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At Age 90, Former President Jimmy Carter is Still Going Strong

At Age 90, Former President Jimmy Carter is Still Going Strong
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Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter celebrates his 90th birthday October 1.

While not the oldest living president, Carter has set the record for the longest post-presidency of any former occupant of the White House, surpassing Herbert Hoover for the honor in 2012.

And he shows no signs of slowing down.

His vice president, Walter Mondale, believes Jimmy Carter stands apart among former presidents.

“He’s got this part of him, this focus, this commitment. ... He gets on to something he wants to get it done, and it’s impressive to watch,” Mondale said.

Nonprofit organization

The former president and 2002 Nobel Peace Prize laureate leads an active life, centered around The Carter Center, an Atlanta-based, nonprofit organization that “wages peace,” “fights disease” and “builds hope” throughout the world.

Being called one of the most accomplished “ex-presidents” of the U.S. is a term his wife of 68 years, Rosalynn, is not fond of hearing.

“I don't like that. He was a great president. People are finding it out. I like them to say, well, he is the greatest ex-president, but he was a great president, too,” Rosalynn Carter said.

The accomplishments of Jimmy Carter’s presidency include normalizing relations with China, returning the Panama Canal to Panama and negotiating the Camp David Peace Accords between Egypt and Israel.

But those accomplishments tend to be overshadowed by the economic decline in the U.S. in the late 1970s and the Iran hostage crisis, which dominated much of his final years in office.

"I think it's clear that his presidency was not the greatest,” said Joe Crespino, professor of 20th century American political history at Emory University.

“That’s not all of his doing. That’s not all of his fault. A lot of that had to do with the circumstances he inherited. But I don’t think there’s shame in being called the ‘greatest ex-president,’ ” Crespino said.

Unsuccessful re-election bid

Crespino said the path to the “greatest ex-presidency” began in the wake of Jimmy Carter’s unsuccessful bid for re-election in 1980.

U.S. presidents since Hoover have libraries that catalog their official and personal documents.

After he left office in 1981, Carter wanted to create a different kind of presidential library and museum that could host conflict resolution, modeled after the successful Camp David Peace Accords.

The Carter Center was founded in 1982.

“But it's grown enormously and one of our basic principles has been that we don't duplicate what other people are doing,” Carter said, “and so we have filled vacuums in the world, you might say, and over a period of 30 years or more now we've gone into areas of international politics and alleviation of suffering and promoting democracy that others had never done.”

The staff of the Carter Center has monitored more than 90 troubled elections, treated those suffering from neglected tropical diseases in many countries, and is on the verge of completely eradicating guinea worm disease.

Many see Jimmy Carter as a valued negotiator. Others see him as meddlesome.

“He’s been criticized for talking to leaders around the world, that he’ll go and talk to anyone,” said Emory professor Crespino. “He always feels like the fundamental issue for him is to try to bring people together and have conversations about difficult problems.”

North Korea issue

One issue that presently frustrates Jimmy Carter is the unwillingness of the United States government to engage in direct talks with North Korea.

After several visits to the closed communist country, Carter said he is willing to go again to secure the release of three Americans detained there. But, so far, he has not been granted permission.

“There’s no need for me to go unless I can get a designation from the U.S. government that I am speaking officially for the U.S. government, which I cannot do. That’s the truth of the matter,” Jimmy Carter said.

When Jimmy Carter isn’t traveling the world or at his Atlanta headquarters, he may be found 160 miles south of of Atlanta, in the rural town of Plains, Georgia, his birthplace.

And it’s there that the former president of the United States becomes one of the most world’s most famous Sunday school teachers.

Jimmy Carter’s faith is a central part of his life, both before he entered the White House in 1977 and after he left. He has taught some form of Sunday school since the age of 18. Now at age 90, his classroom is as big as ever, and more diverse.

U.S. Army Sergeant Sudhir Shrestha is a long way from his home country of Nepal to be among hundreds waiting in line to enter the Maranatha Baptist Church to hear Carter teach the Bible.

“It’s really rewarding. A life-changing experience. A once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Shrestha.

Maranatha is not the largest of the eight churches in this town of 766 people, but it is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Plains.

Jan Williams, a Maranatha member, said visitors get more than just a recitation of Bible verses.

“You get an up-to-date history lesson sometimes. I had never heard of the ISIS [a term used for the Islamic State group] until one of his Sunday school lessons and maybe what action the United States should take,” Williams said.

There are about 150 members registered at Maranatha Baptist Church. About 25 to 30 of them attend services on a given Sunday.

Sunday school teacher

But on weeks when former President Carter is scheduled to teach Sunday school, it’s hard to find an empty pew.

“When I teach, Plains prospers,” Carter acknowledged. “A lot of those people tell me they've never been in a church before in their life and they just come to hear a politician teach the Bible.”

“I just wanted to the opportunity to see him in person, not just watch him on TV or read his writings or listen to the news, but actually get a chance to see what he has to say in person,” Shrestha said.

Though he has traveled to more than 140 countries and continues to lead an active life as head of the Carter Center, Jimmy Carter still lives in the same small town where he was born 90 years ago.

Visitors to Plains not only have a chance to see the place that shaped the man, but the man himself.

When he is not preparing for a Sunday school lesson, he might be behind an easel at his home in Plains creating his next painting. In addition to being a prolific artist, Jimmy Carter is also a best-selling author, currently working on his 29th book.

Looking back on 90 years, Carter is upbeat.

“It's been a very exciting and challenging and unpredictable and adventurous, and I would say a very gratifying life," he said.

The Legacy of Jimmy Carter: The Preacher from Plains
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    Kane Farabaugh

    Kane Farabaugh is the Midwest Correspondent for Voice of America, where since 2008 he has established Voice of America's presence in the heartland of America.