For an instant, it seemed like Washington Revisited: a smiling, if slightly nervous, Jimmy Carter fielding questions about American hostages in Iran, the $17 billion Russian grain embargo, human rights, U.S.-Taiwan relations.
Only this time, he could relax. When the questions got hot, he took off his coat. After all, it was a classroom, not a White House press conference. And on Wednesday morning, he was just a professor, not a president.
As for his 60 polite inquisitors, they were undergraduate political science students at Emory University, a heavily-endowed Methodist college where Carter lectures twice a month as a "distinguished professor," shadowed by curious students, aides and Secret Service.
Today, he began the day before dawn, crammed for class at a roadside diner en route from Plains, plugged his new book to students ("It's $22.50 and I hope you won't just be satisifed with the Time excerpt"), then held forth about foreign policy decisions in the White House.
He described how he looked forward to Fridays. At 7 a.m., there was the "highly secret" breakfast meeting with national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, Secretary of Defense Harold Brown and other top aides. Brzezinski took notes, then read back policy verdicts reached over bacon and eggs. "And that would be our decision," said Carter. "I was often criticized for the meticulous detail I took in reaching a decision. But I'm an engineer by training." By afternoon, he was off to Camp David "to escape."
He lectured from notes for 15 minutes -- describing how Brzezinski cranked out volumes of ideas and options, while Cyrus R. Vance played "the spokesman of our nation in foreign policy" as secretary of state. He groused that conservative bureaucrats at State were always gunning for "defects" in Carter initiatives. Hands shot up. He fielded questions. He drew applause when he quipped that he'd rather be watching the pennant-seeking Atlanta Braves on TV.
He defended the Russian grain embargo (taken against the advice from top aides who grumbled about upcoming Iowa caucuses), America's boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games and military aid to Afghan freedom fighters as the best way to punish the Soviets for invading Afghanistan short of "going to war, which wasn't feasible."
Carter said he had become "worried" when intelligence reports showed 120 Russian planes were landing daily in Kabul, where Carter said 200,000 Russian troops are still bogged down. "But they are no further along now than they were then," he said. "And afterwards they were branded accurately as a pariah. It destroyed Soviet propaganda that they were a peace-loving nation."
He took students behind closed doors with Soviet President Leonid I. Brezhnev who "told me, Russia doesn't precipitate revolutions, but takes part in them once they happen." Carter, however, disagreed, rewriting a little insider history from the hip. "The Soviets are like hotel thieves. They try every door until they find one unlocked, then slip in and steal the valuables."
Later, he would lecture theology faculty on morality in public life, eat a roast beef dinner with students and, this evening, field more questions, drawn from a bingo drum, at a Town Hall-style meeting on campus.
But this morning, he served up a smorgasbord of deja vu. He defended his attempt to free the hostages in Iran. He called the Taiwan lobby the biggest stumbling block to recognizing China. He said he warned the late Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza that he might become a victim of his own revolution if he didn't stop human rights violations and hold free elections. And he confided that he had made a "mistake" by not instituting a policy to recognize foreign governments as they formed, instead of waiting until they were "compatible" with U.S. policy.
Many students didn't take a note. One said she was too "awestruck" by Carter's "charisma." Another said he didn't have to worry because Carter doesn't assign papers or pop quizzes. One student, Chip Price, 20, pulled out his Instamatic and posed with the former president.
But Ed Daun, perhaps because he was older than most other undergraduates at 28, was less star-struck. "He painted his administration in the best light, but he wouldn't be here today if he hadn't lost the job."