Read an Excerpt
from Chapter 6
As the big day approached, we children went through a gamut of imagined gifts that might be ours on Christmas morning, finally honing our lists down to a reasonable balance between high expectations and the cautionary responses of our parents, designed to deflate our hopes. Then we would mail our letters to Santa Claus at the North Pole, hoping that he would be more generous than we were being led to expect. Not quite understanding the interrelationships, we nevertheless used maximum propaganda around the house.
"Mama, if I just had one of those little Red Racer wagons in the Sears catalogue, I could haul wood to the house, water to the field hands, and vegetables from the garden. During peanut season, it would make it easy to bring some peanuts home from the field so I could boil them to sell." My real visions were of A.D. and me pulling each other back and forth around the farm, and flying down a steep hill together.
There was no chance that we might intimidate our parents, or beg successfully for particular gifts. The process of our expressing hopes and their dashing them was strangely routine and impersonal, our goal being to obtain as much as possible for ourselves and theirs to minimize disappointment when we didn't get what we wanted. At least for us children, Baby Jesus was not involved in this important dialogue.
It didn't seem right at least to her for Mama to have to cook a complete breakfast on Christmas morning, so we always had just sausage, biscuits, and jelly a custom that we Carters have maintained for seventy years. This menu could be prepared the afternoon or evening before, kept in either the icebox or the warming compartment of the woodstove, and heated up quickly. In fact, we rarely even built a fire in the big cooking stove on Christmas Day. When we didn't eat dinner with some of our kinfolks, Mama would warm up leftover fried chicken or we would eat country-ham, pimiento-cheese, or peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. What served as our "microwave" in those days was the kerosene stove, which could be lit instantly and provided either an oven or two grills.
One of the great crises of our childhood was when our baby sister, Ruth, found a way to open a valve and suck out some of the kerosene. I remember that she turned a dark color before Mama could induce her to vomit by sticking a finger down her throat while Daddy held her upside down.
Since our house was always cold in the winter, the fireplace in the front room controlled the official beginning of Christmas morning. We were absolutely prohibited from entering this sacrosanct place until after Daddy had gotten up and built a good fire. Several times during the night, one of us would go into our parents' bedroom, to be met with a stern "Go back to bed! It's just two o'clock." Finally, about an hour before daylight, we would hear Daddy get up and replenish the fire in the round woodstove in their room, and we'd rush in there and put on our clothes as the chill slowly dissipated. In the meantime, Daddy would go to the front room and build a good blaze in the fireplace, which we had carefully let die down the previous night so Santa could come in without burning his britches.
After an excruciating wait, we would be given permission to dash into the front room. The cookies and milk we had left out for our distinguished guest would be gone, and his presents would be in our assigned places in front of the hearth. Our parents were experts at convincing us that we would get "some fruit and maybe some clothes that you've been needing." What we dreaded most was underwear (BVDs) and socks, so our reaction was genuine pleasure when one or two toys or some books were also there. My sisters would almost always get a "Bi-Low" doll. Once, after a good crop year, Gloria and I both got bicycles.
I don't remember much about gifts to my parents, who never seemed to expect anything and usually insisted that "Christmas is for children." Except one year, after Mama had nursed members of a black family and refused to charge them for her services, they delivered what turned out to be her favorite gift of the Christmas season. It was made by Felton Shelton, who lived on our farm and wove baskets of white-oak strips.
The present was what Felton called, for some unexplained reason, a "sky mop" (scour mop?). He drilled nine holes in a block of wood about eighteen inches long, the center one at an angle for inserting a long handle. Then he twisted corn shucks and wedged them into the other holes, making an almost indestructible scrubber that could be used to apply the caustic Red Devil lye to our floors. Mama did this at least a couple of times a year to keep bedbugs and other insidious vermin out of our house.
My most common request to Santa Claus was for two or three books, and I would prepare my choices very carefully. Sometimes I had suggestions from my mother or our school superintendent, Miss Julia Coleman, but most of the time I would search through the book section of the Sears, Roebuck catalogue and make my choices. Above all my other requests, this was the one that was most certain to be honored, because Mama was always encouraging me to read as much as possible.
The year I was eight years old, I was amazed to find a large cardboard box under the Christmas tree with a tag on it that said, "Love from Miss Abrams." She was the same head nurse who brought us the marble "snowball" from Cleveland. When I opened the gift, I found twenty-six leather-bound books, including the complete works of Victor Hugo and a twenty-volume set of The Outline of Knowledge. Mama eased my concern by telling me that I could take a few years to read through the entire collection.
