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Larry King talks with Nobel-winning Carter

Former U.S. President and Nobel Peace prize laureate Jimmy Carter
Former U.S. President and Nobel Peace prize laureate Jimmy Carter

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(CNN) -- More than 20 years after leaving the White House, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter was awarded the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize, it was announced Friday.

"The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 2002 to Jimmy Carter for his decades of untiring efforts to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development," the official citation said.

CNN's Larry King spoke with Carter on Friday:

KING: Fortunate enough to be in Washington today, fortunate enough to get the opportunity to talk with the 39th president of the United States at his home in Plains, Georgia, the recipient today of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize, President James Earl "Jimmy" Carter Jr.

Congratulations. How, Mr. President, were you told?

CARTER: Well, we got a call this morning about two or three minutes after 4 and informed us that we were going to get it and that they wanted me to call back to the Nobel committee at 4:30, Eastern Standard Time. So we were kind of doubtful for 28 minutes if it was a joke or what. When I called, they informed me I had won the prize. So I was very humbled and grateful, obviously, and honored.

KING: What was your first thought?

CARTER: Well, my first thought was the reasons for it. And I noticed when they made this statement at 5 this morning that they gave full credit to the Carter Center, to the work that we've done the last 20 years, Larry, for peace and for freedom and for democracy and for human rights and the alleviation of suffering. So I was very grateful for that recognition of what we are doing now. The other thing that they mentioned, as you know, was the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt back about 22 or 23 years ago.

KING: So then this might be late in coming.

CARTER: The Carter Center's work started 20 years ago, so it's been kind of a continuing thing. And most of what we do there is not publicized. We have programs in 65 nations, 35 of which are in Africa. So we are dealing with remote villages and poor people who don't have freedom and who are quite often abused by their leaders and don't have any way for health care. So that's what we've been doing, and I think it's very gratifying to me -- I know it is -- to see all our folks at the Carter Center recognized.

KING: There were a record 156 nominations this year: 117 individuals, 39 groups. Did you know that you were one of the nominees?

CARTER: As a matter of fact, yes, I'd been informed for eight or nine years that I was one of the many nominees. But I didn't even know today was the day for them to make a choice. I'd forgotten all about it. But there had been a few times in the past when I listened very carefully when they made the announcement, and I didn't get it. But they did say the Nobel Committee did, back when Begin and Sadat received the prize for the peace agreement between those two countries, that the committee also already decided to give it to me, but I had not been nominated. So I had never asked anybody to nominate me, so just on a technicality. I was very grateful, obviously.

KING: What did President Bush say when he called?

CARTER: He congratulated me, said it was long overdue. He said he was also grateful to me that President Ford and I had helped get the new election reform legislation implemented. I told him that although the committee has decided and the House has voted on it and the Senate will soon decide, to reform the election system in this United States, we still need the funding. I asked him while I had him on the phone to make sure we got adequate money to put it into effect. And he assured me that we would. So it was a very pleasant conversation with congratulations and a talk about election reform.

KING: Earlier, his press secretary was asked about a statement made by the head of the committee of the difference you handled the way the situation and the way Iraq has been handled now. Would you comment on that?

CARTER: Well, I don't know what the statement was...

KING: Apparently, it was critical of the current situation, while praising you.

CARTER: Well, I know they praised me today because I got the prize. But I don't really know what they said that was critical, and I would not want to comment on something I didn't hear.

I did listen very carefully to the Nobel announcement at 5 this morning, and I didn't hear anything of that kind then.

KING: Concerning that -- just one question in that area, then there are some other things I want to discuss with you -- would you have voted nay or yeah if you were in the Senate yesterday?

CARTER: I would have voted no had I been in the Senate. I think that there's no way that we can avoid the obligation to work through the United Nations Security Council, to wait until we do get that condemnation of Saddam Hussein, to force him, through the United Nations, to comply completely with inspections of an unlimited nature and to make sure that we do destroy all his weapons of mass destruction and his ability to produce nuclear weapons in the future. But I think it should all be done through the United Nations, and not unilaterally by the United States.

KING: Do you trust the president -- he said so in his speech the other night -- will act that way?

CARTER: Well, yes, I do, Larry. One of the things that I've said before -- earlier this week, as a matter of fact -- was that the administration has come a long way in the last few weeks. Because if you go back a month or so, you hear the secretary of defense and the vice president calling for unilateral action, for bypassing the United Nations, stating that inspections have no role to play and that our purpose is to kill or remove Saddam Hussein. And I think it's very significant that President Bush's statement the other night, which I watched very carefully, calls for dealing through the United Nations, for inspections as a primary priority and acting with other countries.

So the policy as described earlier by his secretary of defense and vice president has been modified dramatically and very affirmatively by the president, who I think has responded to importunities from the Congress and from concerns expressed by other nations around the world. I'm very grateful for what changes have been made in the policy.

KING: One million goes with this prize. What are you going to do with it?

