Guest Column
That time we reporters at Playboy asked Jimmy Carter that question | Column
It was at the time, the most-publicized political interview of the late 20th century, and I still feel some chagrin at causing a good man some trouble on his road to the White House.
Jimmy Carter with journalists Robert Scheer (middle) and Barry Golson in 1976.
Jimmy Carter with journalists Robert Scheer (middle) and Barry Golson in 1976. [ Courtesy of Barry Golson ]
Published March 23|Updated March 27

While candidates for the presidency in 2024 joust with each other amid charges of old scandals and big lies, a controversy from Jimmy Carter’s 1976 campaign may seem positively ancient. The news that Carter, 98, entered hospice care in February, began the fresh appraisals of his legacy. As history tells us, Carter was a decent, highly intelligent, complex man with a better-than-reputed presidency, and an unparalleled ex-presidency of service. His life since he left office was universally admired.

Amid the stories of his political career, one incident involving Carter’s too-candid confession to Playboy magazine is still retold. I played a small but vivid part in Carter’s 1976 candidacy, as one of two journalists who conducted the then-sensational “lust-in-my-heart” interview. The now-tame “scandal” of 47 years ago may have a few lessons left to teach — besides the reminder of more innocent times.

A Chicago Sun-Times cartoon from 1976.
A Chicago Sun-Times cartoon from 1976. [ Courtesy of Barry Golson ]

Thinking back on the worldwide furor the interview kicked up, at the time the most-publicized political interview of the late 20th century, I still feel some chagrin at causing a good man some trouble on his road to the White House. But as we say today, it was complicated.

In early 1976, America was still recovering from Watergate and Richard Nixon’s forced resignation in 1974. Gerald Ford had inherited the presidency, and was now running for the first time, a wooden, dull man, vulnerable for having pardoned Nixon. The campaign had begun in earnest in early 1976.

Tremors from the baby boomer earthquake were still being felt. After the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy in 1968, and the riots that followed, the inevitable pushback set in. Law-and-order Richard Nixon beat the liberal Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and then buried liberal George McGovern in a landslide four years later, in 1972. The kids like me who’d protested in the ‘60s — the huge, anti-war baby boomer population — had been shut out for eight years.

So by 1976, there was a feeling that our moment might finally be here. A big topic was whether the youth vote would turn out — at all. I guess you could say that, to the Democrats of that time, we were a disaffected “base” they needed to reach.

I was 31, fortunate to be running the interview section at Playboy, the gold standard of long-form interviews. We had a roster of formidable interview subjects, with a huge readership. The magazine was the favorite arrival at mail call for G.I.s in Vietnam, in the war that ended for the U.S. just three years earlier. For those of us opposed to the war, it was the only mass-circulation magazine that was consistently anti-war, that took the side of the grunts. Playmates did the same job Betty Grable pinups did for G.I.s in World War II. So the magazine was a way to reach that base — and a fifth of the readership was women.

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A slew of Democratic candidates was vying for the ‘76 nomination. We kind of had our pick. Berkeley-based journalist Robert Scheer pitched me to interview the very cool 35-year-old governor of California, Jerry Brown. (This was his first term as governor. He served twice, widely separated.) He was running a huge state as a wide-open liberal, no stranger to weed or rock ‘n’ roll. He’d dated Linda Ronstadt. Doesn’t get much hipper than that. Our kind of guy, for sure.

By the start of 1976, Scheer had a dozen hours of Brown interview cassettes stashed in his knapsack. He invited me to California’s state capital, Sacramento, for a last session early that year with Brown — a final-hour team effort we would repeat. It went swimmingly; we were on the newsstands in early March. Right after Brown’s Playboy interview appeared, the young governor shot up in the polls, surging ahead of early front-runner Carter, and he won the Maryland primary.

That caught everyone’s attention. So when Scheer approached Carter’s team on Playboy’s behalf, they accepted, though not without a few jokes about a born-again Sunday school teacher talking to Playboy.

In fact, it was why he chose to talk to us — liberals were wondering loudly about this earnest, pious politician who wore his Southern Baptist religion on his sleeve. He talked often about his faith. He vowed never to tell a lie, or distort the truth. Not lying was a big theme with Carter. It made a lot of us wonder whether he’d be rigid, moralizing, or — and here’s a word for readers in 2023 — sanctimonious. What would his Supreme Court picks be like?

