Jimmy Carter Admits Committing Adultery in His Heart Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In an interview with Playboy magazine, U.S. presidential candidate Jimmy Carter admitted that he had looked on women with lust and committed adultery “in his heart.” He also used the words “screw” and “shacking up” in the interview. The remarks received a great deal of media attention but did not keep him from being elected president of the United States.

Summary of Event

While campaigning for the presidency of the United States in 1976, Jimmy Carter agreed to an interview with veteran journalist Robert Scheer, who was writing an article for Playboy magazine. The interview, conducted in September, 1976, ended with a lengthy soliloquy by Carter in which he admitted to having “looked on a lot of women with lust” and committing adultery “in his heart.” This impromptu revelation combined references to the New Testament and Christian theology with colloquial references to “screwing” and “shacking up” with women outside Marriage;Jimmy Carter[Carter] marriage. [kw]Carter Admits Committing Adultery in His Heart, Jimmy (Sept., 1976) Carter, Jimmy [p]Carter, Jimmy;personal confessions Playboy magazine Presidential campaigns, U.S.;Jimmy Carter[Carter] Presidential campaigns, U.S.;1976 Carter, Jimmy [p]Carter, Jimmy;personal confessions Playboy magazine Presidential campaigns, U.S.;Jimmy Carter[Carter] Presidential campaigns, U.S.;1976 [g]United States;Sept., 1976: Jimmy Carter Admits Committing Adultery in His Heart[01630] [c]Publishing and journalism;Sept., 1976: Jimmy Carter Admits Committing Adultery in His Heart[01630] [c]Sex;Sept., 1976: Jimmy Carter Admits Committing Adultery in His Heart[01630] [c]Politics;Sept., 1976: Jimmy Carter Admits Committing Adultery in His Heart[01630] [c]Public morals;Sept., 1976: Jimmy Carter Admits Committing Adultery in His Heart[01630] [c]Government;Sept., 1976: Jimmy Carter Admits Committing Adultery in His Heart[01630] Scheer, Robert

The interview was scheduled to appear in Playboy in November, 1976, but editors disclosed excerpts from it to the press two months earlier, releasing an onslaught of criticism and ridicule in the news media just weeks before election day. In a campaign that focused on presidential character and personal integrity, press coverage of the interview with Carter, whose bluntness provoked scandal, demolished Carter’s substantial lead over Gerald R. Ford, Gerald R. Ford in the opinion polls but, in the end, it did not keep him from winning the election.

Jimmy Carter.

(Library of Congress)

Though the interview covered a wide range of topics on political goals, foreign policy, economics, and civil rights, its emphasis on Carter’s religious beliefs reflected a general preoccupation with his personal character. Carter had emerged from national obscurity as the former governor of Georgia to a decisive victory in the Democratic primaries. He campaigned as an outsider, untainted by government corruption and committed to restoring moral integrity to the presidency. This strategy appealed strongly to voters who were disillusioned by the 1972-1974 Watergate Watergate scandal Nixon, Richard [p]Nixon, Richard;and Watergate[Watergate] scandal involving President Richard Nixon and suspicious of the Washington, D.C., establishment.

In response to declining support among liberal democrats, Carter’s campaign staff arranged the interview with Playboy to appeal to voters who might be wary of his religious commitments as an outspoken born-again Christian. Scheer accompanied Carter throughout the spring campaign, eventually accumulating five hours of interview material. Scheer had a reputation for relentless persistence, and he pressed Carter repeatedly on the relationship between the candidate’s moral certainty and his politics. Carter was candid about his religious beliefs, telling Scheer that he was not afraid of death (in response to a question about assassination) because he was assured of eternal life. He even admitted some ambivalence about legal restrictions on sexual behavior he personally believed to be sinful, such as adultery and homosexuality.

As Scheer was preparing to leave at the end of the final interview session, he casually asked Carter if he thought the interview would successfully reassure people who worried that his self-righteousness would make him a stubborn, inflexible president. Carter responded with a deeply personal monologue on his upbringing and his beliefs on religion and sin, fully aware that Scheer was still taping their conversation. Carter claimed that humility was central to Christ’s teachings. Salvation by grace entailed the recognition that no one was entitled to claim moral superiority over anyone else. Carter did not consider himself an exception: He, too, had looked upon women with lust, committing adultery in his heart, and he had done so many times. He could not condemn other people for having sex out of marriage, even if God had forgiven him for his own sexual sins. The dramatic intensity of this speech was heightened by his blunt sexual slang, intermingled with references to the Bible and the writings of theologian Paul Tillich.

