Former President Jimmy Carter, 83, just returned from a nine-day trip to the Middle East, where the 39th president (1977-81) and 2002 Nobel Peace Prize winner continued his peace mission. Next week, he begins promoting a new book, "A Remarkable Mother," about "Miss Lillian" Carter, who died in 1983. He spoke by phone Wednesday with USA Today.
Question: Your mother died 25 years ago at age 85. Why are you telling her story now?
Answer: I felt my mother exemplified before her time the essence of what human rights means in a very personal fashion. She started when I was still a child, taking care of nearby poverty-stricken people during the Depression. She continued that all the way through her life, including going to India with the Peace Corps, where she was, in effect, untouchable herself in that she dealt with things that other respectful people didn't touch. Mother also had a great sense of humor. She was bubbling over with excitement and good cheer. She was completely unpredictable. She meant a lot to me.
Question: A lot of young people never heard of Miss Lillian. You say you've taught at Emory University for 26 years; did you want to introduce her to a new generation?
Answer: She sets an example. When she got back from the Peace Corps, she made about 600 speeches. She kept a careful log telling people that age was no barrier to a full and exciting and challenging and adventurous and unpredictable life. I use my mother on occasion as an example to these young folks to reach out for greatness and never to be discouraged about trying something new.
Question: In the book, you quote your mother's writings on her 70th birthday; you say she wished each of you would "dare to do things and reach for goals in your own lives that have meaning for you as individuals, doing as much as you can for everybody, but not worrying if you don't please everyone." How have you followed that advice?
Answer: I remember often my mother's advice to me to do what you think is right and what you think is exciting and gratifying to you, and not worry if you make a mistake and fail, and not worry if anybody criticizes you. Just to go ahead and do it. It's paid off for me. I'm not saying everybody else needs to follow the same advice.
Question: You've been quoted as saying your mother was "the most influential woman in my life." How has her influence extended to your most recent meetings with the Palestinian group Hamas, in light of the Bush administration's expressed concern? What do you think your mother would have said about such a controversial move?
Answer: She always liked controversy herself, and I think she would have approved completely. I think that would have added a little bit of spice or titillation to the fact that we were reaching out to people who were scorned and deprived and excluded from processes. I think in addition to that, the excitement of doing something that was somewhat controversial would have been an extra appeal to her.
Question: Was it to you, too?
Answer: We just had a meeting this morning at the Carter Center, and we agreed it was probably the most fun trip and most completely successful and positive trip that we've ever taken, and my wife and I have been in more than 125 countries. This was superb. The welcome that we got everywhere we went except in some of the United States news media was overwhelming. It was really great.
Question: Do you think your mother is watching over you?
Answer: I do. Someone even asked me this morning, "Would your mother have approved of your going to the Mideast?" I said I think so. If I had felt my mother would have disapproved, I would have certainly had second thoughts about doing it. I can't deny that I might very well rationalize what I'm doing and just convince myself it was the kind of thing my mother would have done or would have approved.
Question: What did your mother teach you about dealing with people and trusting them?
Answer: If Mama ever got down on somebody, that was it. For the rest of her life, if somebody did something to violate her promise or lie or hurt somebody, she just marked them off even if they later wanted to be reconciled.
I'm inclined to give people a second chance and try to put myself in their position and understand why they disagree with me. You have to judge the character and the background and the knowledge you have with someone else and you can almost automatically come to an element of how much you trust them and how much you don't. Sometimes if somebody tells you something, you can depend on it. If my wife tells me something, I would depend on it no matter what it was.