The next year, we had our usual Christmas morning, and once again my most cherished gifts were some books that I had wanted. During the day, however, both my sister Gloria and I developed red spots on our faces, began to cough, and had itching eyes and runny noses. It took Mama only a brief glance to announce that we had measles, which we all knew was making the rounds of the Plains community. We listened to her stern admonition about going blind if we strained our eyes or exposed them to bright light. Her prescription was like a prison sentence: in addition to the aspirin and cough syrup, we had to stay in bed in a darkened room.
I wanted to obey Mama, but the new books on the table were too much of a temptation to resist. After an hour or so, I eased up a window shade, got one of my new books, and lay on the floor by the window to read, hidden behind the bed. It was almost inevitable that Mama would catch me, and then she searched the room, removed all the reading material, and gave me a stern warning that Daddy would administer a fearsome punishment if I disobeyed her again.
My most memorable Christmas morning was when I found, as had been predicted dismally by my parents, just two oranges, some English walnuts, dried raisins, and a pair of trousers. Trying not to appear frantic or disappointed, I searched all around the tree, and attempted to control my trembling lips and to hold back tears. I considered myself too old to cry. After a few moments, Daddy said, "Sometimes I think old Santa might leave something out in the yard." I looked out of the living-room window and didn't see anything, and then ran back to my room. There, outside, with her reins tied to a tree limb, was a Shetland pony! I dashed out of the house, and ten minutes later A.D. and I were taking turns in the saddle. I named her Lady, and for the next ten years she was a most wonderful companion.
Our family usually exchanged and relished our gifts early in the morning, and then traveled around to visit some of the other members of our family, either in nearby Plains or among my mother's folks in Richland, eighteen miles to the west, finally arriving at the place chosen that year for our big noon meal. After that, we would return home for a remarkable afternoon of total leisure, similar to what we usually enjoyed on Sundays but without any restraints against things like shooting guns or playing cards. The farm would be almost completely devoid of black neighbors, who would be visiting friends or relatives. Their travels by foot or on wagons took longer, of course, than ours by automobile. Except for the unavoidable chores of caring for animals and toting in water, firewood, and stove wood, no one was expected to have any duties.
Copyright © 2001 by Jimmy Carter
from Chapter 11
Rosalynn and I were looking forward to getting out of Washington, and we began to discuss whether we should go home to Plains. For twenty-six uninterrupted years, since the year my daddy died, we had been with our extended families for Christmas, and this year we especially needed a few days of comfort and companionship among relatives and close friends. It was a grievous disappointment, but we finally decided that it was best to stay where I would have a large supportive staff nearby, and a superb worldwide communications system just in case there were any fast-breaking developments involving the hostages. We decided instead to go to Camp David.
This Christmas season I had another problem: a serious political challenge from Senator Ted Kennedy, who had announced two months earlier that he would replace me as the Democratic nominee for president. Polls during November had shown that he was ahead by a margin of three to one, and we hoped that this was just a transient negative reaction to the kidnapping of our hostages. By mid-December, I was gaining ground, and just before leaving Washington for a few days at Camp David, I talked to one of my senior advisers, Clark Clifford, about the possibility of persuading Kennedy to withdraw from the race.
Clifford responded that this was a hopeless request and that, in any case, it was good for me to have an opponent, just to keep me and my supporters on our toes. He drew a rough parallel with a story about fishermen in Iceland who caught turbot, one of the most delicious of all fish, whose flesh was especially firm because of their constant rapid swimming. The captured turbot were kept alive on the way to American and European markets, but in large tanks they tended to become fat and sluggish. The Icelanders solved the problem by putting one small barracuda in each tank. They would sacrifice three or four turbot for barracuda meals during the voyage, but the other thousands stayed lean and tasty. Personally, I preferred not to have any "barracudas" in the Democratic Party ranks, and especially at Christmastime.
Although we were wishing for a restful holiday at Camp David, I realized when I unpacked my briefcase that the campaign staff had given me a list of several hundred telephone calls to make to key Democrats to respond to Kennedy's challenge. Rosalynn helped me, and we began by concentrating our calls in Iowa. The response was good, with many of the people telling us that early support for my opponent was dissipating. I was becoming fairly confident that I was even and pulling ahead, which helped boost our lagging Christmas spirit.
To get away from the telephone for a few hours, I walked down the mountain and went fly-fishing in Hunting Creek. I didn't catch anything, but enjoyed the fresh air and solitude. On the way back to our cabin, I realized that it was going to be a lonely Christmas. Our last-minute decision to stay at Camp David had caught our sons and their families by surprise, and they were spending the holidays in Plains or with in-laws, so Rosalynn, Amy, and I were to be the only family members there.
