Born James Earl Carter Jr. on October 1, 1924, in Plains, Georgia, President Jimmy Carter is the first American President to be born in a hospital. At 99 years of age, he is the longest living former President. Together with his wife Rosalynn, who sadly died last year, they are the longest-lived Presidential couple, having achieved this feat in October 2019.
His is an extraordinary story characterized by rising to the highest office in the land and indeed the world, then going back to the small town where he grew up. And unlike many of those who have occupied the seat of President, he managed to maintain his common man charm after the White House. It is not hard to see why, since he told the White House correspondents when he was leaving the White House that he would not seek to enrich himself after he left office.
Early life and politics
Jimmy Carter is the eldest of four siblings. He was a well-behaved child who got along with his parents. Despite growing up at the time of segregation, he was allowed to play with the children of black farmhands. In addition, he was also a hardworking and industrious young man as he had an acre of land where he farmed peanuts. This love for peanut farming would become a lifelong business for him. It is said that he would have been valedictorian had he not skipped school with friends to go downtown riding in a hot rod.
He became a devoted evangelical Christian early in life and he remains one to date. His faith led him to be a deacon in 1942 and that was when he began teaching Sunday School at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia, something he would do for many years to come at the very same church. Later, he graduated from the naval academy in Annapolis, Maryland in 1946. Shortly thereafter, he married Rosalynn Smith after he graduated from the naval academy. He went on to work as a naval officer for 7 years before he went back home to Plains to continue with the family peanut business.
It is a little-known fact that he lived in public housing with his family in Plains for some time. As he ventured into peanut farming, he had a disastrous first harvest and had to rely on bank credit to keep his venture afloat. Perhaps to avoid future losses, he took up classes in agriculture while his wife took up accounting to manage their books. This eventually paid off.
He would then venture into politics in 1962. He started with state politics, and he managed to get elected to the Georgia state senate where he served from 1963 – 1967. He would then try his hand in the gubernatorial race, but he lost on his first try. However, he managed to become the 76th governor of Georgia from 1971 – 1975. It was during this time between the time he was in the state legislature and when he became governor, that the true nature of Jimmy Carter could be seen.
Perhaps the best way to understand him is to understand his quote when he was first running for governor of the state of Georgia. He ran and lost. But he famously said. “I am a conservative, moderate, liberal and middle of the road.” before going ahead to say that he believed that he was more complicated than that. This quote best captures the kind of person he was. He was simple and complicated at the same time.
To illustrate, he was always opposed to racial discrimination from a young age, but he found it harder to expose and voice his beliefs as much as he would have wanted. For instance, he did not speak up a lot against it as much as he would have liked when in the state legislature so as not to antagonize his colleagues. Despite meeting with civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. and supporting them and their cause, he ran a campaign that had racial undertones on his way to winning the race for governor. However, on his inauguration, he famously shocked supporters when he declared that the time for racial discrimination is over. In addition to this, he added black state employees and went ahead to have portraits of 3 prominent black activists Martin Luther King Jr., Lucy Craft Laney and Henry McNeal Turner to the state capitol building and angering the Ku Klux Klan in the process.
He was someone who did not like racial discrimination and racial segregation but at times had to ride the wave until he was able to do something about it, and then showed his true anti-racial discrimination credentials.
Jimmy Carter became the 39th president of the United States on January 20th, 1977. He ran as a Democrat and defeated the Republican incumbent president Gerald Ford. Although he failed in his bid for a second term, losing to Republican Ronald Reagan.
It is worth noting that his governorship and his presidency were characterized with frosty relations with his legislatures. While governor, he did not get along well with the state legislature and when President, he had icy relations with congress.
This could have been part of the reason he lost his re-election bid despite having done much for the country. The twin issues of high inflation and high unemployment from the recovering recession and an energy crisis made it harder for him to win re-election. The Iranian hostage crisis that dominated news coverage did not help matters either.
Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn Carter celebrated their 77th marriage anniversary in July 2023. Three years his junior, Rosalynn was a friend of his sister and that is how he came to know her. They have been blessed with 4 children (three sons and a daughter) as well as twelve grandchildren (nine grandsons and three granddaughters. One grandson is deceased). They also have fourteen great grandchildren (five great grandsons and nine great granddaughters).
The secret to his longevity in marriage was revealed when he told People Magazine “It’s hard to live until you’re 95 years old,”. “I think the best explanation for that is to marry the best spouse: someone who will take care of you and engage and do things to challenge you and keep you alive and interested in life.”
