'Hardball' host Chris Matthews sat down in an interview with former President Jimmy Carter. The 39th President gaves his view on everything from the Revolutionary War, the war in Iraq, and the battle for the White House.
CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Fifteen days to go to the election and the latest national polls show President Bush has the edge going into the homestretch. We’ll talk presidential politics with former president Jimmy Carter. Plus, the political mean season has begun with new attack ads playing nonstop in a shrinking battleground. Will only nine states decide this presidential election? Let’s play HARDBALL.
Good evening. I am Chris Matthews. It’s a numbers game now as the campaigns calculate where to focus their time and their money in the final weeks of this campaign and as the number of tightly contested states sink, Florida remains crucial just as it was in the year 2000. That’s where both candidates campaigned today and where early voting hit some speed bumps. Joining us now is someone who knows a thing or two about presidential campaigns, our 39th president and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Jimmy Carter. He also has two books out now in paperback, “The Hornet’s Nest, a Novel of the Revolutionary War” and “Christmas in Plains.” Mr. President, thank you. It’s an honor to have you on.
JIMMY CARTER, 39TH PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you Chris, good to be with you and your folks.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you the question about – this is going to cause some trouble with people but as an historian now and studying the Revolutionary War as it was fought out in the South in those last years of the War, insurgency against a powerful British force. Do you see any parallels between the fighting that we did on our side and the fighting that is going on in Iraq today?
CARTER: Well, one parallel is that the Revolutionary War more than any other war until recently has been the most bloody war we’ve fought. I think another parallel is that in some ways the Revolutionary War could have been avoided. It was an unnecessary war. Had the British Parliament been a little more sensitive to the colonial’s really legitimate complaints and requests the war could have been avoided completely and of course now we would have been a free country now as is Canada and India and Australia, having gotten our independence in a non-violent way. I think in many ways the British were very misled in going to war against America and in trying to enforce their will on people who were quite different from them at the time.
MATTHEWS: The President has said he had miscalculated in terms of not realizing how the war would proceed from the initial knockout of Saddam’s forces including the Revolutionary Guard and then what he faced on the ground in terms of the insurgency. Do you think as an historian you would have foreseen, had you been president, the nationalistic fight of those people in Iraq once we got in there?
CARTER: Well, I think almost any reasonable person who knew history would say that you can’t go into an alien environment and force by rule of arms by forcing the people to adopt a strange concept and also when we were so destructive in going into Iraq with tens of thousands of innocent civilians killed and now it’s still, up until this moment now many months later there is still a great deal of animosity toward American troops and there is no doubt that American troops’ presence is stimulating additional violence.
MATTHEWS: What do you make of this new philosophy, Mr. President, that we can go into countries like Iraq and that we can use our force of arms and our economic might to transform them into democracies? It’s the new conservative philosophy. It’s the Bush doctrine, whatever you want to call it. What do you make of it?
CARTER: I don’t think it’s ever been proven to be accurate as a premise that you can go into an alien society with force of arms and destroying a major portion of that country and killing their people to make them adopt a new form of government and to accept new rulers. Obviously, the only way out of this quagmire that we have formed in Iraq now is to have some guarantee of withdrawal of American troops and turning their premises off the Iraqis over to them politically and to the international community to help on an equal basis and a shared basis with many allies both in economic and military concerns in the future.
MATTHEWS: One of the things you— let me talk to you about it as an historian, Mr. President, not just as a former president and if you look at the American Revolution, one of the things that I understand the British were surprised by, Burgoyne and such when he came down from Canada – he didn’t expect to see local nationalism. He never saw anything like the power of the local militia. That they would spring up and defend their neighborhoods. It was a very local kind of nationalism. Is that something that we should just expect in the world, that people are a bit tribalistic, they’re a bit nationalistic, they are prideful. If anyone comes into their country, no matter whether it was knocking off a bad leader or not, they’re going to fight.
CARTER: Well, you have to realize that at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, about which I wrote this novel “The Hornet’s Nest” all of the people in this country, they call them colonials, were loyal to the King of England. In fact, habitually and repeatedly, throughout their adult lives they had taken an oath before God, “I will be loyal to my King.”