The author of this column was one of two journalists who conducted the then-sensational “lust-in-my-heart” interview with Jimmy Carter.
The author of this column was one of two journalists who conducted the then-sensational “lust-in-my-heart” interview with Jimmy Carter. [ Courtesy of Barry Golson ]

But it wasn’t that simple, because Carter also spent time with drug-friendly gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. His campaign team was young, irreverent, profane, hard-drinking, of its era, as we all were — ‘70s good times. First tipped off to Carter by colleague Peter Ross Range, we’d tried to reach out, but they were reluctant to talk to us. Until now.

Scheer spent three months on the campaign with Carter. It was a signature of the magazine that we kept our people on the trail for the long haul. Scheer was a skilled, persistent reporter. At one point, Carter said to Scheer, “I’ve spent more time talking to you than Time, Newsweek and the rest combined!”

In July 1976, Carter got the nomination. Shortly after, Scheer invited me to join him for a final long interview session — as we’d done with Brown. Everyone was aware that the interview would appear shortly before the November election. (It took a long time to publish 6 million copies in those days — presses, trucks, newsstands.)

Scheer and I were a contrast — he was the bearded former editor of the radical magazine Ramparts, and had run for Congress from Berkeley; I was the moderate Ivy-educated editor from the East. Team-tagging interview subjects was productive and fun. We joined up in Plains, Georgia, south of Atlanta, for our appointment at Carter’s home on the site of his family peanut farm.

It was just days after his nomination. The night before the interview, we met with Carter’s future press secretary, Jody Powell. Scheer told Powell we still hadn’t heard a real take on Carter’s religious beliefs, at least for our readership. That night, Powell gave me a ride back to my Atlanta hotel in his Volkswagen. I recall thinking that this guy, cursing at his stubborn stick shift, was about to be the next press secretary to the U.S. president. In one of those moments that linger, we both glanced in passing at an Atlanta movie theater marquee advertising “All the President’s Men.” Powell shot me a grin and said, “Wrong president, different men.”

The next morning, Scheer and I pulled up at Carter’s home, the same modest ranch house in which he would spent the rest of his days. When we knocked, we were greeted by Carter wearing jeans and his trademark toothy grin. In my sports coat, I was better dressed than the nominee. He introduced us to his wife, Rosalynn, who nodded graciously at us — but eyed us warily. She was right, though not because we had anything planned.

With our tape equipment spread out around us, the three of us talked for over an hour. We spoke of Vietnam, of tax reform, of multinational corporations, of European Communism. (If you’re wondering, not a word from the Playboy reporters about sex.) But despite Scheer’s tenacious pressing, we still didn’t think we’d gotten the definitive take we’d hoped for about Carter’s faith. We picked up our gear and headed for the door. From long experience, Scheer kept his recorder running, holding up the microphone as we walked to the door.

Standing at Carter’s open door, I tossed off a last question, reprising the theme Scheer had been pressing him on. “You know, governor, the thing my friends mostly ask is about your religion, whether it will make you rigid in your politics.” Carter took a moment, then asked us if we’d attended his sermon at the local church the day before. We hadn’t. Without further prompting, he launched into a 10-minute monologue. A minute or two in, both of us reporters reminded him we were still recording. “Good,” said Carter.

He wanted us to know — finally! — that that he had no interest in pressing his beliefs on others. For instance, in the Bible, he said, just looking at a woman with lust was the same as adultery. But we were all human, and Carter didn’t hold himself above anyone else: “I’ve looked on many women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times. God knows I will do this and forgives me.”

A page from the Playboy interview.
A page from the Playboy interview. [ Courtesy of Barry Golson ]

He went on to talk about people who “shacked up,” and used the word “screw,” like a professor slinging a little off-color slang to reach younger students. He finished up by insisting that his religious beliefs would not impinge on others; he wasn’t trying to reform people’s behavior. But, he said, his beliefs would help him stay honest — unlike some other politicians, who lied and distorted the truth, like Nixon and Johnson.

As Scheer and I drove off in our rental car, we went, whoa! We knew we had a sensational scoop. We were hardly naïve. But we immediately realized something else: Carter had just lumped ex-president Lyndon Johnson with Richard Nixon — as a scoundrel and a liar. Not a good thing for the Democratic candidate hoping to capture Texas electoral votes just as the South was threatening to slip out of the Democratic fold. We would put that quote, not the lust one, under the familiar three-photo spread.

