Jimmy Carter, already the longest-serving US president, will celebrate his 98th birthday on Saturday with family and friends in Plains, the small Georgia town where he and his wife, Rosalynn, 95, were born in the years between the world The First War and the Great Depression.
The latest milestone for the 39th president comes as The Carter Center, which the Carters established together after their single term in the White House, marks 40 years of promoting democracy and conflict resolution, monitoring elections and promoting public health in the developing world.
Jason Carter, the grandson of the former president who now heads the Carter Center’s board, described his grandfather, an outspoken Christian, as content with his life and legacy.
“He’s looking at his 98th birthday with faith in God’s plan for him,” said the younger Carter, 47, “and that’s just a beautiful blessing for all of us to know, personally, that he’s at peace and happy with Where have you been and where are you going?
Carter Center leaders said the former president, who survived a cancer diagnosis in 2015 and a serious fall at home in 2019, has already enjoyed reading congratulatory messages sent by supporters around the world through social media and the center’s website. But Jason Carter said his grandfather mostly longs for a simple day that includes watching his favorite Major League Baseball team, the Atlanta Braves, on television.
“He’s still 100% with him, even though things in daily life are a lot harder now,” Jason Carter said. “But one thing I guarantee you. He will watch every Braves game this weekend.”
James Earl Carter Jr. won the 1976 presidential election after beginning the campaign as Governor of Georgia for a little-known term. His surprise performance in the Iowa caucuses established the small Midwestern state as the epicenter of presidential politics. Carter went on to defeat President Gerald Ford in the general election, largely on the strength of sweeping the South before his home region largely switched to Republicans.
Naval Academy alumnus, Navy officer, and peanut farmer, Carter won in large part because of his promise never to lie to an electorate weary of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal that resulted in the resignation of Richard Nixon. for president in 1974. Four years later, unable to control inflation and calm voter anger over American hostages being held in Iran, Carter lost 44 states to Ronald Reagan. He returned to his home in Georgia in 1981 at the age of 56.
The former first couple almost immediately began planning for The Carter Center. It opened in Atlanta in 1982 as the first effort of its kind for a former president. The stated mission: to promote peace, human rights and public health causes throughout the world. Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. He traveled internationally into his 80s and 90s, not officially retiring from the board until 2020.
Since its opening, the center has monitored elections in 113 countries, executive director Paige Alexander said, and Carter has also acted individually as a mediator in many countries. The Carter Center’s efforts have nearly eradicated the guinea worm, a parasite that spreads through dirty drinking water and is painful to humans. Rosalynn Carter has led programs designed to reduce the stigma associated with mental health conditions.
“He’s enjoying his retirement,” said Alexander, who took over in 2020, when Jason Carter replaced his grandfather. But he “spends a lot of time thinking about the projects that he started and the projects that we continue.”
Alexander cited the Guinea worm eradication effort as a highlight. Carter set the goal in 1986, when there were about 3.5 million cases a year in 21 countries, with a concentration in sub-Saharan Africa. So far this year, Alexander said, there are six known cases in two countries.
In 2019, Carter used his final annual address at the center to lament that his post-presidency had been silent on climate change. Jason Carter said the center’s leadership is still exploring ways to combat the climate crisis. But he did not offer any schedule. “We will not duplicate other effective efforts,” Carter said, explaining that one of the center’s strategic principles is to prioritize causes and venues that no other advocacy organization has engaged.
As for elections and democracy, perhaps the most unpredictable twist is that Jimmy Carter has lived to see the center turn its efforts on the home front. The center now has programs to combat mistrust in the democratic process in the United States. Carter Center staff oversaw the recounting of Georgia’s US presidential ballots in the state in 2020 after then-President Donald Trump argued the result was rigged. Multiple recounts in Georgia and other states affirmed the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s victory.
“We certainly never thought we’d end up going back home to do democracy and conflict resolution around our elections,” said Jason Carter. “(But) we couldn’t become this amazing democratic and human rights organization abroad without making sure that we would add our voice and our experience … in the US.”
Ahead of the US midterm elections, the center has called on candidates, regardless of party, to sign up to a set of fair electoral principles, including a commitment to the peaceful transfer of power. Among those who have signed pledges: Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, a Republican, and his Democratic rival, Stacey Abrams.
Carter himself has largely retired from politics. For years after his defeat in 1980, the Democrats steered clear of him. He has enjoyed a resurgence in recent election cycles, attracting visits from several 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls and, in 2021, from President Joe Biden, who in 1976 was the first US senator to endorse Carter’s presidential bid. With inflation now at its highest levels since the late 1970s and early 1980s, Carter is again being mentioned by some Republicans as a line of attack against Biden and the Democrats.
Jason Carter said the former president reads and watches the news every day and sometimes accepts calls or visits from political figures. But, he added, the former president is not expected to appear publicly to endorse any candidate before November.
“His people that he feels he has a closer connection with now are the people of Plains, at his church and elsewhere,” said Jason Carter. “But, you know, his partner number 1, 2 and 3 is my grandmother, right? He has outlived friends and many of his advisors and the people with whom he achieved so much in the past, but they have never been alone because they have always been They had each other.”