainly to defend lawsuits involving racial segregation. “I decided to form a brand new Department of Education, which we did when I was President,” he said. “That was a major commitment of mine.”
Carter said he is still very interested in education and that he believes that the United States has the best university system in the world. “We have an excellent higher education system,” he said. “I think … that the elementary and secondary school systems have not made as much progress in quality as the university system has. One of the reasons for that is because the schools are basically being re-segregated.”
President Carter said that in the Atlanta area, the schools are almost completely African-American and have very few white students. “That exists all over the country now,” he said. He said in his opinion, the country has a long way to go to bring the school curriculum to serve people on an equal basis. He also said that according to statistics, the U.S. ranks far below countries such as South Korea in achievement in the knowledge of mathematics and even in English.
“ … I’m very proud of our public education system. I hope it stays public,” he said. He hopes the public education system will be stronger in the future than it has been in the past, but he reiterated that it has a long way to go to equal that of other countries.
The next question dealt with making sure every child by the age of two is vaccinated. It was directed to former first lady Rosalynn Carter. In 1991, she helped launch the “Every Child by Two” program. Rosalynn Carter was asked her opinion on non-medical exceptions that allow children to attend school without having been vaccinated because their parents or guardians express a personal objection. She said she worked to promote immunization for many years. “When Jimmy was elected President, only 15 to 17 states required immunization by school age,” she said. Sje worked with Betty Bumpers, widow of former Arkansas Gov. and four-time Democratic U.S. Senator Dale Bumpers, on promoting immunization for all children by the time they start school. She said that she, along with several other wives of state governors, would get together at Governors’ conferences. This was during the time that Jimmy Carter was Governor of Georgia. “She (Betty Bumpers) was working on immunization and she got me interested in it, so I developed a really, really good immunization program in Georgia.” When she got to Washington, she worked on a bill to make immunization mandatory for every child before school age in every single state in the U.S. This was when Jimmy Carter was a U.S. Senator before he became President. “It’s too easy to opt out,” Rosalynn Carter said. “In the United States, there are areas where people have opted out.” She explained that in California, one child had measles after having been overseas. The child infected six different people who got off the airplane and went in different directions. As a result, the disease was spread over a vast area of the country. She said it distresses her that in areas where people are not getting their children vaccinated, such as Seattle, Wash., there is a measles epidemic. “We have struggled with it and worked with it,” she said. “We have a program called ‘Every Child By Two.’ We are working all over the country to keep people from opting out of immunizing their children. It upsets me so much when children can be immunized, but their parents won’t allow it.” She said that a doctor had said that the measles immunization causes autism, but that he was found to be wrong and lost his license to practice medicine.
The next question was for Jimmy Carter. The student wanted to know what foreign policy decision that he made turned out to be better than he expected. He responded by saying that several turned out better than he expected, but he mentioned the Panama Canal Treaty as one in particular. “Before I became President, many Latin American countries had broken relations with our country,” he said. “They were angry with us because we were not treating Panama fairly. We had basically cheated them when we got clear title to the Panama Canal Zone.” He said he was determined to bring about a complete Panama Canal Treaty, which involved giving back control of the canal to Panama. “Since then, they (Panama) have almost 10 times as much revenue from the canal,” he said. “They’ve widened it and they’ve taken much better care of it than we did. The main advantage that I didn’t anticipate was that it broke down two things. One was the animosity and hatred that a lot of Latin American countries had towards the United States because they thought we were not treating Panama fairly. The other thing was that almost every country in South America at that time was a dictatorship.” He said that within five years of the Panama Canal being handed over to Panama, every country in South America became a democracy. “Friendship between our country and those countries became greater all because we treated Panama fairly. The impact was far beyond what I expected,” he said.
The next question was directed to Rosalynn Carter and referring to her advocacy for the mentally ill. The student asked her if more things need to be done to help the mentally ill and the elderly in the country’s healthcare system.
The former first lady said that she has worked on mental health issues for 48 years and that she plans to make it 50. “Everything has changed since I began working on mental health issues except stigma,” she said. “The stigma is still so bad. It is sad to me to know that people don’t go for help because they don’t want to be labeled mentally ill.” She said that today, people who are mentally ill can recover and go on to live normal lives, but many don’t know that. “I have brought journalists to the Carter Center and have taught them how to write in depth and accurately about mental health issues,” she said. “We’ve trained many, many journalists in countries like South Africa, Colombia, South America, and several other countries. Hopefully it’s helping. Obviously, it’s helping a little bit.”
