Jimmy Carter was born in 1924, served as a Georgia state senator, governor of Georgia, and President of the United States from 1977 to 1981. The Carter and Stewart families have been friends for many decades.
Sheri Mann Stewart (SMS): I’ve known you since I was a little girl and you were a Georgia state senator, and I’ve also been lucky to know your whole family, your children, some of your grandchildren and especially in recent years Jason [Carter], and also some of your great-grandchildren. What do you hope is one or more things that your great-grandchildren have learned from you, or from you and [your wife] Rosalynn?
Jimmy Carter (JC): Well I hope they’ve learned the advantage of public service, you know, of helping other people when you get to be in a position of authority or influence, and using whatever talent or ability that you get when you are born to make the most of yourself; not to be deterred by disappointments and to try as best you can always to tell the truth and be honest with people around you.
That’s sort of the things that I hope they will take from me. I’m not trying to say that I’m perfect in all those things, of course, but that’s what I hope they learn. We had a family meeting last night [talking about this topic]. We have a family meeting every week, or every month, when we come up for me to teach at Emory; we have about twenty of our family members who live in and around Atlanta [meeting together].
JC: The main thing is to learn, to try to serve others, use your talents as best you can, and to tell the truth.
SMS: Absolutely. Well I think you’ve been very consistent as a role model in that way and in the books you’ve written and certainly any time that I’ve heard you speak. And you know I think so many people in the world have been inspired by you in that way.
JC: Well, you’re nice to say that.
SMS: Oh well it’s true. And of course you know my boys [actors Tendal Mann and Royce Mann]. You’ve seen them growing up. You know they’re eighteen and fifteen now, believe it or not.
SMS: They’re doing really good things in the world, again, being inspired by you, and hopefully we’ve tried to teach them those same values. We all admire how you and Rosalynn have balanced your own family, your professions, the service, and the faith in your lives. What do you think have been your most helpful tools and resources and perspectives for finding that kind of balance, and if you feel that that’s been challenging at times kind of maintaining that balance, can you talk a little bit about that?
JC: Well we’ve had a lot of challenges, but I think the main positive factor in my life in overcoming, no matter what challenge arose, was having a good partner in Rosalynn. We’ve been married now almost seventy-one years.
SMS: Oh my goodness.
JC: And we’ve learned a lot from each other. I’ve had a lot of wonderful friends and supporters, including your mother, of course.
SMS: Oh, how kind.
JC: She would give me advice when I needed it and helped me when I needed help. Many have been good partners with me down through the years. And of course there are some basic principles that never change. I think although we have to accommodate times when they are changing, like during the world today, there are some basic moral principles and ethical standards that never change. We have to accommodate the changing times, but cling to the principles that never change.
SMS: Right. Absolutely. Now sometimes when I’ve had a chance to spend time with Jason and talk with him, I have used the phrase that I can see him “carrying the torch from you.” And even my sons, Tendal and Royce, feel that way. As they’ve gotten to know you through the years and they themselves have been involved in social justice, sustainability, and other world issues, I think they think of that image too — carrying the torch. Does that phrase resonate with you? And what would it mean to you to see younger folks like Jason, like my sons and others, carrying your torch?
JC: Well it does in a way, but with certain restrictions on it. I don’t mean that Jason or any of my other children or grandchildren would have to go into politics and be elected governor and be elected president. I don’t mean that. [I mean] just to use the basic principles of life that never change, and try to use what talents you have in a special way with everybody acknowledging the differences among people, and not to be afraid of failure. Sometimes you tackle something that’s beyond your reach, and then reassess your goals and set as high goals as you can.
Sometimes when I’ve had a setback on a small thing, I’ve reached a greater challenge that, you know, I reconsider. And I learn from my mistakes, and I hope they’ll also learn from their mistakes. And I hope, maybe as much as anything else, that everybody will try to choose a good life mate like I did, and choose some good supporters and friends like I did when I became acquainted with your mother and she helped me. You know, choose your friends and supporters carefully and particularly choose your wife or husband carefully.
SMS: Yes. Those are wonderful points. And you all have. It’s been a lifelong friendship with you and my mom and our family. I remember when you called us once at their house and my granddaddy had gone into the hospital for heart issues, and you were getting ready for your trip to China, and yet you remembered to call us. That was so sweet. It meant so much.
One thing I was going to mention: you mentioned kids, the grandkids and children, they don’t need to go into politics, and yet I did want to share with you that Royce recently has told us that he does see himself studying political science and maybe going into politics. So there we go.
