What’s life like for an ex-president? Pretty busy, if you’re Jimmy Carter. Sporting a pair of artificial knees, Carter, 88, logs many thousands of miles each year, monitoring elections (Egypt and Libya), mediating conflicts (Sudan and Congo), building houses (Haiti). He also works on projects with a group called the Elders, or what Carter jokingly calls “political has-beens” to foster, for example, reconciliation in places where peace seems hard to come by.
Although he lost his 1980 bid for reelection as president at age 56 to Ronald Reagan, Carter’s continued activity in the public sphere landed him a Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for what Gunnar Berge, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, called “his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development.” Still, family and Georgia remain important to the man who was the 39th president, and especially his marriage. Carter says he and his wife, Rosalynn, never go to bed angry. “We have the same love and affection we had when we first were married,” he said during a telephone interview this spring in a voice that is still strong and very distinctively Georgian.
You have been very active traveling. Is that more difficult now than it was 20 years ago?
We just got back from fishing in Argentina. I really don’t have a different reaction to travel. I have never suffered from jet lag. I can sleep on airplanes. When we take off, I orient my watch to what the time is where we are going.
Tell me about what drives you.
Ever since we left the White House, most of our activities have been through the nonprofit Carter Center, which works in about 70 nations, 35 in Africa. We try to advance peace, human rights and democracy, and to end suffering from neglected diseases among the world’s poorest people. Rosalynn and I personally travel to the places where we think we will have the most impact.
In December, we met in China with Li Keqiang [now the country’s premier] and talked about open government. We are going to Nepal in late March to meet [with officials] and encourage them to hold long-delayed national elections.
We fill voids. As a nongovernmental organization, we can meet with Maoists and other banned groups, like Hamas, that governments can’t. We have gone to North Korea and Cuba, for example. Right now, we are observing developments in Syria.
Every year we spend a week building homes with Habitat for Humanity. We went to Haiti in 2011 and 2012 and built 100 homes each time, with many other volunteers.
Do you feel as though you’re running out of time?
I know I am running out of time. [He laughs as he says this.] I am 88 years old, but I am not hampered by it. Rosalynn and I are doing everything to make sure the Carter Center continues when I am not here. Over 30 years, we have built a healthy endowment, and have an independent board of trustees and a staff of top experts in peace and health.
Tell me about this group, the Elders.
It is a group of independent statesmen such as Mary Robinson [a former president of Ireland] and Fernando Cardoso, the former president of Brazil. Also Kofi Annan, Martti Ahtisaari, Ela Bhatt, Lakhdar Brahimi, Gro Harlem Brundtland and Desmond Tutu. Nelson Mandela is no longer active, but his wife is. Members of the Elders cannot be in politics. Aung San Suu Kyi was a member, but she had to resign when she was elected to parliament.
We meet twice a year and decide where we can be effective. It’s a group of political has-beens.
A powerhouse of has-beens?
I would say so. [He laughs.]
Have you had more of an impact in the last 30 years than if you had been elected to a second term as president?
I think so. We have tried to use the influence we had in the White House to continue to make a difference on the issues that were important to us.
I would have liked a second term — I can say that now — no doubt about it. There are many things my administration did that I am proud of. We signed the Panama Canal Treaty, and we kept peace between Egypt and Israel. We focused on peace. We never shot a bullet or dropped a bomb on anyone.
Rosalynn still works on mental health issues, as she did in the White House. She is a world leader in trying to end the stigma and discrimination against people with mental illnesses.
Let’s talk a little bit about you. Tell me about having great-grandchildren.
There are 35 of us [in the extended family]. We have two more great-grandchildren coming, both boys. We have four children, 12 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Every year, our entire family gets together for a week in an attractive place — skiing in Colorado or to Disneyland or Panama. This gives our family, who live in different cities, a chance to be together.
How have you been able to stay so active?
I have been extremely lucky. Rosalynn and I get a lot of exercise. She is a strict dietitian and a very good cook. She makes all our family meals.
I was an avid runner until I was 80 and my knees gave out. I have two new knees, and those have worked well. Now I swim regularly at home and when I travel. I’m active around the house, and with painting and woodworking.
We are deeply religious. Rosalynn is a deacon in the little church in our town. I have been a deacon in the past. I teach Sunday school every Sunday I am here, about 30 to 40 times a year.
How have you dealt with adversity?
When I lost a second term, I told Rosalynn we could have just as fulfilling and good a life outside of the White House. And we have. I am very positive.
We will be married 67 years in July. We go to bed at night having resolved any disagreements we might have had. We have learned to give each other space to develop our own interests. We have the same love and affection we had when we first were married.
How do you prepare for when you can no longer do what you’re doing?
It hasn’t happened yet, when my mental abilities will no longer allow it. I know it will come and I am prepared for it. I make furniture and paint. I have a good workshop, and I can make complicated pieces of furniture now. I paint, and I have become a pretty good artist. I can write. I have written 27 books in my life.
If there comes a time [when an active life isn’t possible], we will stay in our home in Plains, we have our little church. We have our family. We have a lot of love.
What gives you energy?
I have been a college professor for 31 years at Emory University. I am in touch with young people nearly every day. I have great-grandchildren that are 1 and 2 all the way to my children who are nearing retirement age. I am around a lot of different perspectives.
How do you want to be remembered?
As a champion of human rights. Human rights are more than just freedom of speech, the right to elect one’s own leaders and freedom of assembly. They also include the right to a home, access to adequate health care, and to live in peace. That is how I want to be remembered, for human rights and peace.