SALT LAKE CITY — The American political atmosphere is becoming an embarrassment, former President Jimmy Carter told reporters at the King's English Bookshop on Thursday.
"Americans don't realize how dramatically our political atmosphere has gone downhill," Carter said.
Candidates are now getting massive amounts of money that is being used in negative campaigns. "The best way to get elected or re-elected now is to tear down the reputation or character of your opponent," he said. "That builds up a distrust because they are constantly attacking on television, and by the time the successful candidate gets to Washington, they have that deep feeling of animosity and division that carries into the deliberations of the Congress."
Carter was in Salt Lake City to sign copies of his latest book, "White House Diary," which is a condensed version of his 5,000-page diary — daily notes and dictations transcribed by one of his secretaries — written during his presidency.
The King's English has been preparing for Carter's visit since March, pre-selling books and planning how to best move hundreds of people through a small store in a short amount of time, said Anne Holman, who coordinates events for the shop. The store sold between 900 and 1,000 copies of the "White House Diary" for Thursday's signing.
More than 800 people waited in line for hours to greet the former president and get his autograph. Carter briefly stopped signing to answer a few questions from the media.
Interparty relations was one of the major topics Carter addressed.
During his time as president, Carter says he had superb support from the Republican Party. "I had the best batting average with the Congress than any president except Lyndon Johnson since the second World War," Carter said, "and it was because I got support from Republicans."
That's not the case now. "Republicans have been completely irresponsible in the last 20 months," Carter said.
The GOP's refusal to give President Barack Obama any support, even on items that Republicans backed in the past, is ridiculous, Carter said. "I'm not criticizing individuals, but I think they have been irresponsible."
Carter believes that once the midterm elections are over and the Republicans take over the House, members of the GOP will have to be more responsible because they won't be able to avoid saying they had some part to say in the decision.
That will give Obama more freedom, too, Carter said. "When he gets voted down in the House, he can take the issue straight to the American people and say, 'Look, this is what I proposed and the GOP refused to go along with it.' I think he'll have a good debating issue, which he hasn't had in the past 20 months."
Despite his brief time with the media, it was clear that Carter's visit was more about the people waiting to see him rather than a press conference. His interactions with fans, though brief, were warm and heartfelt.
The line to see Carter wasn't supposed to start forming until 10:30 a.m., but that didn't stop people from arriving at the King's English as early as 8:30.
Danesh Ajioka and his mother, Nousheen, were among the first to make an appearance. Carter was the president when Nousheen immigrated to the United States, and she has a lot of respect for him. It was for that reason she felt it was OK for Danesh to miss school.
Danesh is a seventh-grader at the McGillis School in Salt Lake City. Recently the students at his school held a bake sale benefitting Habitat for Humanity, a charity Carter has supported. The students raised more than $1,000, and Danesh was excited to meet the man known for his work with the organization.
And while Danesh hasn't started reading "White House Diary" yet — "my mom has been hogging it" — he still knows a lot about Carter. "I know he was the 39th president and was very strong about the environment," he said. "His first day in the White House he turned down the furnace 10 degrees! I'm pretty excited to meet him."
Carter's visit turned into a learning experience for other Utah students as well. Lori and Marc Pehkonen home-school their children, Jack and Eliza, and bought four copies of Carter's book so they could all meet him.
"It's like a field trip with the president," Marc Pehkonen said. "Meeting a former president doesn't happen very often."
Clayton Middle School students Jerek and Jurnee Clark came with their mom, Ann. "They get extra credit for book signings," Ann Clark said. "And this is one of the better events to come to."
Angel Hayes of Salt Lake City was the lucky person to land first in line. She was living in Torrey, Wayne County, when she learned Carter was coming to Utah. One phone call later, and she had one of the first 20 books sold.
Hayes was only 13 when Carter became president, but that was when she started to follow politics. Hayes didn't know she would end up first in line — otherwise she would have brought he second- and fourth-graders to meet "a man of integrity and commitment.
"He is one of the most inspirational people in my lifetime," Hayes said.
Carole Bendekovich, also of Salt Lake City, was second in line. Carter is the first president she remembers. "He's an amazing humanitarian," she said. "It's a great opportunity to meet him."
Gwyn Galloway, Shannon Skiles and Barbara Braedon rearranged their schedules to meet the former president. Skiles actually took a vacation day from work so she could wait in line.
"He's a good man," Skiles said. "I love Habitat for Humanity and I'm impressed with all he's done after the presidency."
"I think he's gotten a bum rap," Galloway said of Carter's critics. "He's a normal man like everyone else."
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