Jimmy Carter, Longest-Living U.S. President, Turns 98

ATLANTA (AP) – Jimmy Carter, already the longest-serving U.S. president in history, will celebrate his 98th birthday Saturday with family and friends in Plains, the small Georgia town where he and his wife were born. Rosalynn, 95. in the years between the First World War and the Great Depression.

The 39th president’s latest milestone comes as the Carter Center, which the Carters established together after their one term in the White House, marks 40 years of promoting democracy and conflict resolution, monitoring elections and ‘advancing public health in the developing world.

Jason Carter, grandson of the former president who now leads the Carter Center’s board, described his grandfather, an outspoken Christian, who was satisfied with his life and his 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 he’s been and where he’s going.”

Former President Jimmy Carter reacts as his wife Rosalynn Carter speaks during a reception to celebrate their 75th wedding anniversary Saturday, July 10, 2021, in Plains, Georgia.
Former President Jimmy Carter reacts as his wife Rosalynn Carter speaks during a reception to celebrate their 75th wedding anniversary Saturday, July 10, 2021, in Plains, Georgia.

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 from well-wishers around the world through the social media and the center’s website. But Jason Carter said his grandfather is mostly looking forward to a simple day that includes watching his favorite major league basketball team, the Atlanta Braves, on television.

“He’s still 100 percent with it, even though the daily life stuff is a lot harder now,” Jason Carter said. “But I guarantee you one thing. He’ll be watching every Braves game this weekend.”

James Earl Carter Jr. won the 1976 presidential election after starting the campaign as the little-known governor of Georgia. His surprise performance in the Iowa caucuses established the small Midwestern state as an epicenter of presidential politics. Carter defeated President Gerald Ford in the general election, largely on the strength of sweeping the South before his home region shifted heavily to the Republicans.

A formal portrait of President Jimmy Carter.  Undated photo from the 1970s.
A formal portrait of President Jimmy Carter. Undated photo from the 1970s.

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A Naval Academy alumnus, Navy officer and peanut farmer, Carter won in large part on his promise never to lie to an electorate weary of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal that led to his resignation of Richard Nixon to the presidency in 1974. Four years later, unable to tame inflation and calm voter anger over American hostages held in Iran, Carter lost 44 states to Ronald Reagan. He returned home to Georgia in 1981 at the age of 56.

The former first couple almost immediately began planning The Carter Center. It opened in Atlanta in 1982 as the first such effort for a former president. The stated mission: to promote peace, human rights and public health causes around the world. Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. He traveled internationally in his 80s and 90s, and didn’t officially retire from the board until 2020.

Since opening, the center has monitored elections in 113 countries, said director general Paige Alexander, 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 spread by unclean drinking water that 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 assumed his role in 2020 when Jason Carter took over for his grandfather. But “he spends a lot of time thinking about the projects he started and the projects we’re continuing.”

Alexander cited the Guinea worm eradication effort as a highlight. Carter set the target 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 message to the center to lament that his post-presidency had been largely silent on climate change. Jason Carter said the center’s leadership is still exploring ways to combat the climate crisis. But he offered no 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 in which no other advocacy organization has participated.

When it comes to elections and democracy, perhaps the most unpredictable twist is that Jimmy Carter has lived to see the center turn its efforts to the home front. The center now has programs to combat distrust in the democratic process in the United States. Carter Center staff oversaw the recount of the 2020 U.S. presidential ballot in the state of Georgia 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 coming home to do democracy and conflict resolution around our elections,” said Jason Carter. “(But) we couldn’t go and be this amazing democracy and human rights organization abroad without making sure that we were adding our voice and our expertise … in the U.S.”

Ahead of the U.S. midterm elections, the center has called on candidates, regardless of party, to subscribe to a set of fair election principles, including a commitment to the peaceful transfer of power. Among those who have signed pledges: Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, and his Democratic challenger, Stacey Abrams.

Carter himself has largely retired from politics. For years after his defeat in 1980, Democrats distanced themselves from him. It has enjoyed a resurgence in recent election cycles, receiving visits from several 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls and, in 2021, President Joe Biden, who in 1976 became the first US senator to endorse a presidential bid Carter’s With inflation at its highest levels since the late 1970s and early 1980s, some Republicans are again raising Carter as a line of attack against Biden and the Democrats.

Jason Carter said the former president reads and watches the news daily, and sometimes takes 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 the closest connection to now are the people in Plains, at his church and other places,” Jason Carter said. β€œBut, you know, his partner number 1, 2 and 3 is my grandmother, right? He’s outlived his friends and many of his advisors and the people he accomplished so much with in the past, but they’ve never felt alone because they’ve always had each other.”

Associated Press reporter Alex Sanz contributed to this report.

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