The “lust” furor broke two months later, making headlines worldwide. The magazine sold out everywhere in a day. No cartoonist anywhere on the planet could resist: the straight-laced, religious Democratic candidate confessing his lust to Playboy shortly before the election. The new TV show, “Saturday Night Live,” went wild. An Oliphant cartoon had Rosalynn waving a shotgun at her husband hiding in a barn rafter: “Come on down, Jimmy — Ah jes’ want to discuss yo’ Playboy statements a mite fully, is all.”

It stayed in the headlines for weeks. We talked to Tom Brokaw on the “Today” show. GOP senators and congress members rushed to the nearest microphones to announce they were shocked, shocked at Carter’s confessions. Preachers Billy Graham and a then-obscure Jerry Falwell weighed in, condemning Carter. In Georgia, Carter’s family angrily denounced the hypocrisy, saying that “committing adultery in the heart” was a familiar Baptist concept they had learned about as boys. Carter’s son Jeff, then 24, said on the radio, “People should watch out for people like Billy Graham who go around telling people how to live.”

The interview was a topic in the first two Ford-Carter debates. Ford said he’d read the interview, though not in the magazine. Carter said it reflected his views accurately, but that “next time” he’d probably pick another venue to discuss his deeply felt beliefs. Scheer went back on the campaign trail.

At a stop in Texas a couple of weeks later, Scheer watched as Carter, feeling trapped, told, well … a lie. As Jonathan Alter recounts in “His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life,” the definitive biography published in 2021:

“Accusing LBJ of being an atheistic liar posed a big problem in must-win Texas, where Johnson remained a demigod. ... At the Houston airport … Carter couldn’t stand the embarrassment and decided to claim to a group of Texas journalists that the line about LBJ had been taken out of context — that Playboy editors had ‘grossly misinterpreted’ what had actually been an attack on Nixon only. After Scheer retrieved the tape and played it for reporters to show Carter was wrong, a shouting match erupted.”

That editor was me, and no, we hadn’t “grossly misinterpreted.” But it was a poignant moment, showing what political pressure can do, even to a world-class truth-teller committed to never telling the American people a lie. It was the smallest, most understandable lie imaginable, by a man who went on to become the most honest president in memory, and the most distinguished ex-president of all.

A Doug Marlette cartoon from the Charlotte Observer in 1976.
A Doug Marlette cartoon from the Charlotte Observer in 1976. [ Courtesy of Barry Golson ]

As it happens, Carter regained his lead after the third debate, when Ford made his own campaign gaffe. Discussing foreign policy, he made the preposterous claim that the Soviet Union really didn’t dominate its eastern European neighbors, such as Poland. (Nothing dated there, reader.) It was author Garry Wills who pointed out later that Ford was attacking a perceived weakness in Carter’s policy toward Russia first expressed in … yes … the Playboy interview Ford had read. So Carter’s discussion with us had upended his campaign, then righted it. That made me feel things had evened out.

In recalling this epic flap, including Carter’s own mild lie under pressure, I set out to shine a light backward at Carter’s main message on that afternoon in Plains, Georgia: that none of us is perfect, that we are all sinners, and above all, that we shouldn’t condemn others. That applied to him, he was saying to us. As it does, in spades, to us all.

So a story you may have assumed would be about a presidential candidate making shocking revelations to a naughty magazine turns out to be something different. It was less a risible gaffe than a quiet sermon in the doorway on religion, tolerance and humility. On not imposing one’s beliefs on other people, on not being sanctimonious, on not telling them how to live.

By today’s standards, both the racy quotes and the campaign trail lie may seem sweetly, quaintly dated. A lie today, a big lie with boots on, will be about overturning an election, and if possible, democracy itself. As to imposing your beliefs on others, which Carter went to such pains to reproach? Today, in some states, telling people what they can say, or read, or teach, or do with their bodies — that’s just winning politics.

Farewell, Jimmy Carter. From the look of things, your kind may not come our way again.

Guest columnist Barry Golson covers the Tampa Bay senior scene. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Playboy, Forbes and AARP. He is the author of “Gringos in Paradise” (Scribner). He can be reached at