It’s a Saturday, and former President Jimmy Carter and his wife of 72 years, Rosalynn, are out for a walk. In fact, they’re strolling the half-mile to the home of one of their oldest friends, Jill Stuckey. This is what the ex-leader does pretty much every Sunday when he and Rosalynn are in Plains, Georgia, where they live and were both born. And the only indication that they’re not just any elderly couple is the presence of Secret Service protection agents.
Once the pair get to Stuckey’s house, then, they’ll likely settle down to a comfortable evening untroubled by gourmet food or pricey fine wines. It’s an easy-going ritual that speaks of simple pleasures and a distaste for the highfalutin. Yes, the ex-president is undoubtedly a wealthy man – but it seems that Carter has always foresworn the temptations of Mammon.
At Stuckey’s house, for instance, the Carters will probably dine on a simple meal. It would be, say, a casserole with broccoli and salmon, served on a paper plate and accompanied by water in plastic cups. And in their one concession to the high life, they’ll likely each indulge in a glass of chardonnay. But even this will be from the liquor store budget shelf.
Carter could have, of course, become a multi-millionaire in line with other ex-presidents – and former first ladies – who can earn thousands and thousands of dollars for single speeches. But speaking about those extravagant paydays to The Washington Post in August 2018, Carter gave a classic quote combining weary tolerance and veiled disapproval.
“I don’t see anything wrong with it; I don’t blame other people for doing it,” Carter said. “It’s just never had been my ambition to be rich.” And in the extravagant sense, he certainly is not mega-wealthy. Yet with his ex-president’s pension and expenses, plus book sales income, he’s definitely comfortable. In fact, Town & Country put his net worth in 2017 at around $7 million. But Carter doesn’t own a private plane with gold-plated bathroom fittings; this ex-president actually travels using commercial airlines.
Before we get further into the undeniably modest lifestyle that Carter leads, however, let’s find out a bit more about him. Born in October of 1924 in the Georgia town of Plains, he came into the world in the town’s hospital – which happened to be the place where his mother, Bessie, worked as a nurse. And believe it or not, Carter was the first future president to be delivered in a medical facility.
The former world leader can also trace his family history in America back to the 17th century. Indeed, the first Carter – Thomas, an Englishman – arrived in 1635, settling in Virginia. And there are other interesting branches in his family tree as well. For instance, distant relatives include billionaire Bill Gates and, strangely, fellow ex-president Richard Nixon.
The Georgia native can also trace his own heritage back through generations of cotton farmers in the state. His father was clearly an enterprising man, too, with a general store and money invested in local farms. During Carter’s childhood, though, the family moved around. The brood then finally settled in a poverty-stricken community of mainly African-Americans in Archery, GA – just a few miles from Plains.
So it was in Archery that Carter and his three younger siblings spent most of their childhoods. And the young boy seems to have inherited some of those entrepreneurial genes from his father. When given an acre of land as a teenager, for instance, the future politician grew peanuts. Carter even packed them up and sold them himself.
Carter’s schooling came at Plains High School too. Then, after leaving in 1941, the young man entered Georgia Southwestern College in Americus. Carter studied engineering there for a year before moving on to Atlanta’s Georgia Institute of Technology. And in 1943 he attained what he’d actually wanted all along: acceptance into the U.S. Naval Academy near Annapolis, Maryland.
While Carter was at the Academy, though, he met Rosalynn Smith – the girl he wed after graduating in 1946. In fact, Carter told his mother that he’d met the girl he would marry after just one date with Rosalynn. For her part, though, Rosalynn later said she didn’t know about his avowal until years afterwards.
Carter then served with the Navy in both the Pacific and Atlantic fleets in a variety of places, including New York, Virginia and Hawaii. Yet he was always accompanied by Rosalyn. Carter also spent some time on submarines and trained for service on one of the first nuclear subs, U.S.S. Seawolf. But the future president never got aboard it.
