Q&A: President Jimmy Carter

Getty Images
Getty Images

Yesterday, in an event at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, President Jimmy Carter and the Carter Center announced that there were just 126 cases of Guinea worm disease reported worldwide, a 15 percent decrease from the number of cases reported in 2013. Visitors to the museum will have the opportunity to learn about Guinea worm and other diseases—including polio, malaria, tuberculosis, and Ebola—in the new exhibition Countdown to Zero: Defeating Disease, created in partnership with the Carter Center. We chatted with President Carter about "neglected" diseases, the challenges of eradication, and how fashion has helped fight disease.

Why did you want one of the Carter Center’s main objectives to be fighting disease?
The Carter Center has a basic premise of addressing problems that nobody else wants to take on. If the United Nations or the World Health Organization or the U.S. government or the World Bank is handling a problem adequately, we don’t get involved in it. We just fill vacuums in the world. We found out back in the 1980s that no one wanted to address Guinea worm, because it existed in a bunch of scattered villages in the jungle and the desert that were inaccessible, where people couldn’t read and write in any language, and they didn’t have access to radio or anything. It was just a horrible disease, known from biblical times, that no one wanted to address. So we decided to take it on ourselves—maybe naively at that moment—but we got more and more deeply involved in it and learned more and more about it. And luckily, we live next door to the Centers for Disease Control, and there are a lot of experts there, on this and many other diseases, and they came over to the Carter Center to work full time for me. So those are the things that made it possible for us to do it.

How did you pick which diseases you wanted to target?
We target four other diseases that the World Health Organization calls "neglected tropical diseases." One of them is river blindness. This year, we’ll treat about 25 million people so they won’t go blind from this disease. That’s more people than live in the state of New York, as a matter of fact. Secondly, we treat trachoma, the number one cause of preventable blindness—second only to cataracts. And the Carter Center will be responsible for about one-third of the total eye surgeries that deal with trachoma. We also deal with a disease called schistosomiasis, which is caused by snails; it causes microorganisms in the body to take away all the nutrients, so little kids basically starve to death. Another one is lymphatic filariasis, or elephantiasis, when your sexual organs or arms and legs swell up to grotesque sizes—four to five times as large as their normal size. So these are the kinds of diseases we treat. Also malaria, which is carried by the mosquitoes that transmit lymphatic filariasis, so when we deal with malaria, we also deal with lymphatic filariasis at the same time.

Guinea worm eradication is now within sight. What are the challenges now in getting that number down to zero, and then keeping it there?
We started out with 3.5 million cases in 23,600 villages in 20 countries, and we’ve brought that number down, now, to 126 cases in the whole world. So we know every person in the world that has Guinea worm. So we have to monitor villages that didn’t show a case last year and make sure that those cases that we have identified don’t go in the water and spread the disease to future drinkers. So this is what we’re doing now, and I don’t think there’s a doubt that in the next two or three years we’ll find the last case.

What keeps this from being completely successful is that in two countries, Mali and South Sudan, there’s a war going on. So sometimes it’s hard to get to the villages in a timely fashion and to find the people who have Guinea worm.

The other problem is that sometimes there are nomads, who move from one place to another to work a seasonal crop. They spend their lifetime on horseback or camelback, just moving from one place to another. So they might drink water in one village and by the time the Guinea worm comes out of their body a year later, they’re 200 miles away in a different place.

So those are the kinds of problems we have. But we’ve faced those problems successfully for 35 years and I don’t have any doubt that we’ll be successful.

What kinds of strategies did you have to use to get people cured?
The worst problem that we had, at first, is that the people are in the most isolated and poverty-stricken communities on Earth. They didn’t speak any language that we knew—French or English or Portuguese or anything like that—they spoke native languages. They were almost entirely illiterate, and they had no access to radio or television. So the only way we could educate them about this disease is by going there personally to the villages or by drawing cartoons that the people could recognize. We would draw two women side by side. One would be filtering her water, and she would not have Guinea worm; the other woman would not filter her water and she would have Guinea worm. And sometimes they’d even print those cartoons up on dresses that they wore and shirts that they gave the men to wear.

So the first thing was just teaching people about the disease and what to do about it. We found out that if people just filtered every drink of water, it would take out the [copepods], and that would mean that there would be no more Guinea worm in that village ever—if everyone in the village was 100 percent following our advice.

