The question I never got to ask

Nov 6, 2019 3:00 AM

Now in my 47th year of chasing interviews and writing stories, there are a few that jump out as especially memorable.

One of my top-five interesting conversations occurred with former President Jimmy Carter for a book I was writing about the Naval Academy, where he was a graduate.

Since Carter recently earned the distinction of being the only President ever to celebrate a 95th birthday, and he’s been in the news lately for a number of health issues, I felt it was a good time to relive that experience.

Before I left for the interview, which took place at the Carter Center in Atlanta in 2004 and took my then-8-year-old son J.P. along for the trip, I was asked by a long-time friend who was a highly decorated American Olympic marathon runner to question President Carter on whether he regretted his decision in 1980 to boycott the Olympic Games in Moscow.

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Although I’m certain some of Gaming Today’s loyal readers have little to no recollection of that momentous decision, it was a hotbed of controversy at the time. The thinking of most sports fans was that it was patently unfair to keep America’s finest athletes, who had spent at least four years if not their entire adult lives preparing for the opportunity to compete in the Olympics, from having this opportunity — strictly for political reasons. In polling, the American public was evenly divided about whether a boycott was the right decision.

The decision had been made as a protest to Russia’s invading Afghanistan in December of 1979. Who knew then that this war would simmer and boil until today? Videos of a Russian armada of tanks rolling into the Afghan countryside had brought back vivid memories of German tanks violating neighboring vulnerable countries four decades before.

There was a lot of posturing before the final decision to boycott was made. Muhammad Ali was even dispatched to India in January of 1980 to lobby African countries to support a proposed American boycott. This was nine months before Ali fought Larry Holmes at Caesars Palace.

The Ali trip did not go well, and it was reported that the Champ even considered “jumping ship” on the proposal.

The decision was finally made some six months before the start of the Moscow Games that the U.S. would not compete. One can only imagine the heartbreak of swimmers and gymnasts and distance runners like my friend, who had trained for years, having this opportunity taken from them.

So the Olympics question was near the top of my list on the appointed date with President Carter. But I never got to it. That is because Mr. Carter was so ingratiating and accommodating to my son, showing him around his office, digging through his desk to give J.P memorabilia that he will treasure for a lifetime, posing with him for pictures, that my one-hour promised interview was abbreviated to 40 minutes.

Of course, the main purpose of my questioning was about the President’s time at Annapolis, and his relationship with fellow classmates like Jackson T. Stephens, the former chairman of Augusta National and owner of the Las Vegas Review-Journal; Medal of Honor winner Admiral James Stockdale; and Admiral Stansfield Turner, who became Carter’s Secretary of Defense and later the director of the CIA.

I did save one challenging question for late in the interview. I mentioned to Mr. Carter that a recent national poll had ranked him as an average president, but the most effective post-office President we’d ever had. He ignored the flattering part of the question, but stiffened noticeably at the idea his presidency had been just mediocre.

He started ranting about how Senator Ted Kennedy had cost him his party’s support in the 1980 election vs. Ronald Reagan, and that had he been given a second term in the Oval Office public perception would have turned out far differently.

The Olympic question was next on my list when one of the Secret Service agents informed me that my allotted interview time was up.

It was a difficult phone call to my marathoner friend the next week to inform him that the question he so wanted answered was never asked. But that disappointment surely paled to the decision that so greatly affected his life 25 years before.

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