And it was an ill-advised abuse and misunderstanding from London of the colonials that caused them one by one to renounce that oath and take up weapons against our own king and quite often in the Revolutionary War, Chris, the division was not geographical in nature as it was in the Civil War or the Vietnam War or Korea or in the World Wars but it was within families, where one person, Sail Senior’s (ph) son would say I’m going to take up weapons against the King of England and he’d soon be fighting against his own brothers and father.
And then of course as it went on and the British became more abusive and more determined through military arms to put us down, that’s when the massive objection to the British took place and that’s when the Americans finally won. With the help, I might add very quickly, of the French. Had we not had the alliance with France orchestrated by Benjamin Franklin and others, we would never have defeated Cornwallis at Yorktown. We would never have won that war.
MATTHEWS: Let me talk about another parallel you drew a couple minutes ago and that is how war became unnecessary. The war we have had with Iraq, and it is an ongoing war, was it possible that if the President or his secretary of state could have reached Saddam Hussein, Saddam Hussein could have explained to the President no matter what we think of him and his tyranny over there that he didn’t have weapons of mass destruction or was it a case where are people because of ideological reasons simply wanted to take over that country and they were using WMD as an excuse. Do you think there was any way to have avoided that war if people were of good heart and mind?
CARTER: I don’t think with President Bush and Vice President Cheney and other leaders in Washington that would – that small cadre of deeply committed people – that it was possible for that war to be avoided because quite early in the process, long before the United Nations had exhausted its effort to reveal that there were no weapons of mass destruction there. I think the Bush administration had decided to go to war. It was almost an inevitability. And of course the premises under which we went to war as is well known have been proven to be fallacious. One is they had massive weapons of mass destruction. Secondly they had direct threats to the security of our own country and third, after 9/11 that somehow or another Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11 which we know now that all of those premises were incorrect, maybe even false, but certainly a misinterpretation of the available intelligence.
MATTHEWS: Was WMD a reason for the war or simply the sales pitch?
CARTER: Well I think it turned out to be a sales pitch because all of the evidence then and since then up until this moment is that the weapons of mass destruction did not exist so they had been there in the past when Iraq was fighting Iran. A lot of those weapons and support from the Reagan administration to Saddam Hussein when we were friendly with him against Iran, but obviously the weapons of mass destruction were not there. That is known by everyone of your viewers I think.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about your other book. “Christmas in Plains,” it has a nice texture to it but there are some rough bumps in it. It’s particularly 1979 which is hardly a folksy tale. It’s a tale of the hostage crisis. When you look back on the hostage— when 50 Americans were taking hostage by the Iranian so-called students, you must have thought about this so many years and so many times since then. Have you ever thought of a way you could have ended that? Could going to war have worked or that just would have been a holocaust? Do you ever think through alternative ways of approaching that horror which may have cost you the presidency?
CARTER: Well, from the first day the hostages were taken, I had two major and unshakable goals in mind that never changed. One was that we would protect the integrity and interest of my country. And third, that every hostage would come home safe and free.
And eventually, after 444 days, we achieved on both those goals. We never betrayed the interest of my country, and every hostage came home safe and free.
But obviously, I tried everything I possibly could, through international diplomacy and through direct appeals, even through people like Muhammad Ali, who had a relationship with Muslims, to try to convince the Iranians to turn the—hostages. And they would.
They made a serious mistake which brought catastrophe on their country, and Iran has never recovered its international prestige and its influence that they lost during that ill-advised experience.
MATTHEWS: You mentioned that Muhammad Ali and all the efforts you tried. Is there anything—would you—I can imagine the current administration being so tough. I can imagine them going to war over it. Did you ever think that would have been justified?
CARTER: Well, I had a lot of influence on me, some of which you knew about at the time, people trying to convince me that the best way to get the hostages out was to launch a military attack on Iran, which in my opinion would have been quite popular among the American people.
MATTHEWS: I think you’re right.
MATTHEWS: They wanted you to swat him hard. I know that.
CARTER: But any president goes to war, you immediately become not just an administrator of difficult things like welfare and health and education and taxation, but you become the commander in chief of our forces in danger overseas. And it greatly escalates the popularity of a president.
