Health Setbacks Aside, Former US President Jimmy Carter Turns 96

CHICAGO - When he sat down with Voice of America last September for an exclusive interview ahead of his 95th birthday, Jimmy Carter - the first former president to reach that milestone - hinted that his age was catching up to him.

"I fell down a few months ago and broke my left hip," Carter, a cancer survivor since 2015, told VOA. "I'm learning how to walk again, and so my actual movements are restrained a little bit. But I'm still active mentally and get involved in the Carter Center affairs when I'm needed."

Several days after the interview, Carter fell again at his home in Plains, Georgia. It was an injury clearly visible in Nashville, Tennessee, during the annual weeklong Habitat for Humanity Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project.

"Yesterday, I fell down and hurt my forehead and got a black eye, but I'm doing well," he said during a press conference held during a break in his homebuilding activities. "I feel good enough to build houses."

Further examination revealed Carter's injury created a buildup of blood on his brain, requiring surgery, followed by a long recovery.

"He had to struggle to recover his speech and his mobility," explained Carter biographer Jonathan Alter during a recent Skype interview with VOA. He said as Carter celebrates his 96th birthday Oct. 1, recent health setbacks, and now restrictions amid the pandemic, have impacted his once busy schedule.

"COVID is frustrating for him," Alter said. "He doesn't like church on Zoom. He likes to go to Maranatha [Baptist Church]. He hasn't been able to teach Sunday School class, which is very important to him."

Alter, who interviewed Carter numerous times since 2015 for his new biography of the former president titled "His Very Best," said the Carters are still involved in the work of their global nonprofit Carter Center, which is leading the effort to eradicate Guinea worm disease and eliminate river blindness, among other health and peace initiatives.

"Even now, maybe as we speak, he's working the phones talking to donors," said Alter, who added that Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter are also closely watching the 2020 election campaign and hosted a number of candidates seeking the Democratic nomination in their rural Georgia hometown.

"The only time Jimmy Carter is not happy is when he is not busy. So, I thought it was very interesting that he met with Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar when they made the pilgrimage to Plains earlier this year," Alter said.

In September, Carter waded into the political waters of the hotly contested U.S. Senate race in Georgia by publicly endorsing Democrat Raphael Warnock, one of 21 candidates challenging incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler.

The Carters also recorded audio for a video segment during the Democratic National Convention in July supporting nominee Joe Biden, who as a senator from Delaware in 1976 was among the first in Congress to support Carter's successful run for the White House.

"There's a lot of comparisons between the Carter campaign in 1976, even though he was obscure and an outsider, and Biden is an insider. There's a lot of differences between them. But where they are quite similar is that Carter was running right after Watergate. And he was running, and he talked about healing, which is something that Joe Biden talks about now," said Alter, who examined Carter's candidacy in his book.

"They have a similar kind of moderate kind of Democrat approach to governing," he said.

That approach is explored in several upcoming films, including "Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President," which explores Carter's outsider campaign for the White House, and "Desert One," a documentary that delves into his fateful decision in 1980 to authorize a military rescue of American hostages in Iran, an event that contributed to his 1980 election loss to Republican Ronald Reagan.

"Carter was always honest, always intelligent and always studying issues to be on top of the questions," said former Vice President Walter Mondale, who worked alongside Carter during their 1977-1981 term to normalize relations with China and negotiate the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel, among other initiatives.

In a Skype interview with VOA from his home in Minnesota, Mondale said he continues to look to Carter, who is only three years older, for guidance on living a long life.

"I'm going to find out and take some of that stuff," Mondale said. "This is amazing, that at his age, he's strong, he wants to be a part of things, he's studying all the issues, yet he's still a main contender in the issues of our country."

Those issues include a new role for the Carter Center, which plans to focus on the U.S. elections in November, a first for the organization known internationally for monitoring over 100 troubled elections.