ATLANTA (AP) — Jimmy Carter, already the longest-living US President in history, will celebrate his 98th birthday Saturday with family and friends in Plains, the tiny Georgia town where he and his wife, 95, lived -year-old Rosalynn, were born in the years between World War I and the Great Depression.
The 39th President’s most recent milestone is the Carter Center, which the Carters co-founded after their first term in the White House and which marks 40 years of promoting democracy and conflict resolution, policing elections and advancing public health in the developing world .
Jason Carter, the former president’s grandson who now chairs the Carter Center’s board of directors, described his grandfather, an outspoken Christian, as content with his life and legacy.
“He’s looking forward to his 98th birthday with faith in God’s plan for him,” said the younger Carter, 47, “and it’s just a wonderful blessing for all of us to know personally that he’s at peace and happy where he is was and where he is going.”
Carter Center leaders said the former president, who survived a cancer diagnosis in 2015 and a bad fall at home in 2019, has already enjoyed reading congratulatory messages sent by well-wishers around the world via social media and the center’s website . But Jason Carter said his grandfather was most looking forward to an easy day watching his favorite Major League Baseball team, the Atlanta Braves, on TV.
“He’s still 100% at it, even though things are a lot harder in day-to-day life now,” said Jason Carter. “But I guarantee one thing: He’ll be watching all the Braves games this weekend.”
James Earl Carter Jr. won the 1976 presidential election after beginning the campaign as the little-known one-term governor of Georgia. His surprise appearance at the Iowa caucuses made the small Midwestern state an epicenter of presidential politics. Carter went on to defeat President Gerald Ford in the general election, largely due to strength in sweeping the South before his home region heavily shifted to Republicans.
A Naval Academy graduate, Navy officer, and peanut farmer, Carter won in part because of his promise to never lie to an electorate weary about 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 quell voter anger over American hostages in Iran, Carter lost 44 states to Ronald Reagan. In 1981, at the age of 56, he returned to Georgia.
The former first couple began planning the Carter Center almost immediately. It opened in Atlanta in 1982 as a unique project for a former president. The declared mission: to advance peace, human rights and public health around the world. Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. He traveled internationally into his 80s and 90s and only officially retired from the board in 2020.
Since opening, the center has observed elections in 113 countries, CEO Paige Alexander said, and Carter has also acted as an individual mediator in many countries. The Carter Center’s efforts have nearly eradicated Guinea worm, a parasite that spreads through unclean drinking water and is painful to humans. Rosalynn Carter has led programs aimed at reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness.
“He’s enjoying his retirement,” said Alexander, who took over her role in 2020, of the time Jason Carter took over for his grandfather. But “he spends a lot of time thinking about the projects he started and the projects we are continuing.”
Alexander cited the efforts to eradicate Guinea worm as a highlight. Carter set the goal in 1986 when there were about 3.5 million cases annually in 21 countries, with a focus in sub-Saharan Africa. So far this year, six cases in two countries are known, said Alexander.
In 2019, Carter used his last annual message at the center to lament that his post-presidency had been largely silent on climate change. Jason Carter said the center’s leadership is still looking at ways to combat the climate crisis. But he offered no schedule. “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 advocacy organizations have participated.
When it comes to elections and democracy, perhaps the most unpredictable turn of events is that Jimmy Carter has seen the center direct its efforts to the home front. The center now has programs to combat distrust in the democratic process in the United States. Carter Center staffers oversaw Georgia’s recount of the state’s 2020 U.S. presidential election after then-President Donald Trump argued the result was rigged. Multiple recounts in Georgia and other states confirmed the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s win.
“Certainly we never thought that we would end up coming home to do democracy and conflict resolution around our elections,” said Jason Carter. “(But) we couldn’t be this incredible democracy and human rights organization overseas without making sure we bring our voice and expertise to the table … in the US.”
Ahead of the US midterm elections, the center has urged candidates – regardless of party – to commit to a set of fair voting principles, including a commitment to a peaceful transition of power. Among those who have signed commitments: Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, and his Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams.
Carter himself has largely retired from politics. After his defeat in 1980, the Democrats kept their distance from him for years. It has experienced a resurgence in recent election cycles, attracting visits from several Democratic presidential candidates for 2020 and 2021 from President Joe Biden, who became the first US Senator to support Carter’s presidential nomination in 1976. With inflation now at its highest level since the late 1970s and early 1980s, some Republicans are again bringing up 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 politicians. But, he added, the former president is not expected to appear publicly to endorse any candidates until November.
“His people, the ones he feels most connected to right now are the people in Plains, at his church and in other places,” Jason Carter said. “But you know his partner #1, 2 & 3 is my grandma right? He has survived friends and so many of his advisors and the people with whom he has accomplished so much in the past, but they were never lonely because they always had each other.”
Associated Press journalist Alex Sanz contributed to this report.
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