What do you hope visitors to the exhibit at the museum take away from it?
About 5 million people every year go through the museum, and a lot of them go up and down that corridor. We hope that it will let them know, first of all, that these horrible diseases still exist, and secondly, that properly treated they can be, and are being, completely eliminated from the face of the Earth. Third, I would say that Americans and other visitors to the museum have some responsibility to help with this process. And there’s an interesting story to tell about just how you go about it and how success has already been reached and by the Carter Center and some other people who also work on this disease. Those are some of the things I hope people learn when they see this exhibit.

When Theodore Roosevelt Refused Geronimo's Plea

Portrait of Geronimo (Guiyatle), Apache
Portrait of Geronimo (Guiyatle), Apache
Frank A. Rinehart, Wikimedia // Public Domain

On March 4, 1905, Theodore Roosevelt settled in to watch his first inaugural parade. Though he'd been president since the 1901 assassination of William McKinley, this was the first time Roosevelt would get to enjoy the full pomp and ceremony, as Army regiments, West Point cadets, and military bands streamed down Pennsylvania Avenue in the warm March air. Standing in the president's box with his guests, Roosevelt at times clapped and swung his hat in the air to show his appreciation.

Suddenly, six men on horseback appeared in the procession. They were Native American leaders and warriors, "arrayed in all the glory of feathers and war paint," according to The New York Times report the next day. According to Herman J. Viola, they were “Little Plume, Piegan Blackfoot; Buckskin Charley, Ute; ... Quanah Parker, Comanche; Hollow Horn Bear, Brulé Sioux; and American Horse, Oglala Sioux.” The eldest man, leading the group, was "the once-feared Geronimo," as the Times put it.

The inclusion of the Apache elder was not without controversy. For a quarter-century, Geronimo had attacked Mexican and American troops and civilians, putting up a fierce resistance to settler encroachment. That bloody history—though often sensationalized by press reports—still loomed large during the parade: According to Smithsonian, a member of the 1905 inaugural committee asked Roosevelt, “Why did you select Geronimo to march in your parade, Mr. President? He is the greatest single-handed murderer in American history.”

Roosevelt replied, “I wanted to give the people a good show.”

But unlike the other parade participants, Geronimo wasn't there entirely willingly. He was a prisoner of war. And a few days later, he'd beg Roosevelt for his release.

A Bitter Legacy

Theodore Roosevelt was no friend of America's First Nations. During his childhood, he read books that contained stereotypes of Native Americas, and he and his siblings would, as he wrote in his autobiography, "[play] Indians in too realistic manner by staining ourselves (and incidentally our clothes) in a liberal fashion with poke-cherry juice.” He carried what he had read into adulthood, saying at a lecture in New York while away from his ranch in the Dakotas in the late 19th century that, "I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”

As president, he supported the allotment system, which broke up reservations and forced Native peoples onto smaller, individually-owned lots—essentially remaking traditional land practices in the dominant white image. In his first message to Congress, Roosevelt called the General Allotment Act “a mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass.” Roosevelt also favored programs like Pennsylvania's Carlisle Indian Industrial School, established in 1879 to forcibly assimilate Native American children. Students were given new names and clothes, baptized, and forbidden to speak their languages. "In dealing with the Indians our aim should be their ultimate absorption into the body of our people,” Roosevelt said in his second message to Congress.

For most of his life, Geronimo aggressively resisted such attempts at assimilation. Born in the 1820s and named Goyahkla—"One Who Yawns"—near what is now the Arizona-New Mexico border, his life changed forever after his wife, mother, and small children were murdered by Mexican soldiers in the 1850s. Afterwards, Geronimo began attacking any Mexicans he could find; conflict with American settlers soon followed. It is said that his nickname, Geronimo, may have come about after one of his victims screamed for help from Saint Jerome, or Jeronimo/Geronimo in Spanish.

In the 1870s, the Chiricahua Apache were forced onto a reservation in Arizona, but Geronimo and his men repeatedly escaped. Eventually, as Gilbert King writes for Smithsonian, "Badly outnumbered and exhausted by a pursuit that had gone on for 3000 miles ... [Geronimo] finally surrendered to General Nelson A. Miles at Skeleton Canyon, Arizona, in 1886 and turned over his Winchester rifle and Sheffield Bowie knife."

The next chapter of Geronimo's life included being shuffled from Florida to Alabama to Fort Sill in the Oklahoma Territory while watching his fellow Apaches die of one disease after another. He was also repeatedly turned into a tourist attraction, appearing at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair and even joining Pawnee Bill’s Wild West show (according to King, under Army guard), where he was billed as "The Worst Indian That Ever Lived."

