The marquee names, including singers Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, CNN founder Ted Turner, former U.N. ambassador Andrew Young and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), gathered in the former high school that the Carters attended 80 years ago. There were relatives and neighbors, poor as well as rich, Republicans as well as Democrats.
Jimmy, 96, and Rosalynn, 93, circulated in the crowd of 350 and greeted their guests warmly.
“In a lot of ways, they were living for this day,” grandson Jason Carter said.
The range of people who descended on Plains was as remarkable as the partnership they came to applaud: a marriage longer than for any other presidential couple in history.
Husband and wife Brooks and Yearwood have worked alongside the Carters for years building Habitat for Humanity homes for low-income people and plan to continue their legacy. Turner, who once seemed to change girlfriends as often as Jimmy quoted the Bible, is a longtime friend who frequently has gone fly-fishing with the Carters.
And while the Clintons and the Carters have obvious bonds, including that Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter were breakaway Southern governors who became president, their differences were stark.
In 1992, Jimmy Carter declined to endorse Bill Clinton, saying, “People are looking for somebody who is honest.” And 16 years later, he endorsed Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton, arguing that it was time for her to “give it up.”
But in 2016, Carter came to the big Clinton Global Initiative meeting and held a conversation onstage with Bill Clinton. He endorsed Hillary Clinton before the presidential election that November, only later acknowledging that he had voted for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the primary.
The Carters set themselves apart from other former White House occupants when they opted post-presidency to move back to their rural hometown, which looks like a 1950s movie set. Plains has a train depot, a general store that sells peanut ice cream and not much else. The couple live in a simple home they helped build a half-century ago. Its Zillow value is $213,000, far below that of the average American house. Famous as a penny-pincher while president, Jimmy has shopped for clothes in the Dollar General store he helped lure to Plains. It remains one of the few shops or businesses.
The town once had a traffic light, but no longer. “We took it down,” explained Mayor L.E. “Boze” Godwin III. “The state made us maintain it, and it was constantly broken.”
Plains, with a population of around 700, was full of anticipation Saturday. Old-timers said the 75th wedding anniversary celebration sparked more hoopla than they had seen since the first years after Carter left Washington. Word spread fast that celebrities would be arriving. Brooks and Yearwood met privately beforehand with the guests of honor and then left early to make his evening concert in Las Vegas.
Eric Whitley, who was helping serve chicken salad sandwiches and pecan pie at the Buffalo Cafe, was asked what he thought about all the big names coming to town.
“What do I think?” he responded. “I think it’s just a blessing.”
All of the Carters’ four children were at the gathering. Amy Carter, who was 9 when the family moved into the White House, is now 53 and a schoolteacher in Atlanta. Chip Carter, a retired nonprofit and business executive, and Jeff Carter, who founded a computer mapping company, also live in Atlanta. Jack Carter, a businessman, lives in Las Vegas. There are also 11 living grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.
With the Clintons and Pelosi sitting directly in front of him, Chip praised his parents for the example they set. “They told us we were better than no one and no one was better than us,” he said, and “they did what they thought was right, even when it was bad politics.”
As he raised a glass of champagne, he added, “They protected their partnership perfectly.”
Rosalynn drew laughs when she said that as a young girl she wasn’t interested in boys and didn’t think she would marry, but “then along came Jimmy Carter and my life has been an adventure.”
Her husband spoke haltingly from his wheelchair, but he got loud cheers when he expressed “particular gratitude” for her “being the right woman.” Then he flashed his trademark toothy grin, looked out at an auditorium packed with family and friends, and declared, “I love you all very much.”
Chuck Leavell, keyboardist for the Allman Brothers and then the Rolling Stones, was also one of the guests. But the entertainment came from pianist David Osborne, who has performed at White House concerts going back to the Reagan administration. He played on a gleaming Steinway on a stage decorated with red, white and blue bunting and U.S. and Georgia flags.
The stars and stripes outside were flying at half-staff in honor of Carter’s vice president, Walter Mondale, who died in April at 93.
Pelosi, who flew down on an early-morning flight to Atlanta and then headed the 150 miles to Plains, said she was honored to attend the celebration. “I have a real appreciation for his presidency and for how he and Rosalynn were so dedicated to public service,” she noted.
Bill Clinton offered similar admiration “for what [the Carters] have done and how they have lived. Every American should be uplifted by this celebration” and the commitment it honored, he said, adding with a smile, “There’s something to be said for stickin’!”
Asked about the two former presidents’ past disagreements, Clinton allowed that “it is what it is.” Still, while they weren’t always on the same page politically, “it never destroyed our relationship.”
Jimmy Carter rose to national prominence in the 1970s as a Democratic governor in the Deep South who advocated for racial equality. Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D), elected in November as Georgia’s first African American U.S. senator, was among those at the festivities applauding his decades of leadership and philanthropy.
After losing to Ronald Reagan in 1980, Carter began a 40-year post-presidency that would eventually recast his image in the view of many Americans. He declined to give high-dollar speeches or join lucrative corporate boards, instead writing books and strapping a tool belt around his waist to help build homes for the poor.
With Rosalynn at his side, Jimmy traveled the world to eradicate disease, monitor democratic elections and promote human rights. And as the years passed, he became less associated with the Iran hostage crisis and long lines at gas stations and was seen more as an ahead-of-his-time visionary concerned about climate change, women’s equality and racial justice.
Although some people still see him as too moralistic, even schoolmarmish, he has inspired and even won over others who once dismissed him.
Until their health began faltering in recent years, the Carters regularly walked hand in hand along Church Street to their home, which will one day become a museum open to the public and run by the National Park Service.
They intend to be buried on the property, hoping that will help draw tourists and visitors, money and jobs to Plains. The median income here is $30,000, about half that of the state. The town sits among the “pine trees, peanut fields, magnolias, and gnats,” according to its website. It highlights the main attraction, with a online banner announcing Plains as the “Home of the 39th United States President and 2002 Nobel Prize Recipient Jimmy Carter.”
Perhaps because its most famous resident comes across as more of a minister than a politician, he is even admired by the many Georgians who voted for Donald Trump, Plains Councilor Eugene Edge suggested several days ago. “He is not divisive, and he’s done a lot of good,” said Edge, a fellow Democrat.
Agreed Godwin, a Republican: “We have our differences, but they are not a big deal. It doesn’t mean I don’t love him.”