Monday was President’s Day, and students from Diller-Odell High School got to spend the day with a former U.S. president.
The students got a chance to ask questions of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter during a presentation streamed live at the Homestead National Monument of America from the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site in Plains, Ga.
Carter had planned to bring his wife along for the annual presentation, but Rosalynn Carter was unable to attend, due to a surgery she had to repair scar tissue on her small intestine. The scar tissue was the result of a procedure to remove a grapefruit-sized tumor that took place about 50 years ago, Carter said.
Doctors operated on Saturday night and found that the scar tissue had strangled almost two feet of her small intestine, Carter said. Doctors told him that it wouldn’t be a problem for a woman in her 60s, but Rosalynn is 90 and Carter was distressed about the operation.
“I was deathly afraid,” Carter said. “I prayed for three hours.”
Around 5:30 a.m. on Sunday, the surgeon told him that everything had worked out, but she would have to remain in the hospital for another week.
The 93-year-old Carter was scheduled to begin the presentation at 11 a.m., but began just a few minutes before, taking time to discuss the Department of Education—which Carter advocated for during his presidency and signed into law in 1979. He also reflected on the women’s movement and how the role of president has changed with the advent of social media.
Carter also carved out some time for students from Diller-Odell to ask him a few questions, though the opportunity was nearly missed when technical issues briefly made it appear that the Homestead’s Distance Learning Portal had stopped working. At the very last minute, park rangers Susan Cook and Ramon Mangual were able to get the system up and running, and the students were allowed to ask their questions.
Senior Austin Cook asked Carter what the most difficult thing about being president was.
Trying to keep the peace was the hardest part of his presidency, Carter said. There were many challenges to peace during his time in office, he said, just as there are now for Donald Trump and those who came before him. Since leaving office, Carter said the U.S. has gone to war 30 times, leading the American people to believe that going to war is acceptable.
America has gained a reputation of being the most warlike country on Earth, Carter said, and compared to other nations that haven’t gone to war, the U.S. has spent trillions of dollars that could have been used on other things, like infrastructure.
“For instance, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has probably spent $6 trillion,” Carter said. “We now are $21 trillion in debt, our country is. The average amount the federal government spends for everything in an entire year is about $4 trillion.”
Countries like China, that haven’t gone to war, have been able to build up their infrastructure, Carter said, and China, for example, has built 14,000 miles of high speed railroad that can transport people at speeds up to 200 miles an hour, as well as roads, seaports and universities.
“I've given you a long answer, but I'd say the most difficult thing for me when I was president was to keep the peace and to try to set an example for other presidents to keep the peace, which we have not yet done,” Carter said. “I think, eventually though, we're going to have to learn how to live with each other as a next step in human evolution.”
Next, senior Ashlen Vanover asked Carter what made him decide to go into politics.
Carter said he didn’t get into politics until he was 38 years old. He got his start serving on a county school board in Georgia, to which he was appointed by a grand jury. He ran for state senate, then ran for governor and then for the presidency.
“When I was serving in state senate, I just wanted to help preserve and protect the public school system,” Carter said. “That was the reason I went into politics to begin with.”
Carter said his time in politics expanded his knowledge of problems and how to solve them.
The students from Diller-Odell were joined electronically by students from schools in Custer, S.D. in the Black Hills, as well as Topeka, Kan. at the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site and Skagway, Alaska.
It was a unique opportunity to be able to ask questions of a former president, Cook told the Diller-Odell students.
“As you guys learn and grow up, you will be making our choices, you'll be our congressmen, our senators, our governors,” Cook said. “That's why we want you to have opportunities like this to learn from people like Jimmy Carter on what he experienced, what he was using as his guiding principles, to help you in no matter what you're doing in your life.”
Asked by a student in the crowd which was a more incredible experience: winning the presidency in 1976 or winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, Carter said that both of those milestones were very happy ones in his life, though both had been topped very recently.
“The only other time I remember when I was that happy was when the doctor came in Sunday morning and told me that my wife was alive," Carter said.