INTERVIEW WITH MARY KING (12/6/97)
INTERVIEWER: Thank you for agreeing to give this interview. Can you tell me, in 1976, what was the appeal of President Carter to you and to the electorate, why did you choose to support him?
MARY KING: Well, Carter was a fresh face completely; he arose in a sense out of nowhere, and he had been governor of a southern state; he did not come from the party ranks, he was not an old hack, he was not from the Senate, as had been...
(Interruption - request to adjust position in chair, etc. Cut.)
INT: ... So, in 1976, what was the appeal of President Carter both to you and to the electorate?
MK: Well, Jimmy Carter was a completely fresh face; he had not come up through the ranks of the normal routes to power, he didn't have an established bloc behind him in the party, he was in essence an outsider. Nationally, most people had never heard of him. And this was very important at that particular time, because of what the United States had gone through in the period immediately preceding that, with the assassinations of the Kennedy's, Martin Luther King's assassination, the war in Vietnam, the corrosion and corruption of Watergate. The country wanted someone who was fresh and someone who was new, and someone who was unsullied by the traumas and problems and corrosion of the past. And so in a sense what he brought, his newness and his freshness, was precisely what the American people were looking for. That's what I was looking for. I had spent four years working in the Civil Rights movement, and so I was not easy to convince that a white southerner from a county in southwest Georgia was ideal for our next president. There was a big test that had to be passed with me as to whether he was genuine and sincere on matters of race. He passed the test with me. I realized immediately, once I started interacting with him, that this was a man of principle, a man of very deep personal convictions, and that he brought to public life an understanding of race that was not platitudinous, it was not from issue papers, it was not anything prepared by staff: it came out of a deep-rootedness in the South, an understanding of the historical realities and the historical legacy of slavery, and his own interaction over the years with black people. His early childhood friends were all blacks, and so, when he spoke about race, he wasn't doing it in the abstract, he was speaking out of personal experience, personal conviction, and his family's orientation.
INT: That's great. What sort of personal values did he bring with him?
MK: Well, I think with Jimmy Carter you must first of all acknowledge that he is a Baptist, and that means a very strong belief in individual freedom, individual conscience, the assertion of individual conscience, the demand for clarity of individual assertion of conscience, and a kind of individualism that is inseparable from the American democracy. And he also brings to it his own personal family background: he had a strong father and a remarkable mother. She was a nurse; she was working in a county in which there was no physician, and she was treating African-Americans, blacks, and she was treating them in the same way that she was treating whites. So he brought both religious conviction, his understanding of race, and then a very deep sense of principle and ethics, if you will, that is a very strong feature and aspect of his character. He is a very strongly principled person, he has very deep beliefs, he's uncompromising - sometimes he's a little bit too uncompromising, but he is uncompromising in his beliefs, and it doesn't come from political opportunism: it's never a matter of taking advantage. If you will, he's not even a politician: he thinks of himself more as a moral leader than he does as a politician. If you want a politician with the Carter's, you have to turn to his wife, who is far more of a politician than he is; her instincts are very, very astute politically. But Carter is ruled by principle, and this is the dominant force in his life: his religious convictions and his own ethical principles. And this too, I think, is part of what was fresh and wanted by the American people.
INT: Great. ... That's a wonderful answer.
(Offer of drink & a bit of non-i/v talk. Cut.)
INT: ... But why did the country need this clean sweep?
MK: Well, Watergate was an extremely degrading and debasing experience for the United States. Even today, you can hardly find anyone who voted for Richard Nixon. The country is still deeply ashamed over what happened, and I think it's hard to remember now how much of a millstone this was around the neck of Americans. Watergate was carried out by lawyers - almost all of them were lawyers - it was carried out by people who were opportunistic in the way they viewed the government: the government was something to be used, not something that served the people and was there solely for their benefit and for the strengthening of democracy. There was no idealism; there was profound ruthlessness, almost wantonness on the part of the leadership of the country during the Watergate era. So that it was natural that the American people would want to turn to someone who represented a different way of doing business, and who had a clarity about ethical principles that was evident.
INT: Great. And do you think America had lost its self-confidence? Could one say that?
MK: Well, I think that from the period of the war in Vietnam on, in fact the United States was on the defensive: it was on the defensive vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, it was on the defensive over the assassinations that had occurred following the Civil Rights movement. I think that the Civil Rights movement was a high watermark for the United States. But the assassinations of the Kennedy's and Martin Luther King unleashed tremendous nihilism and pessimism, and the Black Power Movement, and a spiritual despair almost on the part of the American people. All of these were factors that were there when Carter emerged on the horizon; and Carter said, "I am not a lawyer." He said, "I am not from Washington," and at that time he was a private citizen. All of those things resonated warmly with the American people. They were sick of lawyers: lawyers had done Watergate; they were sick of people who came from the labyrinth and niches and power centers of Washington, so his coming from the outside was a huge plus. And they were tired of people who had sought public office for their own purposes; and the fact that he was running as a private citizen, this too was a great advantage that he had.
