White House wisdom: Former President Jimmy Carter addresses Emory students

By Laura Douglas-Brown | Emory Report | Sept. 22, 2014

President Jimmy Carter took questions from Emory students Sept. 17 during his 33rd town hall meeting on campus. Emory Photo/Video.

From ISIS to ice cream, no topic was off limits as former President Jimmy Carter held his annual town hall meeting with Emory students.

"I'm part of Emory's family and I am grateful to be here," Carter, the nation's 39th president and University Distinguished Professor at Emory, told the hundreds of students who packed the Woodruff PE Center gymnasium for the Sept. 17 event.

Prior to taking questions, Carter was greeted by Emory's skeletal mascot, Dooley, who processed to the stage accompanied by his usual black-clad, sunglass-wearing entourage.

"He's got more protection right now than President Carter," quipped one student in the audience, comparing Dooley's ritual arrival to Carter's low-key entrance and warm demeanor.

"A skeleton shaking the hand of a president, you don't see that every day," another student responded.

At Emory, you do — not every day, but once a year. This marked Carter's 33rd annual town hall with Emory students. The Plains, Georgia, native turns 90 on Oct. 1. After serving as president from 1977 to 1981, he joined the Emory faculty in 1982, the same year he established the Carter Center, an Atlanta-based nonprofit dedicated to "waging peace, fighting disease [and] building hope."

The Carter Center is an affiliate of Emory independently governed by a board of trustees that includes six Emory trustees and Emory President James Wagner. Its programs focus on advancing human rights, preventing and resolving conflict, enhancing freedom and democracy, and improving health worldwide.

Carter's legacy "encourages Emory University to fulfill its mission to create, preserve, teach and apply knowledge in the service of humanity," Ajay Nair, senior vice president and dean of campus life, said when introducing the former president.

'All of us are equal'

Carter holds the record for the longest post-presidential career of any president and has been widely lauded for his humanitarian work, including receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian honor, in 1999, and the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize.

Submitted by students in writing or via Twitter, questions addressed at the town hall meeting dealt with all aspects of his career — from his humble beginnings in Plains, Georgia, to the White House to his ongoing work to help others around the world.

Carter's answers were frank, informative, clever and often humorous.

Students learned the former president's favorite ice cream (mango, "but I don't turn down other flavors when mango is not available") and his favorite band of all time (Willie Nelson, with whom Carter has sung on stage six times, "and he has learned to turn the microphone as far as possible away from my mouth").

Students also had the opportunity to glean wisdom and advice from a man whose entire career has been devoted to public service.

"Those people that we kind of look down upon at first because they don't even have enough to have a decent home, they are just as intelligent as I am and they are just as hard-working as I am," Carter said, reflecting on what he has learned working with poor families while building houses with Habitat for Humanity, in response to a question about his proudest volunteer moment. "They are just as ambitious as I am and their family values are just as good as mine. … Under God, all of us are equal."

Here are excerpts from Carter's hour-long question-and-answer session, including his poignant — and challenging — answer when asked which one word best describes the United States.

With Emory's recent involvement with treating the Ebola patients, what role do you think the U.S. should play in the current Ebola crisis?

I think what President Obama did yesterday when he came to the CDC is what we should have done a long time ago. … Now I think they will get adequate support and what should have been done the last two months.

How would you respond to the Michael Brown situation in Ferguson if you were in office today?

Really there is not a role for the president of the United States in a situation like that. I think President Obama has already done all he could. He expressed deep concern about it, he gave his condolences to the Michael Brown family, he criticized some of the local police activities, he called for quick and complete analysis of what happened and a successful end with justice being done. That's all a president can do. He couldn't possibly interfere in the situation. It would be completely illegal and improper for a president to do anything else. …

With your understanding of the Middle East, what do you think America's response should be to the ISIS situation?

I think that what President Obama has now proposed is probably the right approach: that the United States should just limit itself to aerial support of ground troops, by drones or by fighter planes or by bombers. I think inside Iraq we have some very good support from the Kurds in particular — they are the only fighters we have seen yet who are willing to stand up to ISIS troops. My hope is that Iraq can put together a group of army people who will do that and I hope we can convince the other Sunni [Muslims] in Iraq that they should not align themselves with ISIS [although] the government, which is Shia Muslims, has been depriving them of their rights.

I think it is very complicated but I think in general we are doing the right thing. The unfortunate aspect now of what President Obama proposed is that we don't have any ground troops who can fight side-by-side with us inside Syria. As you know ISIS has basically wiped away the borderline between Syria and Iraq, they don't pay any attention to the border, and inside Syria we don't have any ground troops on whom we can depend. There is no other Arab country that has aligned itself with us to fight against ISIS and I would guess — I don't know this, but I would guess — that some of the wealthiest Arab countries are giving money to support ISIS for various reasons. …

What is the best advice to give a college first-year student?

…When I was elected president and was inaugurated, I made a fairly brief inauguration speech and I was the first president who ever quoted a high school teacher. And later when I got the Nobel Peace Prize, I quoted the same high school teacher, and what she taught us then has been good advice for me. It is, "We must accommodate changing times, but cling to principles that never change." …

There are principles that never change: to tell the truth, be compassionate to others, promote justice, promote peace, share whatever talent or ability you have with other people. Those are the principles that don't change and I think they are applicable no matter what you do in life.

What is your favorite thing about Emory?

… I like the freedom at Emory, I like the diversity of Emory, I like the constant striving for excellence in every aspect of Emory's life, I like the opportunity to meet with a lot of different kinds of people here.

If you could describe the U.S. in one word, what would it be?

"Searching." The United States had in the past been the undisputed super power ever since the Soviet Union dissipated, and we now are beginning to realize from hard experiences that we can't tell other people how to live. Even if we send in massive military forces we can't change the way people want to live. …

We have to learn how to share leadership responsibilities, so I think we are searching now for the essence of what makes America great and how to get along with other people who have an equal voice in what the future holds. My hope is that in the future America will become a genuine super power, and I would ask you, "What would be your definition of a super power?"

I think a super power would be one where people, no matter where they live in the world, if they had a potential civil war or conflict, they would say, "why don't we go to Washington because America is a champion for peace." Or if they had a troubled democracy, they would say, "why don't we go to Washington because America has the purest and most admirable election system on earth."

Or if they were facing something that challenges the human race, like global warming, they would say, "why don't we go to Washington for the answer, because the United States is a leader in guaranteeing that climate change will be positive instead of negative." And if people were in need, I would like them to say, "why don't we go to Washington because Americans are the most generous people on earth."

That's what I think a super power should be. I think that's what we're searching for.