She said that being mentally ill is still seen as a stigma, but she believes that young people on college campuses are going to change that perception. “Young people are going readily for mental health care,” she said. “I think the stigma will eventually be lifted.”
The next question dealt with voting and election fraud and it was directed to Jimmy Carter. The student wanted to know what the former President thinks needs to happen to eliminate voting irregularities in state and national elections.
The former president said the greatest problem currently in America’s election system is that people are being discouraged from voting. “African-Americans, older people, and poor people are kept off the voting lists deliberately,” he said. “If a state has a Republican legislature or a Republican governor, they make sure that the requirements to vote are very difficult, such as having special kinds of ID cards which a lot of people don’t have or drivers’ licenses which many of the old people and poor people don’t have because they don’t own an automobile,” he said. He said another problem is that these people change the makeup of electoral systems by rearranging congressional districts. “Sometimes they can even force legislators to change parties or withdraw by completely removing any constituents from their districts. That can happen in this area as well,” he said. “About 60 percent of Americans are registered to vote. About 40 percent of Americans are not even permitted to register to vote, much less vote.” He said that in Canada, about 93 percent of Canadians are registered to vote. “In countries like Sweden, almost 100 percent are registered to vote,” he said.
He said that when he was Georgia Governor, he made all high school principals in the state voter registrars. “Every year I had a contest among all the high schools of Georgia to see who could get the most 18-year-olds to be registered to vote,” he said. “We had almost 100 percent of Georgia students to register to vote when they became 18 years old.”
He said when he became President and tried to introduce this idea to Congress, they didn’t go along with it because there was too much opposition. “We still have a very serious problem with legislators discouraging people to vote rather than encouraging people to vote,” he said. He said he’s in favor of having universal registration, and that everybody by the age of 18, unless there is something seriously wrong with them, needs to be registered to vote automatically.
One other question asked by a student was directed to Jimmy Carter. The student wanted to know what characteristics the former President believed a person needed to have to be a good leader. Carter said he thought the first and basic characteristic of good leaders is to tell the truth. At that response, the crowd erupted with applause. “If you are going to lead a group of people, you need for them to have confidence in what you say is accurate,” he said. “You can’t get loyal followers whether you’re President of the United States, or in high school, or just in your own family if they don’t believe what you say.” He said that when he was in high school, the school superintendent made this statement: “We need to accommodate changing times, but cling to principles that never change.” He said another characteristic of being a good leader is caring for other people. “I think that being committed to the best interests of the people that you serve is another thing that makes a good leader,” he said.
Another student asked President Carter if there was anything he wishes he had done differently while he was in the White House. Carter said the one basic problem he had was preparing the Democratic Party to be loyal to him. “I was one of the few incumbent Presidents that had another strong Democratic candidate running against me for the Presidency. That divided the Democrats instead of having them fully united,” he said. “When I was President, we also had a very good relationship with Democrats and Republicans. We got along with each other as best we could.” He said that one particular thing he would have done differently involved how the rescue operation to get the hostages out of Iran was carried out. “We had six helicopters that were necessary to bring the hostages back home. The military recommended that we use seven,” he said. “I said that we needed to use eight. We lost two of our helicopters, and then we lost a third one in an accident. We didn’t have enough helicopters to bring our people home.” He said that if the rescue operation had been successful, he would have been elected President for a second term.
The last question for President Carter was what did he consider to be his greatest achievement as President. Carter responded by saying that he has mixed emotions about what the greatest one was, but that he thought the one achievement he got the most positive reaction to from the public was bringing peace between Israel and Egypt. “We had 13 days of negotiations at Camp David,” he said. “I was successful in getting peace agreed to between Israel and Egypt. Not a single word of that peace treaty has been violated. That’s what I get the most credit for.”
However, for President Jimmy Carter, the one achievement that gives him the most gratification was keeping the country at peace. He said that out of the 242-year history of the United States, there have been only 16 years of peace, and of those 16 years, four of them occurred when he was President. The former President also said that promoting human rights was another extremely gratifying accomplishment for him while he was in office.
Once the question and answer session was over, there was a time set aside for people to get books written by the former president and first lady autographed.