More than any others in our family, Amy was immersed in the lives of the White House staff, spending hours in the kitchen and other places with the cooks, stewards, laundry workers, ushers, maids, butlers, and maintenance men. When I mentioned how empty Camp David seemed, she replied that very few of these loyal workers had ever been to Camp David, although many of them had served in the White House for several decades and some were approaching retirement. We agreed with her suggestion to invite all of them to come up and spend Christmas Day with us, with no responsibilities at all except that the Filipino stewards already on duty would prepare a festive meal for everybody.
We three exchanged personal gifts in our cabin quite early Christmas morning, read the Christmas story once again, and then, at daylight, we began calling our families in Plains and talked to everyone we could get on the phone. Afterward, we spent several hours with two busloads of our friends from the White House, who brought their families with them. We enjoyed acting as guides, showing off the various cabins, the swimming pool, the bowling alley, the room where we had Sunday religious services, and answering their questions about how the Egyptians and Israelis had lived and worked during the long peace talks. After a Christmas dinner of turkey with all the trimmings and individual photographs with each family, we waved goodbye to the buses. Their visit had turned our potentially lonely Christmas Day into one that we would never forget.
At the same time, I couldn't forget about the American hostages being held in Teheran, and was wondering what else I might do to hasten their release. The next morning, I began calling key members of the United Nations Security Council and other world leaders, urging them to support our proposal for financial sanctions against Iran as long as they were holding our people.
I maintained my hopes that we would soon be getting better news from the region, but the day after Christmas I was informed that the Soviets were moving planeloads of troops into Afghanistan. We monitored 215 flights, which meant a couple of regiments were in the invading force, with maybe a total of ten thousand men. After once again calling the leaders of key nations around the world, this time to urge them to stand with us in condemning the Soviet invasion, I returned to Washington to decide what to do about this additional threat. It was related at least indirectly to the problem we were already facing in Iran. We surmised that President Brezhnev was taking advantage of trouble in the region to consolidate Russia's hold on Afghanistan and would then move through either Iran or Pakistan to realize his nation's ancient desire for access to a warm-water port.
A few days after I returned to Washington, a new national poll showed me surging ahead of Kennedy, 58 to 38 percent. It seemed that threatening news from the Middle East region helped to increase my public support. Although there were no encouraging signals from Iran, we tried to maintain the nation's hope that, within the next few weeks, our hostages would be returning home.
Twelve months later, in 1980, we approached Christmas with few reasons for celebration. I had lost the election and would soon be out of office. Fifty-two hostages were still being held in Iran, but we were encouraged by reports from the Algerians that the Ayatollah Khomeini was contemplating their release during the holiday season. We were maintaining maximum economic and political sanctions from as wide a range of nations as we could recruit to join us, and these pressures on the Iranian leaders were increasing. After almost fourteen months, it was becoming obvious in Teheran that their continuing act of international terrorism was counterproductive.
An additional crisis had arisen for them when Iraq invaded Iran in September 1980. However, we would not respond to blackmail or pay ransom, and I rejected their demand that we apologize publicly and also provide a $25 billion fund to be held in escrow to settle any of their claims against the United States. Instead, we had tied up half this amount of Iranian assets in American and foreign banks, which I had already decided to continue holding as claims against them. This was the basis for the hostages' subsequent release, which we would finally negotiate during the last few hours that I was in office.
Now, seven weeks after the November election, I had been able to put its results behind me, because I still had all my regular duties to perform, and partially because I had to think up all kinds of positive factors to ease Rosalynn's disappointment and anger about our loss. After a surprisingly productive "lame duck" session with the Congress, we decided to go to Plains for a brief visit, although I continued to concentrate on my highest priority of freeing the hostages. We were finally negotiating through the Algerians, who we hoped would be permitted to visit all of our people and give me a report on their condition. Still, we didn't let our hopes rise too high, because they had been dashed so many times during the past year.
All our children and grandchildren had come to Washington before Christmas to be with us for some of the White House festivities, and also to help us begin packing to go home. Rosalynn decided that the decorations should be as old-fashioned and nostalgic as possible, and our tree was decorated with hundreds of nineteenth-century dolls, all with porcelain heads. Our Christmas cards had become a fine way to express our friendship and thanks to a large group of people who had become friends or at least political acquaintances, and Rosalynn had stayed on the lookout all year for the best old painting of the White House. She had finally chosen a remarkable water scene showing the President's House in the distance when Andrew Jackson was living there, with a small sailboat and a rowboat in the foreground. (The stream is now in a culvert beneath Constitution Avenue, part of Washington's sewer system.) This time, we sent out 120,000 cards, with a number of enlarged prints, as before. By now, they had become collectors' items, especially the relatively small number that included our personal signatures.
