Emory Report
September 24, 2007
Volume 60, Number 5

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September 24, 2007
Carter spills the beans on news, politics, UFOs

By CAROL Clark

How does a former president, Nobel Prize winner and college professor keep up with current events? “I watch ‘The Daily Show’ every night,” Jimmy Carter told the Emory freshman class during his 26th annual Town Hall Meeting on Sept. 19.

Carter added that he reads The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Economist. “I would advise you, if you really want to know what’s going on in the world, read the Economist and watch John Stewart.”

The 83-year-old Carter, University Distinguished Professor at Emory since 1984, showed that he still has what it takes to go head-to-head with incoming students, who filled the Woodruff P.E. Center arena to pick his brain. He responded to the grab-bag of student questions with lightning wit and knowledge drawn from growing up on a Georgia farm, serving as the 39th president of the United States, and continuing to work as a humanitarian on the world stage through The Carter Center.

The event began with the traditional appearance of Emory’s resident immortal spirit, James W. Dooley, who glided up the aisle guarded by a black-clad retinue that looked more formidable than Carter’s Secret Service detail. The skeleton bounded onto the stage and gave Carter a bear hug, then made a smooth exit on a Segway.

The evening clearly belonged to Carter, however, whose smooth segues brought down the house on several occasions. Following are a few highlights of the hour-long Q&A session.

How would you compare the U.S. you presided over as president and the U.S. we currently live in?

“When I ran for president in 1976, we didn’t have any money and we didn’t need it,” Carter said. He described how he, his wife, Rosalynn, and other relatives and campaign representatives fanned out around the country. “We didn’t have enough money for hotels so we had to find a family that would let us sleep in a spare room or one of their children’s beds.” In contrast, money has become the dominant force in today’s presidential campaigns, he said, making it “almost inconceivable” to win a nomination without at least $100 million.

What is one thing you regret about your presidency?
Carter cited the Iranian hostage crisis that clouded the final months of his presidency. In April of 1980, he sent a fleet of military helicopters to swoop in and fly the 53 American hostages out of Tehran. One chopper crashed in a sandstorm and several others aborted due to mechanical and navigational difficulties, leaving the fleet one chopper short of what the mission required.

If he could do it over, he would send one more helicopter, Carter said. “I would have been a hero rather than a heel and it’s very likely I would have been re-elected president,” he said.

Of all the top-secret things you learned and can now divulge, what is the most intense and shocking?
The most closely-held secret of his administration was the technology of the stealth bomber, Carter said, referring to the revolutionary B-52 that was nearly invisible to enemy sensors. When discussing the bomber, “we would lock all the doors and make sure no one was close to a wall and have technicians come in to make sure no radio waves were bouncing off the White House windows and recording what we were talking about,” he said. “There were some other more personal secrets that might be more titillating, but that’s the one I’m giving as an answer.”

Did you really see a UFO, as you were quoted as saying in a Playboy interview?
“Yes,” Carter said, “but let me explain.” He described how one October evening in 1969, he and about a dozen other Lions Club members were standing outside a schoolhouse door in Leary, Georgia, waiting for a meeting to begin. “All of the sudden, in the western sky we saw an enormous, round shape, about the diameter of the moon,” he recalled. The UFO hovered over the treetops, changing colors from red, to blue, to white, then disappeared. “All of us were aghast,” Carter said. “We couldn’t comprehend what it was.”

Carter added that he has never believed that there were “extraterrestrial riders” in the UFO.