When Jimmy Carter ran for U.S. President, he capitalized on the fact he was little-known, adopting the campaign slogan, “Jimmy Who?”

Jimmy Carter teaches Sunday School at Maranatha Baptist Church.

When Jimmy Carter ran for President of the United States 39 years ago, he capitalized on the fact that he was a little-known former Georgia governor by adopting the self-effacing campaign slogan, “Jimmy Who?”

Today, at 90, the 39th president has slipped back into semi-obscurity — he seldom appears on television or otherwise makes news.

But when I visited him in his tiny Plains, Georgia hometown recently, I found him as engaged as ever. He writes books — 28 at last count — paints pictures, travels constantly to oversee humanitarian projects undertaken by an organization that bears his name and still makes time to teach hour-long religious Sunday School classes about 40 times a year.

Carter’s presidency covered a chaotic period in American history. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, with its ever-present threat of a nuclear conflagration, was still going strong. An Arab oil cartel took advantage of U.S. energy profligacy, causing gasoline shortages and other economic ills.

This led to a sense of national unease that became humiliation when Iranian revolutionaries held 52 American diplomats captive for 444 days. It all made Carter look weak, and he was defeated for re-election by Ronald Reagan in 1980.

L to R: Becky Turberville, Jimmy Carter, Roselynn Carter, Gene Gibbons(L to R: Becky Turberville, Jimmy Carter, Roselynn Carter, Gene Gibbons)

Some of the problems Carter tried to tackle — instability in the Middle East, human rights abuses and environmental issues — are front and center still. Had his policies prevailed, many students of history believe the world would be better off.

 When I covered Carter, I found him very intense, with little patience for small talk — liabilities in politics, a profession whose hallmarks are garrulousness and glad-handing. On my recent visit, I found Plains, often my home-away-from-home four decades ago, little changed.

But I found Carter much more at ease than I remembered him being. He has a lot to be proud of since he left the White House. He and his 87-year old wife, Roselynn, remain involved in the work of the Carter Center, a public policy organization with a global reach.

Among its successes are the near-eradication of two devastating illnesses — river blindness and Guinea worm disease — once prevalent in Africa.


Gene Gibbons covered U.S. Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton during a 40-year career with Reuters and UPI. He was past president of the Radio-Television Correspondents Association and served as a Presidential Debate panelist in 1992 and as a Joan M. Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 2010. An ex-U.S. Army officer, he once served as press aide to U.S. Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

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World Americas Jimmy Who?