Geronimo's Tearful Request

The 1905 meeting between Roosevelt, Geronimo, and some of the other Native American men took place a few days after the inauguration, once the crowds had thinned out and things had calmed down a little. Geronimo addressed Roosevelt through an interpreter, calling him "Great Father." According to one contemporary account, Norman Wood’s Lives of Famous Indian Chiefs, he began, "Great Father, I look to you as I look to God. When I see your face I think I see the face of the Great Spirit. I come here to pray to you to be good to me and to my people."

After describing his youthful days on the warpath, which the septuagenarian Geronimo now called foolish, he said, "My heart was bad then, but I did not know it." Now, however, he said, "My heart is good and my talk is straight."

With a tear running down his cheek, he got to the heart of the matter: "Great Father, other Indians have homes where they can live and be happy. I and my people have no homes. The place where we are kept is bad for us. Our cattle can not live in that place. We are sick there and we die. White men are in the country that was my home. ... I pray you to cut the ropes and make me free. Let me die in my own country, an old man who has been punished enough and is free."

According to a March 1905 New York Tribune article, Roosevelt said, “I cannot do so now ... We must wait a while and see how you and your people act. You must not forget that when you were in Arizona you had a bad heart; you killed many of my people; you burned villages; you stole horses and cattle, and were not good Indians.” But it seems at some point, Roosevelt softened—according to Wood, Roosevelt said, “Geronimo, I do not see how I can grant your prayer. You speak truly when you say that you have been foolish. I am glad that you have ceased to commit follies. I am glad that you are trying to live at peace and in friendship with the white people.

"I have no anger in my heart against you," Roosevelt went on. But, he said, "You must remember that there are white people in your old home. It is probable that some of these have bad hearts toward you. If you went back there some of these men might kill you, or make trouble for your people. It is hard for them to forget that you made trouble for them. I should have to interfere between you. There would be more war and more bloodshed. My country has had enough of these troubles."

The president reminded Geronimo that he was not confined indoors in Fort Sill, and allowed to farm, cut timber, and earn money. He promised, "I will confer with the Commissioner and with the Secretary of War about your case, but I do not think I can hold out any hope for you. That is all that I can say, Geronimo, except that I am sorry, and have no feeling against you."

Geronimo's request was never granted. Four years later, in 1909, he died after falling from a horse and developing pneumonia. The Chicago Daily Tribune printed the headline: “Geronimo Now [a] Good Indian."

At least, he was finally free.

Mental Floss has a podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. Our first season is all about President Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts here, and for more TR content, visit the History Vs. site.

10 Surprising Facts About Richard Nixon

Keystone/Getty Images
Keystone/Getty Images

Often maligned but rarely boring, Richard Nixon (1913-1994) was the nation’s 37th president and the first to resign from office. Although his involvement in the Watergate break-in scandal tends to overshadow much of his life, there was more to Nixon—who was born on January 9, 1913—than his political improprieties. Check out some facts about his early law enforcement aspirations, why he got criticized for commenting on Charles Manson, and his infamous encounter with RoboCop.

1. Richard Nixon was a Quaker.

Also known as the Religious Society of Friends, Quakers have roots in 17th century England and promoted pacifism and spiritual equality among genders at a time those thoughts were not in fashion. When Nixon’s father, Frank, married Quaker Hannah Milhous, he joined a Quaker congregation and the couple raised their children as Quakers. Nixon’s religious faith allowed him an exemption from serving in World War II, but he waived it to enter the Navy. Later, when he was facing impeachment for his role in Watergate, Quakers in Milwaukee and Minneapolis apparently didn’t like the affiliation with the outcast president, petitioning for him to be removed from office months before he resigned.

2. Richard Nixon wanted to join the FBI.

A photograph of Richard Nixon's 1937 FBI application
Brendan Smialowski, Getty Images

In retrospect, it’s easy to imagine Nixon’s mannered disposition fitting comfortably in the stiff-necked legion of G-men that populated J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). A little over a month before graduating from law school, Nixon applied to the Bureau in 1937, when he was just 24. After an in-person interview and physical, Nixon waited for a response. He never got one. Later, when Nixon was in office as vice president and queried Hoover about why he had not been accepted, Hoover told him it had been due to budget cuts.