INT: And he was to some extent plain, wasn't he, he was honest, he had values, integrity, all these things?
MK: I think that on one's first meeting Carter, the strongest sense that you have about him is that this is someone who is clean, this is someone who is plain, this is someone who has no pretence: what you see is what you get; that he is all entwined, there is no dissonance. He is the same way in public the way that he is in private. We used to despair because he refused to take coaching for political speeches and public speaking, but he said, "No, I'm not going to work with a coach and change the way that I am. Who I am is who I am, and I will simply be myself," and it would drive us crazy, because we thought: well, perhaps with a little bit of work, he could project his voice or he could do this, or he could have more clarity with that, or he could explain such and such more powerfully. And he absolutely refused anything that to him connoted artificiality.
INT: And on the campaign trail, how did that sort of appeal that he had - can you tell me about an incident where that shone through?
MK: On the campaign trail...
(Interruption - noise. Cut.)
INT: So how did these characteristics, these traits that he had - his honesty, his plainness, his speaking from the heart - how did that show through on the campaign trail, if you like? How did people respond to him?
MK: On the campaign trail, he wwalk into a church or a school or a center or a Y, or whatever it was, and he would put his leg up on a chair, he would take off his jacket, he would roll up his shirtsl, loosen his tie and sometimes take it off, and he would start to talk, and he would just talk with people and solicit their opinions, and he would say things like, "I will never lie to you. I believe in God. I have always been faithful to my wife." Now, in Washington you can imagine the reaction was jaded and disbelieving and contemptuous. But on the campaign trail, people liked this very much. They wanted a president who would not lie to them; they liked the fact that he believed in God and that his religious beliefs were absolutely central to who he was; and they also liked the fact that his love for his wife was evident and abundant(ly) clear, that she was not a prop, she was real and important to him. So, in Washington people thought of lying as part of statecraft, but on the campaign trail people wanted someone who would absolutely turn their back on governance through lying.
INT: That's great. Is there one particular incident...
(Interruption - 2 cuts)
INT: Can you tell me how important was his human rights agenda, especially actually in the Eastern bloc countries, and why it mattered to Carter?
MK: Well, I think that Jimmy Ca...
MK: I think that President Carter is absolutely inseparable from the implosion or the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it started with his insistence on making human rights central and pivotal in foreign policy in his administration. Within weeks of his taking office, he gave orders secretly to the resistant CIA to flood the Soviet Union and Central Europe with the writings of banned human rights activists, and also articles about human rights activists. And so the plays, articles, books, pamphlets, dramas, editorials, manifestos that were proliferating all through Central Europe by that time, were getting hugely distributed by the CIA. That pride opened the space for those human rights activists to spark mass movements, and those mass movements, in Czechoslovakia, in East Germany, in Poland, began the implosion of the Soviet Union. And then, by 1980, moving forward into his Administration, Solidarity in Poland had gained so much strength that Brezhnev moved 15 to 20 military divisions to the frontier in order to threaten Solidarity, if not crush the Solidarity union. Carter picked up the phone and called Brezhnev and said, "Move your military divisions back, not one inch over the line," and Brezhnev did. So, from the start of his Administration to the end of his Administration, Carter was absolutely consistent in pushing and pressure, pressure, pressure on human rights. This was extremely significant in so far as the Soviet Union is concerned; it was one of the ways that Carter took back the offensive vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, because for so long the United States had just been reacting to whatever the Soviets did. Carter, bringing his own convictions about wanting a nuclear-free world, his own beliefs that there had to be means of keeping the pressure on the Soviet Union - he felt betrayed by them in many ways - he thought human rights was the most important way of keeping the pressure on the Soviet Union. Of course, his normalization of relations with China was also part of this plan. But he was determined to keep the pressure on the Soviet Union. Human rights was central to that.
INT: But for Carter it was also a matter of principle, wasn't it? I mean, you talk about it as a political move, which I'm sure it was, but can you just tell me a little bit about how he felt he had to act as a matter of principle?
MK: Carter was not using human rights - human rights was part of him. He had grown up in the segregated South, a South that was very little changed from slavery. Yes, black people were free on paper and there were no more shackles, but economically people were still living in slavery, and Carter knew this, he understood this organically, nobody had to teach it to him and he didn't have to read about it. When he took office as President, human rights was something that came from inside. He'd been very clear about it in the campaign. In May of 1976, in Notre Dame, he made a speech about human rights, that was followed in the fall, in the autumn of 1976, by a speech to B'nai B'rth that Stu Eisenstadt set up; Dick Holbrooke wrote the speech. Carter expanded his vision of the importance of human rights. Stu was mostly concerned about the emigration of Jews from Russia, but Carter widened that. Holbrooke took the speech, opened it up, made a crosscutting across the board. In May 1977, once Carter was in office, he went back to Notre Dame and made another speech, made it absolutely clear that human rights was central to his administration. (Clears throat) Can we do this part over? (Laughs)
(A bit of b/g talk. Cut.)