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Good book, great man

Jimmy Carter’s full life

A quick retelling of the former president’s fascinating story.


Last week, Jimmy Carter made a surprise appearance at our foundation’s annual employee meeting. His visit was a huge honor for all of us. I think he was an even bigger hit with our colleagues than Bono, who stopped by a few years ago. They particularly loved hearing him talk about Rosalynn, his wife of over 70 years. According to the former President, the secret to their incredible love story is simple: give each other space, and never go to bed angry. Our team soaked up all the insights he had to offer on love, global health, and many other topics. 

For years our foundation has worked closely with the Carter Center in the fight against Guinea worm disease, onchocerciasis, lymphatic filariasis, and many other diseases. Melinda and I recently had a chance to spend an evening with Jimmy and Rosalynn at their home, in Plains, Georgia. At age 92, and after a scary battle with malignant melanoma, President Carter is as sharp as ever. Mrs. Carter, who is also super smart, is still her husband’s closest friend and advisor.

“Carter’s storytelling is simple and elegant, just like the wood furniture he has made by hand all his life.”

In preparation for our trip to Plains, I read President Carter’s newest book, A Full Life. The book would have been a worthwhile read under any circumstances. At less than 250 pages, it’s a quick, condensed tour of Carter’s fascinating life. His storytelling is simple and elegant, just like the wood furniture Carter has made by hand all his life.

Although most of the stories come from previous decades, A Full Life feels timely in an era when the public’s confidence in national political figures and institutions is low. It is true that President Carter made unforced errors during his time in office. But when you read this book and have a chance to meet him in person, you can’t help but conclude that Carter is a brave, thoughtful, disciplined leader who understands the world at a remarkable level and who has improved the lives of billions of people through his advocacy for human rights and global health.

I loved reading about Carter’s improbable rise to the world’s highest office. He spent his early years in rural Georgia, in a small Sears Roebuck house without running water, electricity, or insulation. His highest aspiration was to become a plowman on his family’s farm.

His first exposure to the wider world came through his service in the U.S. Navy. He earned a student appointment at the U.S. Naval Academy during World War II, served as an officer on submarines during the Korean War, and went on to develop advanced nuclear subs. Despite being on a fast track in the Navy, Carter decided to return home to Georgia to run the family farm after his father’s passing—a move that made Rosalynn furious.

In retrospect, it makes sense that Carter would want to follow in his dad’s footsteps. James Earl Carter was a strict man who rarely gave his son praise, but Jimmy revered him. This close father-son relationship shaped Jimmy’s whole life.

To earn his father’s approval, Jimmy became a Jack of all trades and a master of most. He became skilled at everything from farming to forestry, firefighting to furniture making, differential calculus to nuclear physics. (Being a master of so many things can also have a downside. As president, he was often criticized for micromanaging, to the point of wanting to oversee the schedule for the White House tennis court.)

Perhaps more than anything else, James modeled for his son a commitment to service. While running his farm and doing significant manual labor himself, James served in the Georgia legislature, on the local board of education, on the local hospital authority, and in many other volunteer posts. These civic values are what led the younger Carter to run for the Georgia Senate in 1962. He’s lucky he had Rosalynn by his side in that race. She had great political instincts and helped him rise all the way to the White House over the subsequent 14 years.

Even though Carter had already written more than two dozen books before this one, he somehow managed to save some great anecdotes for this book. I’ll share two of my favorites:

Carter salvaged the Camp David Accords with a small human gesture. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was furious with Carter, and the negotiations were just about to get called off, when Carter went to Begin’s cabin and gave him photographs with personal inscriptions for each of Begin’s eight grandchildren. After reading the notes, Begin “had a choked voice, and tears were running down his cheeks. I was also emotional, and he asked me to have a seat. After a few minutes, we agreed to try once more.” The rest, as they say, is history.

During the Iran Hostage Crisis, the CIA managed to sneak agents into Tehran with false German passports. One agent was caught by customs officials. “Something is wrong with your passport,” the official said. “This is the first time I’ve seen a German document that used a middle initial instead of a full name. Your name is given as Josef H. Schmidt.” The agent saved his skin with a brilliant response: “Well, when I was born my given middle name was Hitler, and I have received special permission not to use it.”

A Full Life is a good read about a great man. It made me think of David Brooks’s book The Road to Character and its insights about the values that give life purpose. As Brooks explains, the Book of Genesis contains two very different versions of Adam. “Adam I is the career-oriented, ambitious side of our nature,” Brooks writes. “He wants to have high status and win victories.” Adam II, in contrast, “wants to have a serene inner character, a quiet but solid sense of right and wrong—not only to do good, but to be good.” Jimmy Carter brought Adam II to the fore.