“Their insistence on a town hall meeting is emblematic of the kind of president and first lady they were.”
—UGA President Michael F. Adams introducing President and Mrs. Carter at a public meeting on January 20
The year was 1978 and then-President Jimmy Carter was at Camp David negotiating a peace agreement between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The two men were at each other’s throats, Carter recalled, so he separated them.
For days he went back and forth between them acting as a mediator. Then, without telling Carter, a frustrated Sadat packed his bags and called for a helicopter to return him to Washington, where he could catch a flight home. When Carter learned of Sadat’s plans, he was upset. The two men were friends, as were their families.
Carter, who was wearing jeans and a sport shirt, changed into a suit and tie. He went to a back room, knelt and prayed.
“I asked God to help me,” Carter told a standing room only crowd at UGA’s Georgia Center.
He went to Sadat’s cabin and told the Egyptian leader that if he left Camp David, “our friendship was severed forever.”
Sadat walked to a corner of the room, then came back and said, “I’m staying.”
The story, which Carter told during a three-day conference on The Carter Presidency: Lessons for the 21st Century, had never been told in public.
It was but one of many memorable moments captured during the January event, which drew dozens of members of the Carter administration to Athens to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Georgia native’s presidential inauguration.
With his wife Rosalynn at his side, Carter was joined by former staff in his administration, including vice president Walter Mondale, national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, and press secretary Jody Powell, for panel discussions on the U.S. dependence on foreign oil and its relationship with Middle East countries, the threat of nuclear proliferation in Iran and Korea, and the lessons learned from the Carter administration that are relevant to the issues facing the United States today.
During his keynote address, following a dinner at the Classic Center, Carter shared his thoughts about the future role of the United States in world affairs.
“I would like for our country to be the champion of human rights again and the epitome of hope for people who are persecuted and deprived of a decent life,” he said.
“I would like to hear everyone on Earth say the United States epitomizes these human dreams. I think that would make a good outline for the next presidential inaugural speech.”
Former vice president Walter Mondale kicked off the first session of the conference and made immediate headlines with his criticism of current vice president Dick Cheney.
“I think Cheney has been at the center about cooking up all [these] farcical estimates” regarding national risks and weapons of mass destruction, Mondale said. “I don’t think that serves the president. The president has to get the facts. . . the vice president should never be in a position of pressuring the process on which the president must depend.”
Mondale was the first vice president to have an office in the west wing of the White House, giving him unprecedented access to the president.
“I would have been looked on as a macho president. We would have killed tens of thousands of Iranians. They would have killed our hostages.”
—President Carter during a student panel discussion, commenting on his staff’s advice in 1979 that he bomb Iran after student militants took nearly 60 Americans hostage
Former first lady Rosalynn Carter was honored at a luncheon, where she recounted the high points of her life as first lady of both Georgia and the U.S.
Exactly 30 years ago to the day, she recalled watching Jimmy Carter recite the oath of office for the presidency. Later that afternoon, she found humor in her new surroundings at the White House. Told that she could pick up the phone and talk to anyone in the world, the new first lady picked up the phone and asked for Jimmy.
“Jimmy who?” said the operator.
As first lady, Mrs. Carter surprised many when she eschewed the traditionally narrow role in favor of more active duties as advocate and government representative. She found that both the American public and the rest of the world were critical of her expanded role as first lady.
“I was just doing what I had been doing all my life in my marriage with Jimmy Carter—being a partner,” she said.
A panel of UGA honors students turned the tables on the president during one session, analyzing his policy decisions and recommending ways they could be used to shape future foreign and domestic policy.
Helen Smith, a senior from Charlotte, asked Carter how he would address the situation at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where suspected terrorists are being held without charges or legal representation.
“Close it down” Carter said without hesitation. “It has been an abomination and a disgrace to our country.”
In agreeing to the conference, Carter made two requests: student and community involvement. A free public town hall meeting on Saturday drew more than 1,000 people. The scheduled hour-long forum expanded to 90 minutes as the Carters patiently answered questions from the audience on topics that ranged from the current war in Iraq to the controversy surrounding his latest book, Palestine: Peace, not Apartheid.
In his introduction of the Carters, UGA President Michael Adams praised their commitment to the public.
“I would like for our country to be the champion of human rights again and the epitome of hope for people who are persecuted and deprived of a decent life. Peace, freedom, democracy, human rights, law, alleviation of suffering. I would like to hear everyone on Earth say the United States epitomizes these human dreams. I think that would make a good outline for the next presidential inaugural speech.”
—President Carter in his keynote speech on Saturday evening at the Classic Center
“Their insistence on a town hall meeting is emblematic of the kind of president and first lady they were,” Adams said.
The weekend closed Sunday with a look at the presidency and the press.
“The beginning was almost magical,” recalled PBS reporter Judy Woodruff. “You had somebody come out of nowhere. There was almost a love affair between many in the press and this little-known governor from Georgia who had risen to power.”
But it didn’t last. Four days after the Americans were taken hostage in Iran, ABC News premiered “Nightline,” which on a nightly basis tracked the crisis.
Carter ended the session by referring to a recent study concluding that for the 48 months he was in office, only one month produced more positive coverage than negative.
“It was my first month,” he said. “After that. . . well, you know.”