Carter’s juxtaposition of religiosity and coarse language shocked, amused, and offended many people. The vulgarity clashed with the wholesome image he strived to maintain, while the biblical references to lust in the heart made the incongruity all the more salient. References to the interview became ubiquitous in the election coverage. Surveys of public opinion and political commentaries reported that readers were repelled by the personal nature of the remarks as much as they were by the abrasive language. Those who were familiar with the context of the remarks typically approved of Carter’s views on pride, but any discussion of his personal sexuality seemed beneath the dignity of a candidate for president. Democratic U.S. senators Robert Byrd and Ernest Hollings characterized the incident as a foolish political move. Byrd wondered why Carter would want to be featured in Playboy, while Hollings expressed the hope that, once Carter was president, he would stop talking about adultery.

Jokes at Carter’s expense played on the absurdity of his confession. A Cartoons cartoon in the Los Angeles Times Los Angeles Times depicted him fantasizing about a disrobed Statue of Liberty. Reporters asked Joan Mondale, wife of Carter’s running mate, Walter Mondale, if she, too, suspected her husband of committing adultery in his heart. She shrugged and responded that he probably had. Before the Playboy story broke in mid-September, election coverage had consistently portrayed Carter as the preferred candidate. By the first presidential debate on September 24, Carter and Republican opponent Ford, Gerald R. Ford were nearly even in the polls.

Ford surpassed Carter for the first time after the first presidential debate, a development that some attributed in part to the Playboy interview. It took a more serious political gaffe by Ford during the second presidential debate for the Republican candidate to lose his momentum. (He had said that Eastern Europe was not dominated by the Soviet Union.) The emphasis on political issues during the debates, a topic that had garnered relatively little public interest earlier in the campaign, shifted attention from Carter’s blunder in Playboy, but he was unable to recover from the initial blow to his public image before the election.

In November the election results were so close that Carter was not declared the winner until 3 a.m.; he had 51 percent of the popular vote. One member of Carter’s campaign staff later claimed that the Playboy interview had robbed Carter of the decisive victory he needed to begin his presidency with strong popular support.

Impact

The media attention surrounding Carter’s admission of adultery eventually came to represent his confusing image as an impassioned reformer with an unclear political agenda. The memory of the Watergate scandal and Ford, Gerald R. [p]Ford, Gerald R.;pardon of Nixon Ford’s pardon of Nixon fostered a unique political climate that allowed Carter to run for president based on his lack of experience in federal government and the absence of any ties to Washington, D.C. While political correspondents tried to discern Carter’s specific policy agendas, Carter’s campaign emphasized more abstract themes of honesty, integrity, and the renewal of Americans’ faith in government. He presented himself as a foil to Lyndon B. Johnson, Nixon, and Ford, who had become associated with political corruption and the Vietnam War.

Carter compensated for his unconventional mix of conservative and liberal views by framing the presidential Presidential campaigns, U.S.;1976 Presidential campaigns, U.S.;Jimmy Carter[Carter] campaign in terms of what kind of person the president should be. His discussion of religion and sexuality, delivered with an uncomfortable degree of personal disclosure, suggested that he had less in common with his constituency than voters might have assumed. It was Carter’s first high-profile blunder, a moment when he looked less like a president than did his opponent.

During a campaign in which general interest in the candidates’ activities had been conspicuously low, the surge in attention over Carter’s embarrassing statements soured his relationship in the press and forced him to defend his own judgment as a leader. From the beginning of his campaign, journalists had accused Carter of being vague, inconsistent, and naïve, a criticism that his confusing portrayal in the Playboy interview appeared to confirm and one that persisted through his presidency, which ended in January, 1981. Carter, Jimmy [p]Carter, Jimmy;personal confessions Playboy magazine Presidential campaigns, U.S.;Jimmy Carter[Carter] Presidential campaigns, U.S.;1976

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anderson, Patrick. Electing Jimmy Carter: The Campaign of 1976. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994. Provides an inside view of Carter’s election campaign from the perspective of his speech writer.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Apostolidis, Paul, and Juliet A. Williams, eds. Public Affairs: Politics in the Age of Sex Scandals. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2004. A study of politics and political culture in the context of sex scandals.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brinkley, Douglas. The Unfinished Presidency: Jimmy Carter’s Journey Beyond the White House. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1998. Chronicles Carter’s active involvement in national and global politics after his term as president.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Richardson, Don, ed. Conversations with Carter. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1998. A selection of Carter’s most revealing and well-known interviews from 1975 to 1997, with some commentary from the editor. Includes the full text of the Playboy interview.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Strong, Robert. Working in the World: Jimmy Carter and the Making of U.S. Foreign Policy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000. Describes obstacles and strategies involved in formation of Carter’s approach to global politics.

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