by: John McMurtie
When Jimmy Carter nearly bounds out of a hotel armchair to greet a journalist, it’s refreshing to see that the 90-year-old former president has not been passing the time — like so many of us these days — deep in a smartphone. Instead, he’s holding a book, a murder mystery by P.D. James.
Carter has been an avid reader all his life, and he is certainly no stranger to the written word. He has just published his 29th book, “A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety” (Simon & Schuster; 257 pages; $28). It’s a sweeping and often tender overview of his life in which he guides readers through his hardscrabble boyhood in the mostly African American community of Archery, Ga. (where he was raised in a Sears, Roebuck house and worked on the family farm), his time in the Navy (where Harry Truman’s order to end discrimination in the armed forces was “accepted with equanimity” — unlike what he witnessed at home), and, of course, his presidency and remarkably prolific post-presidency as a tireless activist. The book also includes some of his poetry and paintings; he recently finished a 30th book, a self-published collection of his art, which he took up in the Navy.
Carter lives in Plains, Ga., about two miles from Archery. He spoke about his book and current affairs on a one-day visit to San Francisco. His answers have been edited for length.
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Q: What are you reading now that you like?
A: I just got this when I was in Denver. [Holds up a copy of P.D. James’ novel “A Certain Justice.”] The people at Tattered Cover, which is my favorite bookstore in the nation, when I asked them if they had a recent P.D. James, they gave me a whole stack of P.D. James. I finished another book on the Kindle yesterday. It was a book by a Norwegian writer, an exciting murder mystery called “The Snowman” [by Jo Nesbo].
Before that I read the autobiography of Willie Nelson, who’s my buddy. Willie Nelson used to be a running partner of mine. He was a darn good athlete, by the way. I think he had four letters in high school. He still was an avid runner when I was in the White House. So he would spend the night with me on occasion at the White House, and as he said in his autobiography, he smoked pot on the roof. [Laughs.]
Former President Jimmy Carter once told Rolling Stone magazine that “all the good things I did as president, all the mistakes I made – you can blame half of that on Willie.”
Q: You stayed downstairs?
A: I did, yeah. He concealed his true partner and claimed that he was smoking with one of the servants at the White House, which was not exactly true. [Laughs.] It’s an interesting book. He extolls marijuana throughout the book, that he tried beer and tried whiskey and tried harsher drugs, but he settled on marijuana as the one that was for him.
Q: While we’re on the subject, what do you think of the direction the nation has taken, state by state, at least, as far as marijuana is concerned?
A: Well, I’ve commented on this a lot. In 1979, I made a major speech and I called for the decriminalization of marijuana. And it was well-received. When I was governor, we had a contest among southeastern governors, at least, to see who could have the smallest prison population. And so we decided among ourselves not to put people in prison for the possession of marijuana but to offer treatment for people who had an addiction. So when I was president, we evolved a nationwide policy, and that was one of the premises.
But at that time, we had one person per thousand who was in prison in America. A hundred people per hundred thousand. Now we have 750 people per hundred thousand. We have seven and a half times as many people in prison. And we have eight times as many black women in prison now as we did in 1981, when I left the White House. So that’s been one of the major concerns I’ve had as a non-lawyer, to criticize the American justice system, which is highly biased against black people and poor people. And it still is.
But I think there’s an awakening now of a realization that we too early congratulated ourselves on the end of racial prejudice and white supremacy. And that was a feeling that we had when I was president, that we had pretty much overcome that problem.”
— Jimmy Carter