You still remember Jimmy Carter, no doubt, once peanut farmer, later 39th president of the United States and, over the last eight years, agile nonagenarian always on the move.
Well, on Saturday, this extraordinary man had something to tell us, if only indirectly and only by example, about the lyricism of old age, the aesthetic of social engagement and the psychology of mental vigour.
On that day, James Earl Carter Jr. celebrated his 98th birthday in Plains, the small town in Georgia where in the 1950s he had owned a peanut farm and where he, along with his wife Rosalyn, was born. Today he remains not only the longest living former US president but the highest age former president.
And, let’s face it, for a man of such, as we say, humble roots to be elected chief executive is no mean feat, for though an American president runs only one of his country’s three branches of government, he still exerts enormous influence upon that country’s fate.
Jimmy Carter reportedly celebrated his birthday simply, reading congratulatory messages sent by well-wishers around the world and watching his favourite Major League Baseball team, the Atlanta Braves, play on television. Wait, watched baseball, you ask, on his birthday?
Look, in America, baseball is not just a sport, it is, well, baseball, a game about which the celebrated French American cultural historian Jacque Barzun once remarked, in his fervent book of essays, God’s Country and Mine, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball”. In short you follow a baseball game and you follow the rules Americans live by and the ethos that animates their culture.
And, no, Jimmy Carter, two years short of being a centenarian, has not been schlepping around on a walker. The man looks, feels and acts like someone who could run a marathon — and marathon after another he has been running for years, as his post-White House virtuosity would attest.
His milestone accomplishment was, of course, the Carter Center, which he, along with his wife, established after completing his one term in office in 1981, and whose stated mission was to promote peace, democracy and human rights, as well as to monitor elections and advance public health in developing countries. (You may recall seeing him in the Palestinian territories personally inspecting the first national elections held there in January 1996.)
Save for the time he survived a cancer diagnosis in 2015 and a serious fall at home in 2019, Carter has been a ball of fire.
There he is, in photos and videos, wearing a hard hat on his head and a tool belt around his waist, building homes for the needy, in those days after the Carter Center invited the non-profit Habitat for Humanity to partner with it and found the Carter Work Project in 1984, which, along with help from 103,000 volunteers, built over 4,000 homes in 14 different countries over the last 35 years.
All of which piques our curiosity about what drives a man in his late 50s, which Carter was when he left office at age 57, to go on being, right through his 90s, so active, engaged and spirited.
Well, I can tell you that, as an old geezer myself who celebrated — and celebrated is the right word here — his first year as an octogenarian recently, yes, true, no one wants to be “old” — that is, old as popular culture defines the term.
And indeed no one need be or feel that at any time in one’s life.
Sure, it doesn’t hurt to have longevity in your genes and no debilitating health problems in your system, but mindset is the major factor here. That means the more older people remain intellectually inquisitive, judging the world anew, the better their chances are of becoming what recently has come to be known as “superagers” — folks able to slow the decline in mental acuity commonly associated with ageing.
Look, I just wrapped a day attending a press conference, having lunch with a fellow journalist, giving a lecture, editing a chapter in my new book and now sitting here in front of my computer composing this column. So ain’t nobody going to accelerate the decline in this senior’s mental acuity.
And, yes, look, Mick Jagger (79) still wows us while touring with the Stones, hollering that “You can’t get no satisfaction”. Noam Chomsky (94), who is better suited as a generative grammarian and “the father of modern linguistics than as a public intellectual, still rails, and persuasively so, against the wickedness of imperialism. And Henry Kissinger (99), still wants to edify us, in his op-ed pieces in the Washington Post, about how realpolitik is a requisite of American foreign policy.
Indeed, given the fact that Jimmy Carter was, in my view, the most decent, the most honest and the most well-intentioned president in modern American history.
And wait, alongside with me, to see what this man will be accomplishing when becomes a centenarian.
— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.