In the summer of 1953, you see, Carter’s father died at just 58 years old. And soon after, the Georgia native decided to leave the Navy to take over his father’s peanut farm – despite Rosalynn’s misgivings. Then, according to a 2011 Rolling Stone magazine profile, “He and Rosalynn were quiet progressives in a bitterly racist community.”
When the couple returned to Plains, too, they spent a year in public housing. That’s another thing that separates Carter from other presidents; he is the only one to have lived in publicly subsidized accommodation. And at the time the couple had three sons – their youngest child, Amy, had yet to make an appearance – so things weren’t easy for the family. In their first season, in fact, the peanut crop failed.
But with the help of bank loans, Carter was able to keep his head above water and, indeed, prosper in subsequent years. His first foray into politics then came in 1962 when he won a seat in the Georgia Senate as a Democrat. And after winning his senate seat a second time in 1964, the future president stood in the primaries to be the Democrat candidate for state governor.
Yet Carter lost that race to the segregationist Lester Maddox. Following that bitter blow, then, he returned to farming for a time. And during this period, the Georgia native’s religious beliefs grew increasingly important to him – so he became a born-again Christian. Then, once again, Carter succeeded in gaining the 1970 Democratic nomination for governor. And this time, he won.
The newly elected governor’s 1971 inaugural speech made something very clear too. It seemed that Carter’s beliefs about the racial conflict that had so polarized the U.S. at the time had crystalized. “The time of racial discrimination is over… No poor, rural, weak or black person should ever have to bear the additional burden of being deprived of the opportunity for an education, a job or simple justice,” he declared.
But Georgia’s constitution allows a governor only one four-year term of office. This then spurred Carter to turn his attention to national politics. So when the Democratic candidate for president, George McGovern, lost the 1972 election to the incumbent Richard Nixon, Carter set his eyes on running for the top office in the 1976 race.
Yet Carter was little known on the national political stage in 1974 when he declared his intention to compete in the Democratic primaries. Nevertheless, he won the battle to be the Democrats candidate for the 1976 race. But of course, thanks to the Watergate scandal, he didn’t stand against Nixon.
Faced with the seeming inevitability of impeachment, you see, Nixon stepped down from the White House in August 1974. And so Carter would instead stand against President Gerald Ford, who had been Vice President and automatically moved into the Oval Office after Nixon’s resignation. Some believe that Carter then had the advantage of being a relative outsider, untainted by the sort of Washington corruption that toppled Nixon.
But perhaps the most memorable incident of the 1976 presidential election campaign came in an interview that Carter gave to Playboy magazine. The article appeared in the November edition, and in it, Carter said, “I’ve looked on women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” Honesty, then, was a quality that the future president valued very highly – even when it caused the media storm that those remarks did.
Yet despite that controversy – perhaps best described as a storm in a teacup – Carter went on to win the presidency. It wasn’t, however, necessarily the best time to become the nation’s leader. When Carter came into office, in fact, there was a recession and inflation was on the up. And that’s not an easy start for a new president.
On the economy front, though, there was more bad news to come. During 1979, O.P.E.C., the oil producers’ cartel, doubled the price of a barrel of crude. This fed through into increased prices at the gas pumps and sent annual inflation as high as 13.5 percent. That was bad enough – but a much worse problem was just around the corner.
In February 1979 an Islamic revolution, led by the Ayatollah Khomeini, overthrew the Shah of Iran, who had enjoyed American support until his downfall. And in November a self-styled gang of students overran the American Embassy in Iran’s capital, Tehran. They also captured over 50 American diplomats, and others present in the building, and held them hostage for 444 days.
Carter could clearly hardly be blamed for this entirely unexpected event, which obviously flew in the face of normal international relations. But the hostage crisis enraged the American public and dominated the remaining days of his presidency. It would in fact cast a dark cloud of negativity over the White House that seemed impossible to escape.
And things were to become even more fraught for the president. Having declared that military force was not the way to resolve the crisis – because of the inherent risks to the hostages – Carter did actually launch a rescue attempt in April 1980. But the mission, Operation Eagle Claw, was an unalloyed disaster.
