I get the feeling that James Earl Carter’s secret to success, as an ex-president, is that he has everything he wants. Not a formula that would work for most people who get to be President — it’s a job made for strivers — but just imagine how confusing, not to mention infuriating, it will be when someone reads this Happy Weekend Story to the current Oval Office Occupant.
From the Washington Post, “The Un-Celebrity President”:
Jimmy Carter finishes his Saturday night dinner, salmon and broccoli casserole on a paper plate, flashes his famous toothy grin and calls playfully to his wife of 72 years, Rosalynn: “C’mon, kid.”
She laughs and takes his hand, and they walk carefully through a neighbor’s kitchen filled with 1976 campaign buttons, photos of world leaders and a couple of unopened cans of Billy Beer, then out the back door, where three Secret Service agents wait.
They do this just about every weekend in this tiny town where they were born — he almost 94 years ago, she almost 91. Dinner at their friend Jill Stuckey’s house, with plastic Solo cups of ice water and one glass each of bargain-brand chardonnay, then the half-mile walk home to the ranch house they built in 1961.
On this south Georgia summer evening, still close to 90 degrees, they dab their faces with a little plastic bottle of No Natz to repel the swirling clouds of tiny bugs. Then they catch each other’s hands again and start walking, the former president in jeans and clunky black shoes, the former first lady using a walking stick for the first time…
When Carter left the White House after one tumultuous term, trounced by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election, he returned to Plains, a speck of peanut and cotton farmland that to this day has a nearly 40 percent poverty rate…
“I don’t see anything wrong with it; I don’t blame other people for doing it,” Carter says over dinner. “It just never had been my ambition to be rich.”
Carter was 56 when he returned to Plains from Washington. He says his peanut business, held in a blind trust during his presidency, was $1 million in debt, and he was forced to sell.
“We thought we were going to lose everything,” says Rosalynn, sitting beside him.
Carter decided that his income would come from writing, and he has written 33 books, about his life and career, his faith, Middle East peace, women’s rights, aging, fishing, woodworking, even a children’s book written with his daughter, Amy Carter, called “The Little Baby Snoogle-Fleejer.”
With book income and the $210,700 annual pension all former presidents receive, the Carters live comfortably…
Carter is the only president in the modern era to return full-time to the house he lived in before he entered politics — a two-bedroom rancher assessed at $167,000, less than the value of the armored Secret Service vehicles parked outside.
Ex-presidents often fly on private jets, sometimes lent by wealthy friends, but the Carters fly commercial. Stuckey says that on a recent flight from Atlanta to Los Angeles, Carter walked up and down the aisle greeting other passengers and taking selfies…
Plains is a tiny circle of Georgia farmland, a mile in diameter, with its center at the train depot that served as Carter’s 1976 campaign headquarters. About 700 people live here, 150 miles due south of Atlanta, in a place that is a living museum to Carter.
The general store, once owned by Carter’s Uncle Buddy, sells Carter memorabilia and scoops of peanut butter ice cream. Carter’s boyhood farm is preserved as it was in the 1930s, with no electricity or running water.
The Jimmy Carter National Historic Site is essentially the entire town, drawing nearly 70,000 visitors a year and $4 million into the county’s economy.
Carter has used his post-presidency to support human rights, global health programs and fair elections worldwide through his Carter Center, based in Atlanta. He has helped renovate 4,300 homes in 14 countries for Habitat for Humanity, and with his own hammer and tool belt, he will be working on homes for low-income people in Indiana later this month.
But it is Plains that defines him…
And that may be his superpower: Jimmy Carter grew up secure. He was the beloved first-born son of two parents who were local aristocracy, and content to be such; he survived service during WWII; he married the woman he loved and had children who made their own lives. He came home from the Oval Office, and settled happily back in the house he likes, with the woman he loves, enough money to be able to devote himself to good works, and enough influence to make those good works a global blessing. (Again: This puts him rather outside the norm for most American presidents, but he does seem to be aware that he’s been fortunate.) I don’t know how his Baptist faith would explain Living well is the best revenge… but from all indications, Carter is a man who is living well.