And of course, that was one of the things that were offered to me, but I, you know, thought about it a lot and I finally decided that if I did attack Iran, I could have destroyed Iran with our weaponry. There’s no question about that. But our hostages would have been lost and also tens of thousands of innocent Iranians would have been lost and all the troops that we sent there subsequently, many of them would have been casualties.
I think I made the right decision.
MATTHEWS: What do you think Bush and Cheney would have done in the same situation?
CARTER: I don’t know. If you judge this by the Iraqi war, and if they had a predisposition to go to war, I think they would have done so. I don’t think that in the case of Iran there was any predisposition on our part to go to war against Iran.
MATTHEWS: Let’s come back and talk about politics today and also about your books, “Christmas in Plains” and “The Hornet’s Nest,” about the American Revolution. Former President Jimmy Carter.
I also have to point out, I did work for you, Mr. President, as a humble writer back in the—in the ‘70s. I also like to bring out the humble role I played of course.
Let me ask you about religion. I mean, I guess when you ran in 1976, you were so open about your commitments, religious background and commitments. And I guess people accepted that, and it didn’t seem to be anything that was very particularly controversial at the time. I don’t remember that.
What do you think about the president’s more obvious, I think, religious connection, more obvious mentioning of it? I don’t know what the word—how would you phrase it? It seems like this election’s between—between now a very religious man publicly and a man who may be privately religious but doesn’t talk much about it.
CARTER: Well, I have always been religious, of course, from—but I was very careful never to mix the church and state. I would have foregone any sort of effort by, say (AUDIO GAP) to give me overt support just because of my religion.
And when I was in office, I was very careful to separate completely any religious commitment of mine and assuring of favoritism or preference to Christianity or my own faith.
Since then, not because I blame it on President Bush, but there has been a melding, as you know, in this country of the Republican Party and the—and the Christian right-wing fervent believers.
CARTER: I don’t criticize either one of them, but I think that’s an obvious fact (ph). And that has brought about a closer intermixing, or overlapping, of religion and government that our forefathers certainly have deplored and which has never been the case until the last 25 years.
MATTHEWS: What do you make of this sort of odd coalition on the right side between people who are very right-wing about the Middle East and Christians who are very—obviously, very Christian and concerned about the holy land.
It does seem to me that there’s an almost—an odd coalition out there of people who are Christian conservatives and people who are very pro-Israeli and—and the way the president has used that in terms of his support for his foreign policy and his reelection. Have you noticed that?
CARTER: Well, one of the deepest commitments I ever made in public life and private life since then for 25 years or more has been to bring peace to the Israelis and peace and justice, as well, to their immediate neighbors. I devoted a large portion of my administration to that and formed a treaty between Israel and Egypt, not a word of which has ever been violated.
And every president...
MATTHEWS: You got a lot of credit for that, didn’t you, Mr. President?
CARTER: Well, I did...
MATTHEWS: I’m just kidding. I don’t think you did get enough.
CARTER: Not enough.
MATTHEWS: I mean, you brought together Israel with its most threatening strategic enemy...
CARTER: Well, you don’t ever—you don’t ever get enough credit when you do something nice like that. But the point is that every president since Eisenhower, I’d say, including me and including George Bush Sr. and including Bill Clinton, have made every effort to bring peace to Israel and justice and peace to their neighbors...
CARTER: ... until the last three and a half years. And now everybody knows that looks at it objectively that this effort has been totally abandoned. There is no effort now being made to negotiate or to bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
And this is a frustrating cancer that has caused not only disfavor of our country as a biased protagonist in this altercation, but it’s also abandoned any hope in the immediate future that we can build upon what Bill Clinton and his predecessors did in the White House and bring true peace to Israel and justice to the Palestinians.
MATTHEWS: I think “The New York Times” editorialized on that yesterday. They made the point that there’s an absent partner there. That’s us.
MATTHEWS: Do you still have hopes for a two-state solution?
CARTER: It depends on who the next president is and whether Bush, if he is reelected, will do anything about it. Right now, of course, there is no effort on his part to bring peace to the Middle East. And I hope that that will change.
MATTHEWS: Have you ever seen anything like a religious effort by religious leaders—I’m talking about my own religion, too, Roman Catholicism. The bishops are out there basically saying vote pro-choice—pro-life, rather. They’re making it very clear they’re pushing a particular candidate in this election, although they don’t use the name.