In fact, mechanical failures and a crash causing the deaths of eight U.S. military personnel led to the mission being aborted. Americans did not take kindly to this highly visible failure, either. And in the presidential election of 1980, with the hostages still in captivity, a seemingly unforgiving public denied Carter a second term – and gave the presidency to Ronald Reagan. Then, as Reagan made his inaugural speech in January 1981, the hostages were finally released.
So, after the election defeat, Carter returned to Plains. And as we’ve already seen, he didn’t simply settle down and dream up ways to exploit his time as president. He later even admitted to Rolling Stone magazine that losing the presidential race had left him with feelings of “despair and embarrassment and frustration.” But at the age of 56, Carter still had a lot of years ahead of him.
In 1982, for instance, the couple founded the Carter Center – a not-for-profit dedicated to promoting human rights and improving the lives of impoverished people around the world. It’s a task that the couple have pursued with energy and enthusiasm ever since. And we can perhaps see an echo of that desire to help others in their determination to pursue a modest lifestyle.
As previously mentioned, though, nobody is claiming that the Carters live a life of sackcloth and ashes. But neither do they indulge in anything that could be described as conspicuous consumption. And one of the most extraordinary things about the couple, who are undoubtedly financially comfortable, is the modesty of their home in Plains.
The Carters built the house they live in now in 1961 and returned to it 38 years ago – after their time in the palatial splendor of the White House ended. Constructed in a ranch style typical of rural Georgia, it’s a simple two-bedroom home. And according to an August 2018 article in The Washington Post, the house is worth just $167,000.
The Washington Post journalist pointed out, too, that the specially adapted Secret Service vehicle permanently parked outside the Carter’s home would certainly have cost more than the building it’s guarding. What’s more, in 2018 the house was worth less than the average Georgian home, which stood at $175,300.
We get a further flavor of the Carter lifestyle from that 2011 Rolling Stone magazine article too. Jimmy’s grandson Jason Carter said, “To me, the thing I admire most about my grandfather and grandmother is that they’ve done everything they can to stay normal people. They built their house in the 1960s, and they almost haven’t changed a thing.”
The Carters’ brown-brick house is surrounded by pine trees, and its garden includes a pool and a tennis court. There’s also a workshop where the former president pursues one of his hobbies: woodworking. Indeed, when the Georgia native left the White House, his staffers apparently offered him a Jeep as a farewell present. But he opted for woodworking tools instead.
Interestingly, Carter made much of the furnishing in the house himself. His creations include a coffee table made from an old farm trough, a chess set and even a four-poster bed. One of the former president’s other hobbies is painting in watercolors. Many of the artworks on the walls of the property are his own work too. Although there is also one painting that was gifted by the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
Jason, explaining his grandparents’ thriftiness, told Rolling Stone magazine, “The South is the history of my family. People were super-poor, rebuilding their state after the war, living through extreme poverty, some of which persists.” And in highlighting a prime example of the Carters’ reluctance to spend money unnecessarily, their grandson described one of the couple’s kitchen appliances.
“My grandparents, their microwave is from 1985. It goes tick, tick, tick, tick! It takes 12 minutes to pop popcorn, because why would you buy a new microwave? The point is that nothing is easy, and why should it be?” Jason said. And in the kitchen, it seems, Carter even does the dishes himself after the breakfast pancakes.
Just as the couple don’t believe in splashing out on new appliances when the old ones are still working, then, it seems that the Carters also have little time for haute couture. “They were super-excited – legitimately excited – when the Dollar General store opened in Plains. They buy their clothes there,” Jason pointed out.
So, without wishing to labor the point, it’s hard not to see the stark contrast between Carter and various other politicians who have been president of the U.S in the past century or so. And it’s also difficult not to admire a man who, while not claiming poverty, has turned his back on the extraordinary wealth that an ex-president can easily garner.