CARTER: Well, I haven't decided for sure with Rosalynn, but we discussed it briefly this morning when we found out about it. The money will almost all go to the Carter Center, Larry. And although we do get a good bit of funding for specific projects, this will be a little bit more flexible, so we can act immediately to deal with threats to peace and human rights around the world. So it will be sort of a flexible fund for the Carter Center to use in its ongoing work.

KING: Do you have any thoughts on what's going on here in the Washington-area suburbs?

CARTER: Well, a feeling of horror, despair, and sorrow for the families affected. It's a frightening thing. And I just hope and pray that soon they'll find the perpetrator of these horrible crimes, and put him, you know, in prison, and stop the attacks on innocent people.

KING: You've lived all your life as a person opposed to violence, hating violence at times, yet you see it around you, and it keeps on going on. Do you ever get frustrated? Do you ever feel like this is a fight that is hopeless?

CARTER: No, I don't feel like it's hopeless. As you know, I gave my life, in effect, when I was a young man to potential violence. I volunteered in the U.S. Navy, I was a submarine officer, and I was perfectly prepared to go to war, if necessary, to defend the principles of my country, as for millions of other young men of my time.

But it's not a hopeless case, because whenever there is a move towards reconciliation, or communication or the alleviation of tension through good faith efforts on the part of our negotiators or mediators, then that's a step in the right direction. And I really believe, and hope, that the Iraq crisis, which is still unpredictable now, might very well lead to the great strengthening of the United Nations and its influence in order to be more effective around the world.

What the Carter Center does, Larry, by the way, is we deal with conflicts inside countries. The unit is not authorized to deal with civil wars. And as you know, almost all the wars are civil wars, so that's how we devote our time. I see great opportunities for progress in this respect.

KING: Is it frustrating being a negotiator between parties?

CARTER: Well, sometimes the negotiations are fruitful, and sometimes they're not. We get called on more than people realize at the Carter Center, because we're in those nations that are quite troubled. We are planting corn, rice or wheat, and we're also dealing with Guinea worm, and river blindness, and ... tropical diseases. So when those countries do have a serious problem with a threat to democracy or a chance to change from a dictatorship to a democracy or to negotiate a cease-fire agreement, they call on us. So we're deeply immersed on that in a full-time basis at the Carter Center.

So sometimes it's just impossible to get people to talk to one each other, even with a mediator. And sometimes you're gloriously gratified when people stop fighting, exchange ambassadors, and start dealing with each other in a peaceful way.

KING: About whom President Clinton said, I cannot think of anyone more qualified to receive this year's prize than President Jimmy Carter. Lots of leaders all around the world calling in with praise, and making statements, deservedly so, for the third United States president, following Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, to get this coveted prize. You were in Cuba in May -- just this past May, met with Fidel Castro. Were you ever hopeful of any kind of normalcy returning between the two countries?

CARTER: Well, I do, Larry, as everyone knew then, I made a very harsh condemnation of some of the policies of Fidel Castro toward his own people, the first time anyone's done that in 43 years. Both before and after I went, some of the most vociferous condemnations of the relationship between Cuba and the United States have been modified to some degree. For instance, the Cuban-Americans in Miami called me both before and after the visit and said they thought it was a good thing that I went down there.

I think in the next year or two, we're going to see public opinion change in the United States so we can have normal travel to and from Cuba and an end of the embargo, which I think are the best steps to bring an end to the regime of Castro. By isolating the Cuban people and punishing them with an embargo, and preventing American citizens, who know freedom, from going to Cuba, I think that's the best way to keep the administration in Cuba from changing. You may or may not remember when I became president, within a few weeks, I had lifted all travel restraints on Americans to go to Cuba. I think that's the best approach to bring about a change.

KING: You're going to Jamaica to observe the elections, heading a large delegation next week. Is there some concern there on your part?

CARTER: Yes, Jamaica for the last 50 years or so has been one of the beacon lights of democracy. But election before last, they had several hundred people killed in violence on election day. The last time they had an election, about five years ago, the opposition to the ruling party would not participate unless the Carter Center came in to guarantee the safety and integrity of the election. So they changed the constitution to let us come in. And we had a very successful election.

So this time, the opposition again insisted we come, and the ruling party agreed. I'll be going down there Monday with a delegation, just to make sure the election in Jamaica is safe and fair and free.

KING: We have less than a minute. Someone once said about you, President Carter, you're the only man in history to use the American presidency as a steppingstone to greatness. Do you ever think of retiring, really retiring?

CARTER: Well, I'm 78 years old now. I was last week, as a matter of fact. I see the end of my active life coming in the next few months and years, I don't know how long. But we're still in good health. We've cut back a great deal on our active role at the Carter Center. But we fill vacuums, and we go where we're needed, Larry. And my hope is and my prayer is that the work of the Carter Center will continue the next 25 or 50 or 100 years. And that's what we're working on now, to make sure it is perpetuated.

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