In the book “What Makes a Marriage Last”, he told authors Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue that he and his wife had found out that disagreements were inevitable, but they had decided to give each other space. When each one of them was interested in something, they had the space to pursue their interest and do it their own way, while accepting help from the other if they needed it. They also looked at the kinds of things they could do together.
According to the Washington Post, their long-time treasured Saturday tradition has always been walking half a mile to their friend Jill Stuckey’s home from their two-bedroom rancher in Plains. They then would have dinner there and sip on one glass of “bargain-brand Chardonnay,”
History of firsts
President Jimmy Carter was the first candidate to set aside funds and staff to pre-election transition planning and this came to be a tradition to date.
He was the first sitting President to testify under oath. This was during the investigations of loan payments which were made to the peanut business he owned by a bank which was controlled by Bert Lance, his director of the Office of Management and Budget, who had to resign amid allegations of improper banking activities.
His administration established the US Department of Energy and the Department of Education.
He is the only president to have lived long enough to see seven other presidents elected after him and has outlived two of them.
Carter and his wife volunteered one week a year for Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit that helps people renovate and build homes for themselves all over the world.
They did this until 2020. In addition to this, he occasionally taught Sunday School at Maranatha Baptist Church until 2019. He also taught at Emory University in Atlanta and in June of 2019, was awarded for his 37 years of tenure.
One of his famous philanthropic roles is his partnership with the World Health Organization where he was a leading advocate for the eradication of guinea worm diseases, also called dracunculiasis. The success of his advocacy can be seen in how they managed to drive the disease numbers from 3.5 million in the 1980s to 10 as of 2021, according to his foundation.
He has extensively worked to advance peace all over the world and has been an envoy in such missions countless times. His work and his outspokenness on such matters earned him a Nobel peace prize in 2002. The Nobel was for “his work to find peaceful solutions to international conflict, advance democracy & human rights, and to promote economic and social development”.
The former President comes from a family with a history of cancer, a disease he famously beat at 90. All his 3 siblings and both his parents had and died of cancer. In 2015, he announced that he had been diagnosed with cancer which had metastasized. The melanoma had been found in his brain and liver. However, he would beat it a few short months later as he announced in December of that year that scans no longer showed any traces of cancer in his body.
In 2019, he had a series of falls which led to him having to undergo a procedure to relieve pressure on his brain since he was bleeding. In February 2023, the Carter Centre announced that he would not be seeking treatment in hospitals but rather would stay at home in Plains, Georgia, with his family, receiving hospice care. During that time, doctors had told his family that he would likely not live more than a week, but he continues to live having celebrated his 99th birthday on October 1st, 2023.
According to family, he likes to watch Law and Order as well as follow the 2024 election in addition to following his team the Atlanta Braves. He is frustrated at not being able to swim. His health can be summed up by his son Chip Carter’s recount of what he told him that he had been successful at everything in life, but he could not figure out how to die.
Due to his frail health, he has not been seen in many public events in 2023. The only one was in September 2023 when made an appearance during the Peanut Festival Parade in Plains, Georgia.
99th birthday celebrations
People from far and wide celebrated his birthday. The Carter Centre in Atlanta, Georgia hosted a ceremony where 99 new American citizens took the oath of allegiance. The diverse group of 99 from 45 different nations did this as part of their naturalization ceremony which was perfectly timed for his 99th birthday.
In addition, the Carter Library and Museum held a series of weekend events where they charged an admission fee of 99 cents.
President Joe Biden, a friend of President Carter, not only led the world in wishing him a happy birthday, but he also had a wooden birthday cake displayed on the front lawn of the White House to honor his friend.
To illustrate their friendship, Carter had asked President Biden to deliver his eulogy if he passed away. While Carter ran for president, a young senator Biden was the first senator to endorse him against others who were better known than him. He won. Carter then lived to see Biden also occupy the White House.
If there is something President Jimmy Carter can truly say, it is that he has seen it all and lived through it all. Many people can claim this, but extremely few can lay claim to the fact that they have seen it from his vantage point, with him having served in the navy, been a state legislator, been a governor and been a president. Then going on to witness 7 successors and outlive two of them.
In all he did, Jimmy Carter remarkably never forgot his roots. He was born in Plains, Georgia and was introduced to farming peanuts at a young age. He rose to become governor and even President of the United States of America, but that never changed him. When his term ended, he went back to the small town he loved and continued farming the peanuts he treasured. He lives there to date.