3. Richard Nixon wrote love notes to his wife-to-be.

Nixon met his wife, Patricia, while the two appeared in a 1938 Whittier Community Players theater production titled The Dark Tower. Nixon set about courting her, writing letters that seemed uncharacteristically maudlin for the future president. He wrote: “And when the wind blows and the rains fall and the sun shines through the clouds (as it is now) he still resolves, as he did then, that nothing so fine ever happened to him or anyone else as falling in love with Thee – my dearest heart.” The two married in 1940.

4. A dog helped save Richard Nixon's political career (for a little while).

A family portrait of the Nixons and their dog, Checkers
Fox Photos/Getty Images

Controversy dogged Nixon early on. In 1952, Dwight D. Eisenhower considered dropping Nixon as his vice-presidential running mate after allegations surfaced that Nixon was benefiting from a trust fund filled by his supporters to help offset his political and personal expenses. Going on radio and television to address the issue, Nixon cleverly slipped in an anecdote about his 6-year-old daughter being in love with a cocker spaniel named Checkers that had been “donated” by a campaign supporter. Believing that any man who loved dogs couldn’t be all bad, the public sentiment turned and he remained on the ticket.

“It was labeled as the ‘Checkers speech,’ as though the mention of my dog was the only thing that saved my career," Nixon later wrote. "Many of the critics glided over the fact that the fund was thoroughly explained, my personal finances laid bare, and an admittedly emotional but honest appeal made for public support."

5. Richard Nixon literally made the mornings darker.

In 1973, to save fuel during an energy crisis, Nixon signed a law that mandated that daylight saving would be in effect year-round starting on January 6, 1974. But kids wound up waiting for their school buses in pitch-black conditions, and there was a fear they might get hit by traffic—so the idea was scrapped in 1975.

6. Richard Nixon had a bowling alley installed under the White House.

Richard Nixon in the bowling alley at the White House in 1971
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Nixon, an avid bowler, was pleased to see that the love of bowling that inspired Harry Truman to build lanes in the White House in 1947 was still going strong when he took office in 1969. That alley was moved in 1955, and Nixon actually ordered that a new lane be built underground under the North Portico entrance and favored the new location because it was more private than the lanes that were open to other staffers. Nixon reportedly bowled a respectable 232.

7. Richard Nixon wanted the Secret Service to wear uniforms.

The president’s security detail is usually dressed for business: Suits, ties, and sunglasses are the normal attire for many agents, while those patrolling the White House grounds wear police-style uniforms. When Nixon took office, however, he wanted his men to resemble the palace guards he had seen in other countries. The Service assigned to his personal detail wore white double-breasted tunics and hats that vaguely resembled the Empire’s underlings in a Star Wars film. After he was criticized by the press, Nixon abandoned the idea and the outfits were eventually donated to a high school marching band.

8. Richard Nixon almost messed up Charles Manson's murder trial.

Richard Nixon frowns during a public appearance
AFP/Getty Images

Nixon’s first year in office coincided with the national obsession over cult leader Charles Manson and his followers, some of whom had gone on a murder spree in 1969 that left actress Sharon Tate and several others dead. During Manson’s trial in August 1970, Nixon proclaimed Manson “was guilty, directly or indirectly, of eight murders without reason.” Manson’s lawyers moved for a mistrial based on Nixon’s comments. The president quickly retracted his statement, with a spokesperson suggesting he neglected to include the word “allegedly.”

9. Richard Nixon met RoboCop.

In 1987, Nixon attended a national board meeting for the Boys Club of America. Also on hand to fete organizers and kids was a guy dressed as Robocop. (The unknown actor was definitely not Peter Weller, star of the 1987 feature, and the ill-fitting costume was definitely not the original.) For years, an image of the meeting circulated on the internet without context before a crack sleuth determined it had been snapped for Billboard magazine.

10. Richard Nixon's meeting with Elvis Presley made National Archives history.

Richard Nixon greets Elvis Presley at the White House in 1970
National Archives/Getty Images

On December 21, 1970, Nixon greeted one of the more colorful characters to ever enter the White House: Elvis Presley. The singer apparently wanted a badge or other token of law enforcement; as the King was high on fighting the war on drugs at the time. (Unfortunately, Presley had drug issues of his own that may have contributed to his death in 1977.) A photo of the meeting between the two is (as of 2015) the most requested image in the National Archives, outpacing requests for the moon landing, the Declaration of Independence, or the Bill of Rights.

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