Jimmy Carter, America’s longest-serving president, turns 98

ATLANTA (AP) — Jimmy Carter, already longest-lived US president in historywill 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 between World War I and the Great Depression.

The 39th president’s latest milestone comes as The Carter Centerthat the Carters established together after their sole 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 former president’s grandson who now heads the Carter Center’s board of trustees, described his grandfather, an outspoken Christian, as content with his life and his legacy.

“He is looking at his 98th birthday with faith in God’s plan for him,” said the young Carter, 47, “and it’s just a beautiful blessing for all of us to know, personally, that he is 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.

Carter Center officials said the former president, who survived a cancer diagnosis in 2015 and one serious fall at home in 2019, has already enjoyed reading the congratulatory messages sent by supporters around the world via social media and the center’s website. But Jason Carter said his grandfather mostly looks forward to a simple day of watching his favorite Major League Baseball team, the Atlanta Braves, on TV.

“He’s still 100% with it, even though day-to-day things are a lot harder now,” Jason Carter said. “But one thing I guarantee. He will watch every Braves game 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 performance in the Iowa caucuses made the tiny Midwestern state an epicenter of presidential politics. Carter went on to defeat President Gerald Ford in the general election, largely due to the fact that he had swept across the South before his native region overwhelmingly went to Republicans.

An official portrait of President Jimmy Carter.  Undated photo circa 1970s.
An official portrait of President Jimmy Carter. Undated photo circa 1970s.

Bettmann via Getty Images

A former Naval Academy student, Navy officer and peanut farmer, Carter won in large part because of his promise never to lie to a Vietnam War-weary electorate. Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of Richard Nixon from the presidency in 1974. Four years later, unable to control inflation and calm voter anger over US 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 effort of its kind for a former president. The stated mission: to advance peace, human rights and public health causes worldwide. Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. He traveled overseas in his 80s and 90s, and he didn’t officially retire from the board until 2020.

Since its opening, the center has monitored elections in 113 countries, said CEO Paige Alexander, and Carter has also acted individually as a mediator in many countries. Carter Center Efforts nearly eradicated Guinea worm, a parasite spread by unsanitary drinking water and painful to humans. Rosalynn Carter has led programs to reduce the stigma associated with mental health issues.

“He’s enjoying his retirement,” said Alexander, who assumed his role in 2020 around the time Jason Carter took over from his grandfather. But “he spends a lot of time thinking about the projects he has started and the projects we are pursuing”.

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 message to the center to lament that his post-presidency has been largely silent on climate change. Jason Carter said the center’s leadership is still exploring ways to tackle 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 that no other advocacy organization has engaged.

When it comes to elections and democracy, perhaps the most unpredictable turn is that Jimmy Carter lived long enough to see the center focus its efforts on the home front. The center now has programs to combat distrust of the democratic process in the United States. Carter Center staff monitored Georgia’s recount of U.S. 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.

“Certainly we never thought we would end up coming home to do democracy and resolve disputes around our elections,” Jason Carter said. “(But) we couldn’t be this incredible democracy and human rights organization overseas without making sure we brought our voice and our expertise…to the United States”

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

Carter himself has mostly retired from politics. For years after his 1980 defeat, Democrats shunned him. It has enjoyed a resurgence in recent election cycles, attracting visits from several 2020 Democratic presidential candidates and, in 2021, President Joe Biden, who in 1976 was the first U.S. senator to endorse Carter’s presidential candidacy. With inflation now at its highest level since the late 1970s and early 1980s, some Republicans are again pointing to 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 accepts calls or visits from political figures. But, he added, the former president is not expected to appear publicly to endorse candidates until November.

“His people that he kind of feels closest to are the people of Plains, his church and other places,” Jason Carter said. “But, you know, his partner #1, 2, and 3 is my grandmother, right? He survived friends and so many of his advisers and people with whom he had accomplished so much in the past, but they were never alone because they always had each other.

Associated Press reporter Alex Sanz contributed to this report.

Kevin E. Boling