This piece originally appeared in OLD GOATS, the author’s Substack.
Jimmy Carter, almost 97, had risen from the red clay of remote Southwest Georgia to become President of the United States and a Nobel Prize-winning global icon and now he and his formidable wife Rosalynn, almost 94, were back in high school—their school, in tiny Plains, with Bill and Hillary Clinton (surprise guests), Nancy Pelosi, Andrew Young, Raphael Warnock, Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, Ted Turner and 340 others from all walks of life—including me and my wife, Emily.
I’ve been a guest at some cool parties in my time, but this one—on a Saturday afternoon at the old Plains High School (now a Carter museum), with most of the attendees well over 70—may have been the most memorable. The celebration of the Carters’ 75th wedding anniversary was enveloped in a kind of democratic cocoon, where major figures of history mingled happily with Carter’s fishing buddies and unassuming neighbors. (The event was private, though the press was let in briefly for a couple of toasts).
In the auditorium where both Carters had spent many hours during the 1930s, we heard guests shout out requests to the pianist, David Osborne, a family favorite and Vegas headliner. Rosalynn, who looked surprisingly healthy, wanted “Imagine,” while the House Speaker, attending with her daughter, Alexandra Pelosi, requested “Midnight Train to Georgia.” President Clinton favored “I Can’t Stop Loving You.”
The Carters were full partners in the White House and together, as Clinton once said, they have changed more lives around the world than any couple in world history. They met nearly a century ago, a couple of days after Jimmy’s mother, “Miz Lillian,” a nurse, delivered Rosalynn, then brought her toddler over to see the new baby. Rosalynn was close friends with Jimmy’s younger sister, Ruth, and mooned over his picture in his navy uniform. They began dating in 1945 and married the following year, shortly after Jimmy graduated from the Naval Academy.
His love letters from sea, published for the first time in my new biography, are the most passionate ever exchanged between a future president and first lady.
The celebration was surprisingly intimate, in part because we were at first separated into groups of about 40 people in each classroom, allowing real conversation. But it was also bittersweet—suffused with the knowledge that this might be the last time we saw not just the Carters but many of the others in attendance.
I spent the better part of five years consumed with Carter, and now a good chunk of my book’s index was coming to life in one place, from once powerful White House aides like Stu Eizenstat, Rick Hertzberg, Gerry Rafshoon, Phil Wise, Frank Moore, Rex Granum, Landon Butler, Terry Adamson, Jim Free and Alicia Smith. Even Sam Donaldson was back in the saddle, charging off in search of the story of how the former president almost didn’t make it to this day.
I had heard those rumors, too. As I later learned, Carter had fallen on the Fourth of July and hit his head on an arm rest. This was his third fall in two years—always a danger at his age—and he suffered a concussion that required hospitalization last week and 4 staples in his head. He had stabilized and recovered at least some of his speech by Friday but hadn’t been able to sleep before the big event, which he and Rosalynn have been anticipating for months.
Given that, he was advised that he certainly didn’t need to go around to the classrooms and have his picture taken with each guest. But his instructions to his caregivers were as clear as his mind: he would do so, and he and Rosalynn shook every guest’s hand. The former naval officer was still totally in charge. When he felt the musical entertainment had gone on too long, he signaled it was time to end.
Chip Carter, the second of their three sons, noted in his toast that only six percent of all marriages last 50 years—and there are no statistics on how many marriages make it all the way to 75. Even Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip’s didn’t.
The guests seemed awed by the achievement. Normally, Bill Clinton reminds one of what was said about Theodore Roosevelt—that “he had to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.” But Clinton, whose sometimes hostile relationship with Carter I detail in my book, understood that it made sense to stand back and not speak. After all the recriminations, which flared again in 2017, he was showing that, as Harry Truman said, the best politicians never hold grudges.
Like Clinton, Pelosi wasn’t always a Carter supporter. She favored California Governor Jerry Brown for president in 1976 and came east to her hometown of Baltimore—where her family still wielded influence in local politics— to help Brown win the Maryland primary. (In 1980, she backed Ted Kennedy’s challenge to Carter’s renomination). As the anniversary party wound down, Pelosi told me that Brown thought she did such a good job for him in Maryland that he paved the way for her to run for Congress. Now, she reveres Carter. My last image of her from this weekend was at the Maranatha Baptist Church, where she approached Carter in his wheelchair and grasped his face between her hands with a look that suggested to me that she thought this might be the last time she saw him.
Garth Brooks, who had to leave early to make a 7 p.m. concert date in front of 65,000 fans in Las Vegas, also took pains not to overshadow the Carters, the same approach he and Yearwood have adopted when they’ve worked each year building houses with them for Habitat for Humanity. Now that Jimmy and Rosalynn are too old to hammer (as I did with them on a Habitat project in Memphis in 2016), they have asked Brooks and Yearwood to lead the way.
The Atlanta-based Carter Center, which has done so much for the world in recent years, is now in the capable hands of Jason Carter, Jimmy’s grandson, who ran unsuccessfully for governor of Georgia in 2014 and will likely be back in Georgia politics a few years from now. Jason told me that as bad as it is, the new Georgia voting law won’t prevent Democrats from winning there in 2022. In fact, he thinks it will have no effect on already-high black turnout and will help drive more white suburban Democrats to the polls.
The celebration left us wistful, appreciative and even a little exhilarated. As Jimmy Carter’s underestimated presidency is finally being reassessed, the Carters defy the idea that you can’t go home again. In this humble place, they raised a family then scaled heights–in politics, human rights and healing– neither could have ever imagined, before returning to live out their lives where the journey of purpose had all begun. And they’ve done so with a core decency now transforming them from mere political figures into beloved Americans and inspirations to future generations.