Jimmy Carter, American Superhero

How the man from Plains continues to inspire his legions of fans.

It’s hard to miss Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter’s house in Plains, Georgia, population 755. There’s only one road leading into town and the Secret Service guard post is right on it.

I’m in the research phase of a biography of the former president and have been spending as much time as I can with his family, friends, and associates. When my son and I arrived last Saturday for my second interview this summer at their comfortable home at 1 Woodland Drive, we were warmly greeted by Mrs. Carter, who just celebrated her 88th birthday last month. She’s as formidable as ever, even if she often speaks so softly that you have to lean in to hear her.

A few minutes later, the former president appeared, wearing a blue long-sleeve sweatshirt and shorts. He looked well—especially for a man who turns 91 on October 1 and has metastatic melanoma in his liver and brain—but his right thumb was bandaged and in some kind of splint.

He explained that he had been fishing not long before at “the Pond House,” where his famously acerbic late mother, “Miss Lillian,” had once lived. He was with a family (one of whose members played the role of Miss Lillian in a recent Carter-related play) that had won lunch and fishing with the Carters. In exchange, the family had given this year’s largest donation to the Better Home Town Program, a Plains civic organization dedicated to preserving the town that is spearheaded, naturally, by the Carters.

After catching more fish than the others in his lunch party combined, he was reaching into a container and fell fully clothed into his mother’s pond. The former first lady and then the Secret Service administered first aid for a sprained (at the least) thumb and bruised arm. He showered and laid out his wet clothes to dry on the patio behind their house, then kept his appointment with me.

As he re-told the fishing story the next morning at his jammed Sunday school class at Maranatha Baptist Church, I could tell the others in attendance were wondering the same thing I was: Why is he here talking to us? A fall at his age is a very serious thing.

The answer, partly, is that he was lucky on Saturday. But mostly it’s that Jimmy Carter remains a man of indomitable will—not to mention grace, intelligence, calm and (most of the time) good humor.

Even now, Carter’s health is remarkable for a man his age. Thanks to knee replacement surgery a few years ago, he walks unaided by a cane and—not long after his first cancer treatment—strolled with Mrs. Carter a mile to church. His hearing is extraordinary and his mind is astonishingly sharp.

After he cut short a trip to Guyana in May because of a bad cold, he grumbled that the decision generated more publicity than 10 years of his work at the Carter Center supervising elections and curing diseases. To show he was still fit, he did laps around the grounds of the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum and the Carter Center, both located in a beautiful grove near the Inman Park section of Atlanta.

When doctors at Emory University first saw spots on his liver, he didn’t think much of it because he had known for many decades of a benign lesion there. Even after it looked more serious and he informed Rosalynn, the lesions were slow growing and doctors let him postpone surgery until after he completed a grueling 15-city tour to sell A Full Life, his 29th book, which went to No. 3 on the New York Times bestseller list.

Carter returned to work two days after surgery on August 2, but the news for a time looked grim. He didn’t have pancreatic cancer—the disease that killed his father, Earl, sisters Gloria and Ruth, and brother Billy, all in middle age. It was melanoma, but the cancer had spread to four spots in his brain. He mused that he might not live long enough to finish the book he was reading.

Thankfully, a new drug for melanoma, Keytruda, has been shown to extend life in many patients, though it offers no cure. Keytruda isn’t chemotherapy but part of a new generation of immuno-therapy drugs that use monoclonal antibodies for targeted treatment that boosts the immune system. It won’t make the former president’s hair fall out, and so far he has tolerated any side effects well enough.

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After one round of non-invasive radiation to reduce the brain lesions, Carter is receiving 30-minute infusions of Keytruda every three weeks or so. His second is coming up at the end of this week.

The prognosis is highly uncertain. “I’d like for the last guinea worm to die before I do,” he said in his extraordinary August 20 news conference in Atlanta, referring to the gruesome parasite he’s spent decades trying to eradicate. Afterwards, he and Rosalynn made their usual three-hour car ride to Plains, where their friend Jill Stuckey had arranged for 500 signs in his trademark 1976 green-and-white campaign colors that read (a la a Mike Luckovich cartoon): “Jimmy Carter for Cancer Survivor.”

Carter is trying to adjust to his “new normal.” Within the last year, he and Rosalynn have traveled to China, Russia, the West Bank and Guyana, where they and the Carter Center observed their 100th election abroad. But this month he has to send his grandson, Jason Carter, a Georgia state senator and 2014 Democratic nominee for governor, to represent him in Ghana at a conference on the condition of women and girls, which Carter believes is the foremost human rights problem in the world today.

The big question is whether the Carters will go build houses in Nepal in early November. This is the 32nd annual Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project for Habitat for Humanity. On each “build” the couple, now both expert on a construction site, do real work. In a few weeks, doctors will assess their ability to make the trip.

In the meantime, Carter continues to teach Sunday school, as he has on-and-off since his days at the Naval Academy.

For the first two weeks after the news conference, Carter devotees from around the world descended on Plains. Many camped out overnight, waiting, often in vain, for tickets to the 170-seat church. (Those arriving after 1 a.m. watched on video from the old high school.) “It was like 80-year-olds getting front-row seats to the Beatles,” their friend Stuckey says. The crowds tapered off a bit last Sunday, but the church was still packed for Carter’s lesson on Paul and Timothy.

Before Carter arrived, Jan Williams, a church deacon, instructed the worshippers from 25 states—and as far away as Mauritius and Iran—on how to handle the picture-taking after the service: “It’s not conversation time, it’s picture time. Do not tell him how sorry you are about his cancer. He knows he has cancer.”

Carter added later: “If you come down by yourself [for a picture], I won’t say anything. I’ll just wonder why you don’t have any friends.” The audience roared.

Sunday’s lesson was more of a sermon than the one I saw earlier in the summer. The theme was love.

“The ultimate one-word description of the Christian faith is love,” the former president said. “We must love God and love the person in front of us at any time.” That included gay people, he said, more evidence of why he and his church split from the Southern Baptist Convention.

“What is a good conscience? Anybody?” he asked the worshippers, before answering his own question. “If you have a good conscience following the teachings of Christ, it’s a reminder to look internally and ask, ‘How is my life to look to my Creator, our Savior Jesus Christ?’”

Carter told a story that I’m sure to include when my book is published in a couple of years. He began with this: “I have a tendency to be arrogant. Anyone who thinks they can be governor or president is arrogant.”

After losing a gubernatorial race to the racist Lester Maddox in 1966, he set out on weeklong Baptist missions, going door-to-door in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, and Atlanta as he re-dedicated himself to his faith. Then he began campaigning for governor again, shaking, with Rosalynn, as many as 600,000 hands between 1966 and 1970.

After he won in 1970, he was asked to speak about witnessing for Christ. “I was fully qualified, I thought.” He had made a list of 128 people he had talked to seriously about Christianity in Lock Haven and elsewhere.

But in campaigning for four years, mostly he had been “witnessing for me.” He realized the score was: “128 for Christ. 600,000 for me.”

Humility has not always been Jimmy Carter’s strong suit. It can’t be if you’re a politician. But now he is in a different, more soulful place, and the love he gives is being returned by millions of admirers around the world.