In planning for the national tree, I invited the families of the hostages to meet with us. After giving them a secret briefing on all I was doing to bring their loved ones home, I asked what they wanted to do about the Christmas lights. They all asked us to leave the tree as it had been the previous year, dark and green, with just the Star of Hope shining at the top. Later, I agreed to a request from the National Association of Broadcasters to light the tree for 417 seconds, one for each day the hostages had been in captivity.
We planned an extraordinary series of parties this year, much more personal in nature, designed to thank all the people who had helped us during our time in Washington. I was feeling especially grateful to the members of Congress, who had given me a good batting average on my legislative proposals during the past four years and had been especially helpful following my defeat in November. We had passed some very important and controversial bills, including a historic decision on an issue that had been debated since Alaska became a state, while President Dwight Eisenhower was in office. This act more than doubled the size of our national-park system and tripled the wilderness areas. At the same time, we authorized drilling for 95 percent of Alaska's potential oil reserves, while protecting the small but precious wildlife refuge adjoining the Beaufort Sea. In addition, we completed four years of work on laws that required strict energy savings on automobiles, machinery, homes, and appliances, and deregulated prices to discourage waste of oil and natural gas and, at the same time, to increase domestic production.
We expanded our invitation list for the season's parties to include families of those who had worked directly in my administration, and our children and even small grandchildren joined in as hosts. Our staff surprised us by bringing in snowmaking machines and covering the South Lawn two feet deep with white powder. We first took the children out and rode on toboggans and cross-country skis, and then invited the White House staff to join us. The kids had a snowman contest, and the next night we had an ice show, the cast led by Olympic figure-skating champion Peggy Fleming.
I learned that the Cabinet officers and White House staff had taken up a collection to buy me a going-away gift, and that it was to be a Jeep. As a better alternative, I hinted that I'd like to resume a former hobby of making furniture. This resulted in my most enjoyable and long-lasting of all Christmas gifts. The money that had already been collected was given to Sears, Roebuck, with instructions to provide every tool and piece of equipment that I would need. Our garage in Plains would become my woodworking shop, and since then I have supplied the needs in our own home, furnished an entire mountain cabin, built baby cradles to encourage the production of additional grandchildren, and made a few chairs, tables, desks, cabinets, and other items to be auctioned for the benefit of The Carter Center. Walking the twenty steps from my computer and immersing myself in the woodshop is a perfect way to refresh my mind and bring an end to writer's block when I'm working on a book or a poem.
When we got home two days before Christmas, Mama was recovering from a broken hip and trying to be cheerful while demonstrating small steps with a walker. Amy went with me into the woods, and we finally found a small but acceptable tree that we could decorate. We also found a nice arrowhead on the way.
Rosalynn and I spent a lot of time in our house this Christmas trying to decide what we would have to change when we came back to Plains. It had been ten years since we lived there, and we hadn't spent full time in our home in fourteen years, since I began running for governor in 1966. The yards were all washed away, the house was really in need of cleaning and repair, and it seemed to have shrunk considerably. We would have to fill up the garage with crates and boxes just to unload the moving van, and put a floor in the attic for permanent storage. The main problem was how we would ever find space for the hundreds of books that we absolutely had to keep. Bookshelves would have to be the first products of the woodworking tools.
Since we had planted pine, maple, and other trees around the White House from our Georgia farm, I asked for cuttings and seedlings to carry home with us to Plains. We planted Andrew Jackson magnolias, Harry Truman boxwoods, and also lindens, hemlock, goldenrain trees, and an American elm in our yard. Rosalynn had replaced a dying Japanese maple that Mrs. Grover Cleveland had planted on the South Lawn in 1893, and we brought a cutting from the new one. Later, we added a George Washington poplar from Mount Vernon.
As always, we walked down the street in Plains, being welcomed and quietly consoled by friends with whom we would soon be living once again. This time, there were not so many television cameras. We presumed that they were following Ronald Reagan out in California. During the heyday of enormous tourism in the town, Penthouse publisher Larry Flynt had bought the Plains Monitor newspaper, and when we stopped by to visit the local editor, he showed us a bicycle for two he had won in a raffle. He loaned it to us, and we rode it back home and then a few miles out to the Pond House, where Mama was living. The gears hung up, and we left it there. The next day, our children surprised us with a pair of bicycles for our Christmas present. I gave Rosalynn a small television set for the bedroom, and she gave me a book on woodworking and some fly-tying equipment.
