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Jimmy Carter gets a peek at his last goodbye

The former president turns 99 seven months after entering into hospice care. Thousands of Americans are honoring him for the humanitarian work he carried out after leaving office

Jimmy Carter attends Sunday Mass at Maranatha Baptist Church in his hometown of Plains, Georgia, in April 2019.
Jimmy Carter attends Sunday Mass at Maranatha Baptist Church in his hometown of Plains, Georgia, in April 2019.NurPhoto (NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Iker Seisdedos

Not everyone reaches the age of 99. And fewer still attend their own memorial service. Jimmy Carter, the oldest president in the history of the United States, will blow out 99 candles on Sunday. Last February’s announcement that he had elected to stop further medical treatment and enter into hospice care has allowed him the rare privilege of being able to witness the preparations for the ceremony with which posterity plans to remember him.

Following Carter’s announcement that he had decided to leave hospital, and spend the rest of his life at home with his wife Rosalynn, 96, the world — including his family and friends — assumed that he only had a few days or weeks left. But the former president (1977-1981) once again defied expectations, just as he defied writer Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s notion that “there are no second acts in American lives,” when he left the White House. After leaving office, the Democrat — who was defeated by the Republican Ronald Reagan, after a single and somewhat frustrating mandate — began a brilliant post-presidency, marked by the search for conflict resolution and the eradication of diseases such as the Guinea worm, which led him to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.

“Some observers have suggested that Carter used the White House as a stepping-stone to the status of elder statesman,” presidential historian Douglas Brinkley wrote in his classic The Unfinished Presidency. “It is more accurate to say that instead of abandoning his agenda when he lost badly to Ronald Reagan in 1980, he chose to continue working toward programs and policies he believed in, in office or out of it. That he has tried to complete his unfinished agenda with such vigor and such success is a testament to his stubborn will and tenacious refusal ever to throw in the towel. Jimmy Carter may be many things, but a quitter is not among them — so this book, like his presidency, will remain unfinished as long as he’s alive.”

“Lessons in dignity”

When the couple received an award for their humanitarian work from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Paige Alexander, the director of the Carter Center in Atlanta, said that the two spoke about their health problems with “total honesty,” just as they always had done. “They continue to teach us lessons in dignity and grace,” she said. Before this year’s decision, Carter announced in 2015 that he had been diagnosed with brain cancer, which later went into remission. He also emerged successful from the operation in 2019 to release hemorrhagic pressure in his head after suffering several falls. Last May, Rosalynn Carter made it public that she suffered from dementia.

In an interview with The New York Times, Alexander said that in her last talks with the former president, “he wasn’t asking about politics or the economy. He just wanted to know what the Guinea worm count was.” She added: “He’s got so much joy in seeing his presidency and post-presidency revisited. In many ways, that keeps him going — along with peanut butter ice cream.” Alexander said he’s also pleased that the Atlanta Braves look tipped to make the playoffs.

The Carter Center has asked citizens around the world to send photos and messages to the former president for his birthday. More than 14,000 people have responded, including celebrities such as Jane Fonda and Larry David. The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum put the messages together into a huge digital mosaic to celebrate Carter’s birthday, which was in fact on Saturday. The symbolic installation, however, was pushed back to Sunday to avoid potential disruptions due to a government shutdown. The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum is owned by the National Archives and Records Administration, meaning it depends on Washington. If the far-right wing of the Republican Party continued to refuse to pass a spending bill, the United States would have entered a shutdown, in which all non-essential activity, such as celebrating the Democrat’s 100th birthday, would have been suspended. In the end, a last-minute stopgap measure was passed just hours before the deadline, and the crisis was averted.

On Saturday, the White House honored his birthday with a three-tiered cake topped with 39 candles, representing his role as the 39th president of the United States. In Atlanta, a 99-cent ticket to the museum also included a screening of Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men, which was released in April 1976, in the midst of the campaign that brought Carter to the White House. The film tells the story of the journalistic investigation that marked the end of Richard Nixon due to the Watergate case. Nixon was succeeded by Gerald Ford, Carter’s rival in his first presidential elections.

Jimmy Carter in the Oval Office in 1978.
Jimmy Carter in the Oval Office in 1978.HUM Images (HUM Images/Universal Images Grou)

Carter had been governor of Georgia and senator of the southern state. He came to Washington as an outsider, promising to restore confidence in politics after the traumas of the Vietnam War and Watergate. He sealed the Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt, and at home, he made advances in civil rights. But his good intentions were hampered by the oil crisis, the Iranian hostage crisis, and rampant inflation that hit the working class most of all.

In 1979, he gave his famous “Crisis of Confidence speech,” which is often referred to as his “Malaise Speech.” And in 1980, U.S. voters showed that they no longer had confidence in Carter, running to support Ronald Reagan’s budding neoliberal revolution. Joe Biden’s rivals often draw on Carter’s short mandate to draw parallels with the current administration, hoping that history will repeat itself.

Over time, Carter and Ford ended up forging a strong friendship. The fact that the United States is longing for a time when two political rivals could end up on such good terms also helps explain why the tributes are flooding in for Carter. “Many Americans appreciate the altruism he demonstrated after losing to Reagan,” Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin, the author of the most comprehensive history of the Democratic Party, told EL PAÍS by email. “Plus, he and his wife have never seemed to care about getting rich or fancying themselves as anything else. They are true Christians, you could say!”

The Carters continue to live in the house they moved to in 1961 in Plains, a Georgia town of 700 inhabitants dedicated to peanuts, an industry the Carter’s family was also involved with. On one occasion, The Washington Post calculated that the house cost less than the Secret Service cars parked at its door to ensure the security of the former president. The couple was last seen on September 23. They appeared by surprise at the town’s XXV Peanut Fair, aboard a 1946 Ford, a gift from country singer Garth Brooks to congratulate them on their 75th wedding anniversary.

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