I don’t remember it—and I don’t know is this is going on in Protestant churches or not, but it seems to me this is the—the strongest influence I’ve ever seen on an election in terms of religion.
CARTER: Well, it is. And of course, what these misguided religious leaders do, in my opinion, is to take two or three individual elements that are not the foundation of Christianity and elevate them to the detriment of others.
But I worship, and many Christians worship, the Prince of Peace, not war.
CARTER: People worship a savior who dedicated his commitment, his life and his words to the alleviation of the plight of the poor and the deprived and the scorned and the forgotten people, instead of elevating the rich to a position of preeminence. And I feel, as a steward of God’s world, that I should take care of the environment.
So there are many elements of Christianity—peace and justice and humility and service and compassion and love—that are—that have been forgotten, with the elevation of a few other items.
MATTHEWS: What do you make of this fight over gay marriage, as a Christian, as a Baptist? Is there a position you’ve taken on this, or do you let it go, or do you finesse it? How do you handle an issue like this? Is it just too hot to handle?
CARTER: Well, I never have been in favor of marriages between people of the same sex. I don’t favor that now, don’t think John Kerry does, and I know that George Bush doesn’t.
But I do believe that people who have tendencies to be gay...
CARTER: ... if they form an alliance or partnership under—under secular law, which is our law of this country, ought to be treated fairly and equitably.
MATTHEWS: Mr. President, happy birthday, by the way. You’re 80 years old and you don’t look—you haven’t lost any hair, which is kind of amazing at your age. That’s one accomplishment of—any wisdom that you would like to impart for the younger folks watching?
CARTER: Well, Chris, one thing that I do to keep my hair is to read outstanding novels like “The Hornet’s Nest,” which not only combine an exciting story but also tell about the basic history of our country. And so this is one of the things I do, is I really enjoy myself.
And I really appreciate the chance to be with you again.
MATTHEWS: OK. Let me ask you about the lessons of history, because I want you to...
CARTER: Good deal.
MATTHEWS: ... to embroider them. The lessons of history. What did you learn from the—from the hostage crisis of 1979 and ‘80?
CARTER: Well, I learned, first of all, that we should be sensitive about people who have different religions and that we should try to study, if we are in positions of authority, like the president of the United States, how to get along with other people.
I also learned that we have to have a lot of allies and friends.
CARTER: When we go into an altercation or matter that might bring a war to our country that would be devastating in nature or to other people, it’s very important to marshal, as I did in the Iranian crisis, almost unanimous support from other nations around the world. And I think this is what George Bush Sr. did when he went into the first Gulf War 10 or 12 years ago. So that’s one of the lessons that I learned.
And another one is whenever possible, Chris, to avoid war, to let war be a last resort and not have the premise of a preemptive war. That is going to war just when we think we might possibly be attacked by someone, to launch a war that has devastating consequences and evolves in a quagmire, as we are now experiencing in Iraq.
MATTHEWS: Well, you sound like General Scowcroft, who was, of course, the partner with President Bush the first, 41, in terms of all that alliance building. President Bush the first was very good in his relations with the Arab countries, especially Mubarak of Egypt. And he would have been very close to Abdullah of Jordan today.
MATTHEWS: Why do you think our administration that’s ruling the country right now, leading the country, has seemed to show no interest in those old alliances, including the alliances with King Mohammed VI of Morocco? We don’t seem to have any Arab friends out there who share our views. Is that because they don’t like what we’re doing in Iraq?
CARTER: Well, especially because American policy is completely contrary to what the Arab nations, even the enlightened and friendly ones, think is best for that region and best for us and best for them.
I really was not surprised to see General Scowcroft, who served as a national security advisor for George Bush Sr., to come out with a strong condemnation or criticism of the present policies in the Middle East. I think that’s a general premise that has permeated American policy for the last 50 years in dealing with that very sensitive issue.
And my hope is that after this election is over, that we’ll see a correction of these mistakes and a move back toward consideration toward those who want to be our friends, a move toward peace in the Middle East and an end to this war that we’re now fighting in Iraq, which I think was completely unnecessary at its beginning.
