When Jimmy Carter lusted in his heart

The late Hugh Hefner broke new ground with Playboy, and not just by injecting sex into the mainstream.

Hefner’s magazine frequently scooped other news sources, scoring long, detailed and revealing interviews with the powerful and creative people of the time, including Malcolm X, John Lennon, Steve Jobs and Martin Luther King Jr.

Hefner, creator of the Playboy empire, died Wednesday at 91. Perhaps the most famous one-liner from the many interviews in his magazine was uttered by Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, who confessed during the run-up to the 1976 election, “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.”

The interview appeared in the November, 1976 issue of the magazine, which was on newsstands more than a month ahead of time.

Though most American males who opened up to the center of that very magazine were guilty of the exact same sin, the reaction from the public and the talking heads of the media was thunderous.

Marge Thurmond, chairman of the state Democratic Party, described the public’s response as “bad, bad, bad.” Her own assessment? “I thought it was disastrous. I don’t know why in the hell he did it.”

Carter, the Georgia peanut farmer and Sunday school teacher, had previously come across to the American voters as squeaky clean. The concern among his Democratic backers was that Carter might seem too pious. Andrew Young, a U.S. Rep. at the time, said the Playboy interview certainly fixed that. “(Carter) has taken care of his religion problem once and for all.”

For some, the interview served to humanize Carter as a regular person, prey to the same failings as everyone.

To others, the interview was a kind of humble-brag, a confession of a flaw that was so minuscule that it served as an unspoken claim to virtue. Others simply thought it was over-sharing

BBC radio commentator Alistair Cooke opined at the time that the confessions were a liability, not because Americans looked down on someone who admitted to sin, but because the admissions seemed to come from an unfamiliar world, the world of the washed-in-the-blood Southern Baptist.

They gave us, he said, “The uncomfortable and growing feeling that we don’t quite know who Carter is or what he’s really up to.”

Time magazine accounted it among the “Top 10 Unfortunate Political One-liners.”

Carter reflected on the “exotic” nature of the term “born again,” which was new to many Americans in 1976, during the writing of his 2005 book “Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis.”

"To me it was like breathing," he said of the term. “(A)ll of us [Southern Baptists] considered ourselves to be born again."  

Other political opponents took advantage of the fact that Carter spoke to Playboy at all.

Vice President Nelson Rockefeller enjoyed leering at the idea, telling a Cleveland audience, “I never thought I’d see the day when Christ’s teachings were discussed in Playboy and I’m a Baptist, ladies and gentlemen!”

Carter, who turns 93 on Sunday, later said that the comments might have lost him his wide lead over President Gerald Ford, and could have cost him the election. But he never took back his words or his meaning.

As he says in the interview, “Christ set some almost impossible standards for us.” He then goes on to quote Christ’s words from Matthew 5: 28 — the words that are mirrored in his famous confession:

“I tell you that anyone who looks on a woman with lust in his heart has already committed adultery.”

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