VALDOSTA — Jimmy Carter, the longest living U.S. President, turned 95 Tuesday.
“I’m particularly proud that when our kinfolk went to the White House, they knew how to behave,” said John Kinney of Texas, referring to Jimmy Carter during a past family reunion in Plains, Georgia.
Ironically, Kinney made the comment in 1998 during the impeachment era of President Bill Clinton but the comment is arguably as applicable today as the House looks into an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.
Carter, then 73, said all of his relatives now seem to have a “cousin Jimmy” story “but there were probably times during my administration that they didn’t claim me.”
The remark reveals the duality of Carter and his legacy. Many historians refer to his one term as a weak or ineffective presidency but he has led one of the most active and effective post-presidential careers in American history.
His legacy of service has continued nearly 40 years after leaving the White House.
Tuesday, Oct. 1, Carter celebrated his 95th birthday. He is the first American president to reach the age of 95.
“Happy 95th birthday to President Jimmy Carter, a truly great American who deserves many more,” retiring U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said in a statement Tuesday.
“He was a Christian president and he cared about people,” said Isabela Brooks, president of the Colquitt County NAACP. “Even now that he has left office, he’s doing his best to help people, especially the poor, by building houses. I truly believe God has blessed him to live as long as he has.”
Carter’s legacy will be argued for decades to come.
Kenneth E. Morris asked in “American Moralist,” his Carter biography, “Is (Carter) a moral visionary or a well-meaning but sometimes misguided moralizer?”
How will history view Carter – the Navy veteran, businessman, Georgia governor, U.S. president, author, peacemaker, humanitarian?
“I think people are looking at the things we’ve accomplished a little differently. Opinion polls are very positive about what we are doing,” Carter said in a past interview with The Valdosta Daily Times. “But I feel the only negative of our administration was not getting reelected. If we had four more years, we would have accomplished many things.”
Historians credit Carter with brokering the Camp David Accords but they give him poor marks for the loss of Iran, the hostage crisis, the Desert One tragedy and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Even complimentary remarks from historians can come off as back-handed.
With the Camp David Accords, Carter brought together the enemy nations of Egypt and Israel in 1979 for an historic signing of a peace treaty. In “A History of the American People,” conservative author Paul Johnson wrote of the Camp David Accords, “This was a notable achievement, but it remained unique in Carter’s record.”
Historians refer to the timing of the Carter presidency as unfortunate. Carter was elected president two years after President Richard M. Nixon resigned and President Gerald Ford subsequently pardoned Nixon of any potential wrongdoing in the Watergate investigation.
As Georgia’s governor, Carter ran for president as a Washington outsider, capitalizing on the country’s anti-D.C. sentiment by promising, “I’ll never lie to you.”
But public animosity toward Washington did not improve during Carter’s one-term presidency. Meanwhile, Washington insiders criticized during his campaign gave President Carter little support, even though he was a Democrat president with a Democrat majority in Congress.
Iranians took Americans hostage in 1979 – an event that loomed over the remainder of Carter’s presidency and derailed his reelection campaign. Carter was able to secure the release of the hostages but the release didn’t come until Jan. 20, 1981, minutes after the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan, with the public widely crediting Reagan rather than Carter with ending the hostage crisis.
Chip Carter, the president’s son, defended his father and his administration in a past Valdosta Daily Times interview. “The only thing he did wrong was lose the election,” Chip Carter said, then referring to other single-term presidents, “Bush did that. Ford did that.”
Unlike other former presidents instead of hitting the golf course or the speaking circuit, Jimmy Carter remained active in political and social matters. He was only 56 years old when he left the White House.
“Dad was younger than most of the other presidents when he left office,” Chip Carter said. “He could and did start a second career.”
The ex-president doesn’t worry about criticism of his administration or how historians rate his presidency, according to the son. He’s always been too busy and too active in his post-presidential roles.
Through the Carter Center in Atlanta, Carter negotiated peace agreements and monitored foreign elections. He has worked tirelessly with Habitat for Humanity building houses for decades, including a Habitat project in Valdosta 20 years ago.
Twenty years later, he remains active.
“He keeps threatening to slow down but he never does,” Chip Carter said in 1998. “When he says he’s going to slow down and take it easy, we don’t take it seriously any more. We know he’s going to keep on going.”
At 95, Jimmy Carter keeps on going.
Courtesy photo/The Carter Center
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter celebrated his 95th birthday on Tuesday.