Atlanta – Jimmy Carter, the longest-lived US president in history, will celebrate his 98th birthday Saturday with family and friends in the small Georgia town of Plains where he and his 95-year-old wife Rosalynn were born in the intervening years. The First War and the Great Depression.
The 39th president’s latest achievement comes as the Carter Center, which the Carters established together after one term in the White House, marks 40 years of promoting democracy, resolving conflict, observing elections, and advancing public health in the developing world.
Jason Carter, the former president’s grandson who now chairs the Carter Center board of directors, described his grandfather, an outspoken Christian, as content with his life and legacy.
“He looks at his 98th birthday with faith in God’s plan for him,” said the younger Carter, 47, and it’s just such a sweet blessing for all of us to know personally that he is at peace and happy where he is. He has been and where he is going.”
Carter Center leaders said the former president, who survived a cancer diagnosis in 2015 and a serious fall at home in 2019, actually enjoyed reading the congratulatory messages sent by well-wishers around the world via social media and the center’s website. But Jason Carter said his grandfather often looks forward to a simple day that includes watching his favorite Major League Baseball team, the Atlanta Braves, on TV.
“It still has it 100%, even though everyday life is getting more and more difficult now,” Jason Carter said. “But one thing I can guarantee. He will be watching all of the Braves matches this weekend.”
James Earl Carter Jr. won the 1976 presidential election after starting his campaign as an unknown one-term governor in Georgia. His surprise performance at the Iowa caucuses made the small Midwestern state a center of presidential politics. Carter went on to defeat President Gerald Ford in the general election, largely on the strength of a sweep of the South before his home region was largely converted to Republicans.
A Naval Academy graduate, Navy officer, and peanut farmer, Carter won in large part because of his promise to never lie to voters tired of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation from the presidency in 1974. Four years later, Unable to tame inflation and allay voter anger over the American hostages being held in Iran, Carter lost 44 states to Ronald Reagan. He returned home to Georgia in 1981 at the age of 56.
The former couple almost immediately began planning the Carter Center. It opened in Atlanta in 1982 as the first such effort by a former president. Stated mission: To advance peace, human rights, and public health issues around the world. Carter won the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize. He traveled internationally until his 80s and 90s, not officially retiring from the board of directors until 2020.
Since opening, the center has monitored elections in 113 countries, CEO Paige Alexander said, and Carter has acted individually as a mediator in many countries as well. The Carter Center’s efforts have nearly eliminated the guinea worm, a parasite that spreads through unclean drinking water and is painful to humans. Rosalynn Carter has led programs designed to reduce stigma associated with mental health conditions.
“He’s enjoying his retirement,” said Alexander, who took office in 2020, as Jason Carter took over as his grandfather. But he “spends a lot of time thinking about projects he’s started and projects we’re continuing.”
Alexander cited the efforts to eradicate the Guinea worm as one of the highlights. Carter set the goal in 1986, when there were about 3.5 million cases a year in 21 countries, with a focus in sub-Saharan Africa. So far this year, Alexander said, there are six known cases in two countries.
In 2019, Carter used his last annual message at the center to lament that the post-presidency period has been largely silent on climate change. Jason Carter said the center’s leadership is still exploring ways to combat the climate crisis. But he did not provide a timetable. “We will not duplicate other effective efforts,” Carter said, explaining that one of the center’s strategic principles is to prioritize causes and places where no other organizations have been involved.
In terms of elections and democracy, perhaps the most unpredictable shift is that Jimmy Carter has lived to see the Center direct its efforts to the home front. The center now has programs to combat mistrust of the democratic process in the United States. Carter Center staff watched the state’s 2020 presidential vote recount after then-President Donald Trump said the result was fraudulent. Multiple recounts in Georgia and other countries confirmed the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s victory.
“Certainly, we never thought we’d end up coming home to do democracy and resolve disputes over our elections,” Jason Carter said. “(But) we cannot be this amazing democracy and human rights organization abroad without ensuring that we add our voice and our expertise…in the United States.”
Before the US midterm elections, the center required candidates — regardless of party — to sign a set of fair election principles, including a commitment to the peaceful transfer of power. Among those who signed the commitments: Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, a Republican, and his Democratic challenger, Stacey Abrams.
Carter himself has mostly withdrawn from politics. For years after his 1980 defeat, Democrats turned away from him. It has enjoyed resurgence in recent election cycles, drawing visits from many of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates and, in 2021, from President Joe Biden, who in 1976 was the first US senator to endorse Carter’s presidential candidacy. With inflation now at its highest since the late 1970s and early 1980s, some Republicans are again casting Carter as an offensive line on Biden and Democrats.
Jason Carter said the former president read and watched the news daily, sometimes accepting calls or visits from political figures. But he added that the former president was not expected to appear publicly to endorse any candidate before November.
“His people who feel kind of the closest to him now are the people on the Plains, in his church and elsewhere,” Jason Carter said. “But, you know, his partner No. 1, 2, and 3 is my grandmother, right? He’s lived more than friends and many of his advisors and people with whom he’s accomplished a lot in the past, but they’ve never done it alone because they have always been in touch.”
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