Four years after battling life-threatening cancer in his liver and brain, and four months after falling and breaking his hip, requiring surgery and weeks of intense physical therapy, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter took the stage September 18, unassisted, here for the Annual Jimmy Carter Emory University Town Hall, which he’s participated in, uninterrupted, for 38 years.
Standing without assistance for more than 30 minutes, addressing topics ranging from current polarized U.S. politics to his favorite animal, Carter, a distinguished professor at Emory, showed no signs of fatigue or pain as he enthusiastically answered question after question from those who gathered in the cavernous campus gymnasium by the thousands to hear him speak.
“Before this I really didn’t know much about President Carter,” freshman Stephanie Teng said. “I feel so fortunate to be here. I know that many students won’t have this opportunity in their lifetime, and this is a uniquely Emory thing, and something I’ll remember the rest of my life.”
“I think it’s a problem when we overly lionize political figures, but I do have a great deal of respect for Jimmy Carter,” another freshman, Gian-Luigi Zaninelli, said.
“I’ve heard a great many conservatives being credibly critical of Jimmy Carter and basically view him as an ineffectual president,” he said. However, Zaninelli said that comes from Carter’s presidential term, from 1977 to 1981.
“Because of the good works he’s been doing over the course of the last 30 or more years, we have a high opinion of him as a human being,” Zaninelli said. “What is indisputable is that Jimmy Carter cares about other people and devotes himself to service, and when he did serve as a president, regardless of the success of his policies, he was doing so as a servant leader and not someone who was intending to enrich himself.”
“I would say I still adhere to the advice my school principal gave me, ‘You must accommodate to changing times – and these are really changing times – but cling to principles that never do change,’” Carter told VOA in an interview at the Atlanta-based Carter Center.
“So I have faith in those principles, like telling the truth, and helping other people.”
Carter this year became the oldest living former president in U.S. history, surpassing George H.W. Bush for the record, and October 1 becomes the first former occupant of the White House to reach 95.
He reaches the milestone while continuing to engage with new and younger audiences born years after his presidency, and to work on the sorts of projects that have characterized his post-presidency life.
He is still involved in the Carter Center, which he leads with Rosalynn, his wife of 73 years, and which “wages peace, fights disease, and builds hope” around the world through programs including election monitoring, the elimination of river blindness, and the eradication of Guinea worm disease, among others, he told VOA.
“We still have in the neighborhood of 25 cases of Guinea worm, but we started out with three and a half million,” Carter said, with most of those cases in Africa.
During an August 2015 press conference here, when Carter told the world he was battling cancer that had spread to his brain, he said his one key hope was to witness the eradication of Guinea worm disease in his lifetime.
There have been setbacks in the Guinea worm fight, including new cases of transmission between dogs, which can pass the worm to humans through water sources, that could ultimately jeopardize his hopes.
“We think we’ve prevented maybe 80 million people from having Guinea worm who may have had it otherwise,” Carter said, “So we’ve made very good progress but we still have a little ways to go.”
While staff and volunteers around the world continue to work on the various peace and health initiatives that President and Mrs. Carter have championed since establishing the center in 1986, the former peanut farmer continues to participate in the annual weeklong Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project with Habitat for Humanity, a global nonprofit housing organization, building homes for those who need them most. This year’s event is in Nashville, Tennessee, occurring soon after Carter’s birthday.
While there are no further signs of cancer and Carter says he is in relatively good health, he concedes age may finally be catching up with him.
“I still feel just about as active as I ever was, but my overseas movements are restrained because of age and health. I used to travel to Africa three or four times a year, and always to China and so forth, so I’ve cut back on my foreign travel,” he said.
Nevertheless, Carter remains an admired figure.
“President Carter is a kind of secular saint in America today,” Joe Crespino, the Jimmy Carter professor of history and chair of the history department at Emory University, said. He said Carter has set a high standard for what is expected of U.S. presidents once they leave office.
“His longevity, his commitment to doing as much good as he can do on the time he had left on earth is really a remarkable model, not just for his fellow Americans but for people around the globe,” he said.