One of the biggest challenges of this Christmas season had tested my waning influence as a lame-duck president. Trivial Pursuit had become wildly popular, but there was a genuine shortage of the game, and, predictably, this was what all the children in our family described as "the main thing I want!" Normal shopping excursions around Washington by our personal staff had been fruitless, so we asked them to escalate their efforts. Finally, the day before we were to leave for Plains, one of our domestic advisers reported that he had been able to obtain two of the games from the manufacturer. (He denied that he was giving us his own.)
On Christmas morning, our family was gathered around the game, and we were excited by one of the questions: "Who was the first American president born in a hospital?," with the answer being "Jimmy Carter." We were not so thrilled when we joined probably thousands of other groups throughout America in exclaiming over the answer to another question: "Who said, 'Sometimes when I look at my children, I wish I had remained a virgin'?" The answer was "The president's mother, Lillian Carter."
I proposed a question of my own that few people were able to answer: "Which former presidents, if any, are not buried within the continental limits of the United States?" Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford were not buried, and I was soon to become the third. It was good to remember that all former presidents had not passed away.
During Christmas afternoon, we drove out into the country about ten miles to examine the rural school that would be Amy's when we came back home, and that night the assembled White House news reporters threw a farewell party under the town water tank for the people of Plains. The next day, we returned to Camp David.
When we arrived, we found that there were about two inches of snow on the ground. We had had a lot of snow during my first two years in office, and had taken up cross-country skiing. Now, once again, we were eager to try the mountain trails. First we went out to ski around the outside of the security fence, and then I came back inside to join our son Jack on the rocky nature trail behind our cabin. While I was going down a steep hill, my right ski hit a rock, and I fell and broke my left collarbone. We went to Bethesda Naval Hospital to have it X-rayed, set, and strapped, and I returned to Camp David.
My arm was throbbing with pain, but I asked Secretary of State Ed Muskie to bring an Algerian delegation to meet with me. They were the only intermediaries with whom the Ayatollah Khomeini would communicate, and had just been permitted to visit with the hostages. They reported that all the prisoners were in good shape, and forty-two of the fifty-two had sent letters to their folks back home. The Iranians had not interfered with these visits. That afternoon, we formulated our final proposal for the Algerians to deliver to the Iranians for the release of the hostages. It was fairly harsh, retaining enough Iranian gold and bank deposits to cover all American claims against Iran, any disputes to be resolved by the rulings of an international court. I also worked on my farewell speech that evening.
Our usual practice was to invite the army chaplain to come from a nearby military base to Camp David to conduct services every week, and we were looking forward to a special Christmas ceremony. But this Sunday morning, the roads were iced over and the fog was too thick for the army chaplain to travel, so we and some of the navy men on duty took turns reading Luke's account of the birth of Jesus, and then we had a discussion of the subsequent flight of the family into Egypt.
The next day, we collected our fly rods, skis, and the outdoor clothing that we kept on the mountain, to be crated and shipped to Plains. It was sad to say a final goodbye to Camp David, but a happy time to know that the Americans in Iran were safe, and to have renewed hope that our efforts to secure their release were now quite promising. In fact, my prayers for every hostage to return home safe and to freedom would soon be answered.
By New Year's Eve, we were back in Washington and went to a party with top staff members without any regrets to see the end of 1980. I had no idea what the coming year would bring for my family and me, but all of us were reconciled to leaving the White House and looking to the future. A few days later, I stood for several hours in the Oval Office and I shook hands, had a photograph taken, and personally thanked almost fourteen hundred people who had worked with us in the White House and the Executive Office Building next door. I could feel the bones rubbing together in my strapped left shoulder every time someone shook my right hand, but the pain didn't detract from the pride that we shared as our team members mentioned their own roles in promoting peace, environmental quality, and human rights in America and around the world.
My last hours in office were filled with high drama. I never went to bed Sunday or Monday night, and we finally realized that our intense negotiations had been successful when Tuesday morning dawned inauguration day.
The Iranians yielded on all the major points of our discussions, agreeing to our holding $12 billion to resolve financial claims, and to the safe release of all the American captives. Two hours before my term was to end, I was informed that all of them were in a plane at the end of the runway in Teheran, poised to take off for Wiesbaden, Germany, where they would be given physical examinations and where I would later meet them. The plane was in the air with all the hostages on board while my successor was making his acceptance speech. We celebrated all the way to Georgia, my last ride in Air Force One.
Copyright © 2001 by Jimmy Carter