JC: You know, I think political office gives you a chance to use your talents in a magnified way compared to just a private citizen who has noble ideals and so forth. It’s hard.
It’s been much easier for me at the Carter Center to expand my influence and the benefits of my own talents too. And the Carter Center wouldn’t be nearly as effective now had I not been president first. So there’s no doubt that holding public office, which is not an easy thing to get, really makes it much easier for you to have a greatly expanded sphere of influence.
SMS: Right. There was an interview I read recently where you talked about how you and the other Elders no longer have to worry about getting votes or being controversial, and so it sounds like you can say more of what you might really feel or do things, you know, with the Carter Center and with the Elders that you weren’t really able to do in earlier times.
JC: Well that’s true. You know, you don’t have to please everybody. That’s one thing. And I’m not going to run for office anymore, and neither are any of the other Elders, so we can say things and get away with it.
JC: So we have a rare — I would say unique — opportunity to do what we think is really right, consulting with each other first and then making a joint decision. And so it does capitalize in a good and sometimes productive way on the past successes we’ve had in the political life.
SMS: I know you’ve focused a lot on peace, health and human rights worldwide at the Carter Center, but what do you think – considering everything going on in the world and in our country – are the most important issues facing the world right now?
JC: I think many people in the world, particularly in our country, have lost faith in some basic things. We’ve lost faith – many of us – in democracy. And we’ve lost faith in telling the truth. We’ve lost faith quite often – even in this country, in our fellow citizens – with trust. And we’ve also lost faith, I would say, in accommodation and friendship. And so, quite often we have things come up in our current lives that cause us to have our beliefs and our faith and our trust shaken. But the important thing is not to be discouraged and not to lose courage to fight for things that never do change: telling the truth, helping others, and human rights.
SMS: Absolutely. And yes, I appreciate that I’ve heard you say truth and courage several times. I think those are such important qualities. Can you think of things that the readers might do individually to help themselves mature or help others who are older?
JC: Well as you know, I wrote a book about that, The Virtues of Aging. And I pointed out then that when people do reach retirement age – sometimes as early as forty-five or so, in my case much later – they have a new degree of freedom, and also obviously experience and knowledge and maturity that they didn’t have before. So that’s a wonderful time of life, with this new freedom and so forth, to keep a lot of what you’ve learned in previous years, and then you can do things that you maybe always wanted to do and never did have a chance. Like learning how to play a guitar, learning how to speak Spanish or becoming a bird watcher or learning how to dance, things like that. And so Rose and I took up downhill skiing, for instance, when I was sixty-two years old! We’ve tried to learn new things, like I just described, with our new freedom and more time available. We’ve learned how to do things together. And I took up woodworking and building furniture.
SMS: I know! It’s amazing.
JC: And also I’ve learned how to be a fairly good amateur painter now. These are things I never thought about doing when I was younger and a full-time employee, or even when I was holding public office. So that’s one thing. And of course we need to look at the things in healthcare that we know quite well but we tend to ignore: to get moderate healthcare if it’s available to us, if that’s one of the human rights that we enjoy. And to not do the things that we know are bad for us. Right?
JC: So we know how to live a healthy and good life, and sometimes we don’t do it. Take exercise; eat the proper things. So one of the advantages of being later on in life is it opens up, quite often, new opportunities, in addition to expanded opportunities, to do the things that we may have loved doing earlier.
SMS: Absolutely. I appreciate that you mentioned the painting and the woodworking. Those are in the category of the arts, and of course the arts are a big part of my life, and you’re referring to the value of those as well.
You know that mother and my parents have had health issues that come with aging, and of course you know that [several people close to us] passed away this year too. Do you have some thoughts to share for people who are aging, those who struggle as caretakers for aging relatives, or folks like me who are members of the “sandwich generation,” caretaking for both children at home and aging parents? I think some of the things you have referred to — getting involved in new things, learning new things, trying new things – the arts might be some of those answers. But anything else in that way?
JC: One of the things that I tell my Bible class is that God gives every one of us adequate ability and intelligence and opportunity to do good things. And quite often when you try to help others – which should be an important part of life – you find that that’s the most gratifying and enjoyable and adventurous thing you can do. It’s a way to make your own self happy and joyful and peaceful. The more you try to reach out and get to know and to help other people, the better and more enjoyable life you will have yourself. That’s the main thing that I would like to say.
This interview was originally published in 2018 in For: Maturing, the inaugural issue of For magazine. Remaining copies available at half price, while supplies last.
Images courtesy The Carter Center, The Elders, and Habitat for Humanity.