TEXT OF INTERVIEW
KAI RYSSDSAL: Jimmy Carter was not the most likely of presidents. He wasn’t well known at the beginning of the campaign. He was not especially well financed. He says himself that early on, he was often overlooked among the Democratic hopefuls 35 years ago.
Flipping through his latest book, “White House Diary” it’s called, it’s striking how many of the things he writes about might just as well have been ripped from today’s headlines: Plans for a health care overhaul, an energy crisis, a difficult economy later on in his term.
When we spoke yesterday, I asked him about another thing people seem to have forgotten about the Carter years — widespread deregulation.
JIMMY CARTER: I would say that the most seminal change that affected the future was what you just mentioned, and that was deregulation. I was very much against government intrusion in private affairs, and so I thought that the airlines and the railroads and the banks all should be regulated. And they were while I was in office. It was a tremendous change.
RYSSDAL: Did it ever occur to you that part of the reason that this economy is in the state it’s in — that we’ve had the financial crisis and corporations with huge profits at the expense of workers and sometimes consumers — is because you started this drive for deregulation that continued through Republican and Democratic administrations?
CARTER: No, that’s not true. The elements that have resulted in the latest breakdown were done under a later president, I won’t call his name. We kept tight control over the banking and finance committee. There was a constant monitoring of the loans to people. And in getting those loans and then selling those mortgages to other people, and indeed they would be resold again — all of that was prohibited when I went out of office.
RYSSDAL: So I went looking as I picked up this book, I went looking for the name Paul Volcker, who you appointed to the Fed in 1979. You don’t come across his name until page 340-something and it’s really funny because it is dismissed in a sentence. “Paul Volcker came in. We decided we could work with him,” and then the next day bang, you named him to the Fed.
CARTER: That was really, though, one of the most hotly debated things I did because a lot of my political advisers said, ‘Don’t appoint Paul Volcker because he’s going to tighten up on everything and you will have no control at all over the Fed anymore. You won’t even have any communication with him.’ And when Paul Volcker came in, I was seeing the prospect of enormous inflation rates and so I agreed with Paul Volcker in that conversation that I would not interfere in what he did and that I was prepared for him to tighten up tremendously and drive interest rates and so forth up int order to control rapid inflation.
RYSSDAL: It’s funny actually because a little later in the book you basically say in this passage that you dictated at the time, “Volcker says he’s going to have to tighten up on interest rates and it’s going to hurt me politically.” I mean, you knew it was coming?
CARTER: I knew it was coming. But I was prepared to take it. I thought that I could be reelected in spite of that. I underestimated the adverse effects of the hostage crisis. As fate would have it, the anniversary of a hostage being taken was on election day, and so it was the burning issue above everything else. And a secondary problem, and it was secondary to the hostage crisis, was that I didn’t have control over the Democratic Party because Ted Kennedy decided that he was going to run for president against me.
RYSSDAL: It’s interesting that you mention Teddy Kennedy because another theme that runs through this book — and obviously there are many in any given presidency — is health care. And the plan you had for it, and how you say flat out, Teddy Kennedy wrecked it for you.
CARTER: There’s no doubt about that. I wrote that, everybody has to remember, 31 years ago, when it actually happened. I had worked out what I wanted to do with health care, which was a very comprehensive program to have catastrophic health care for everybody to start with and then over a four-year period to give universal health care. There was a complete program. So up until the time of the same week that we were going to introduce the bill to the public and to the Congress in general, we had all five committee chairmen on my side. At the last minute, Ted Kennedy decided that he would not support it and he was able to obstruct the entire bill.
RYSSDAL: On the topic of Paul Volcker, if I could just back up for a second, you put him in the job. You, in essence, made this deal with him where he would do what he had to do and you would suffer the political consequences, according to your telling of it. And yet, it seems to me that he is most remembered, and the president he is most associated with is Ronald Reagan for breaking the back of inflation. Does that gall you at all?
CARTER: Not gall me.
RYSSDAL: But you a little bit?
CARTER: But I recognize the fact that I was the one that suffered politically and Ronald Reagan was the one that benefited from the Paul Volcker economic philosophy. But I don’t begrudge the fact that it happened during the next term. I thought the next term was going to be mine.
RYSSDAL: Mr. President, thank you so much for your time.
CARTER: I’ve enjoyed being with you. Thank you.
RYSSDAL: We’ve got an excerpt of President Carter’s book. You can flip through it yourself.