MATTHEWS: Well, back in the late—in ‘79 when I was working as one of the aides at the White House, I remember the torture you went through and the country went through, and you’ve written about it in “Christmas in Plains,” one of the rockier periods described in this wonderful book.
You know, you really tried to understand the Arab—Arab mindset of those young students. I think you had tremendous sympathy intellectually, to try to figure out why they had grabbed our hostages, why they seemed to hate the Great Satan, they called us.
Do you think that’s one extreme, and that the other extreme is Bush’s approach, which is, “I don’t care what they’re up to. I’m going to nail them”? You know, one is almost totally curious. The other one almost totally in-curious.
Do you need—is there a happy medium here between strength and knowledge, wisdom and bite and attack? In your history, what have you learned that puts all this together? How do we deal with these people when they go nutty?
CARTER: Well, during the hostage crisis in Iran, as you know, there was a very tiny group of, I would say, anomalous Muslims who were condemned universally by other members of the Islamic faith.
And all of the nations, Muslim countries, condemned what Iran was doing, which was a complete violation of the Quran. And so they were isolated. We were the repository of commitment and support from the entire world. And of course, that’s just the opposite of what it is now.
But I think we need to repair our bad relations with other nations around the world and try to form some kind of a consensus on how to deal with the difficult issues. And I hope that soon, no matter who the next president might be, that we can work out a way to get out of Iraq and restore their ability to manage their own affairs and share in a very generous way and a very constructive way responsibilities for all the military, economy and political situation in that troubled region of the world.
MATTHEWS: Can we reach common ground with the radical elements, the al Qaeda people that are willing to commit suicide to blow up our buildings and kill us?
CARTER: I doubt that. But I think we can alleviate the tension and the support that they have from many other countries.
As you know now, if you look at public opinion polls, say, in Jordan or Egypt, even Saudi Arabia, the United States has, like, five percent or less public support. And that means that the vast majority of people who live in our former friendly Arab countries have turned against us.
I think that is a ripe place for repairing relationships and therefore, bringing about, ultimately, a great alleviation of the threat of terrorism that might hurt us or our allies.
MATTHEWS: What will be the message to the world, to our friends in the world, say not just leaders but people in Australia, people in Denmark—you know all the people in the world that just automatically like us. There are some people that just automatically do, a lot of British people, a lot of French people, believe it or not.
Do you think they’re going to get a message if President Bush is reelected that we’re underscoring that we agree with the president on all these issues like we’re his—we share his foreign policy? Do you think the people will get—in the world will get the message we like what Bush has done in Iraq?
CARTER: Well, my hope is that—that if President Bush should win or that he will take a different position from what he’s taken in the past, that he’ll say, “Look, this is a new time and we are approaching the election in Iraq. We’re going to reach out to our friends and allies. We’re going to make a major effort to bring peace to the Mideast. We’re going to work with Israel and also the Palestinians on a balanced basis to alleviate the tension there. We’re going to build upon what President Clinton and his predecessors did in the Middle East.”
Those are the kinds of messages that can go out, I think, even in a new inaugural address, no matter who the next president might be. And I think that will greatly ease tension and restore the lost reputation and the lost esteem that we have as a nation that believes in basic human rights, a nation that believes in basic peace and a nation, also, that tells the truth and doesn’t mislead our allies and cooperates with other nations.
MATTHEWS: You mean a president who’s never admitted a mistake may well be learning lessons he doesn’t want to describe until after the election?
CARTER: Well, maybe they’ll be some admission of mistakes and some new messages to go out.
MATTHEWS: All right.
CARTER: I hope so. And of course, I’ll be glad—I think everybody will in this country—when election is over and we have a change in basic policy, whether it’s brought about by Republican or Democratic leaders.
MATTHEWS: Boy, you have mellowed. Thank you very much, former president, Jimmy Carter, author of “The Hornet’s Nest” about the American Revolution. Of course, it’s about the South, the American South, and the recently—until now untold story of that fighting down there. And “Christmas in Plains,” which is a nice little book about the good and the bad of Christmas time, most of it good.
Anyway, thank you, former president, Jimmy Carter.
CARTER: Thank you, Chris.