Jimmy Carter is again a kingmaker in the next run for the White House.
It’s quite a turnabout for a man who largely receded from party politics after his presidency, often without being missed by his party’s leaders in Washington, where he was an outsider even as a White House resident.
“Jimmy Carter is a decent, well-meaning person, someone who people are talking about again given the time that we are in,” Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar said in an interview. “He won because he worked so hard, and he had a message of truth and honesty. I think about him all the time.”
Klobuchar credited Carter with being “ahead of his time” on several issues, including the environment and climate change (he put solar panels on the White House), health care (a major step toward universal coverage failed mostly because party liberals thought it didn’t go far enough) and government streamlining (an effort that angered some Democrats at the time).
But she also alluded to how his presidency ended: a landslide loss after gas lines, inflation-then-unemployment, and a 14-month-long hostage crisis in Iran. “Their administration was not perfect,” she said.
Klobuchar is one of at least three presidential hopefuls who has ventured to the tiny town of Plains, Georgia, to meet with Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, who is 91. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, also have visited with the Carters and attended the former president’s Sunday School lesson in Plains.
“An extraordinary person,” Buttigieg told reporters after meeting Carter. “A guiding light and inspiration,” Booker said in a statement. Klobuchar has attended Carter’s church lesson, as well, and says she emails with him occasionally. “He signs them ‘JC,’” she said with a laugh.
Carter carved an unlikely path to the White House in 1976 and endured humbling defeat after one term. Now, six administrations later, the longest-living chief executive in American history is re-emerging from political obscurity at age 94 to win over his fellow Democrats once again.
A peanut farmer turned politician then worldwide humanitarian, Carter is taking on a special role as Democratic candidates look to his family-run campaign after the Watergate scandal as the road map for toppling President Trump in 2020.
To be sure, more 2020 candidates have quietly sought counsel from Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama. Several have talked with Bill Clinton, who left office in 2001. But those huddles have been more hush-hush, disclosed through aides dishing anonymously. Sessions with Carter are trumpeted on social media and discussed freely, suggesting an appeal that Obama and Clinton may not have.
Unlike Clinton, impeached after an affair with a White House intern, Carter has no #MeToo demerits; he and Rosalynn, married since the end of World War II, didn’t even like to dance with other people at state dinners. And unlike Obama, popular among Democrats but polarizing for conservatives and GOP-leaning independents, Carter is difficult to define by current political fault lines.
He’s an outspoken evangelical Christian who criticizes Trump’s serial falsehoods, yet praises Trump for attempting a relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Carter touts his own personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, another Trump favorite. “I have his email address,” Carter said in September.
He confirms that he voted for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist, over Hillary Clinton in Georgia’s 2016 presidential primary. In 2017, Carter welcomed Sanders, who’s running again this year, to the Carter Center for a program in which the two men lambasted money in politics. Carter called the United States “an oligarchy.”
Yet Carter has since warned Democrats against “too liberal a program,” lest they ensure Trump’s re-election.
Carter is enough of an enigma that he is the only living president not to draw Trump’s ire or mockery, even if Republicans have caricatured Carter for decades as a failure. Trump and Carter chatted by phone this spring after Carter sent Trump a letter on China and trade. Both men said they had an amiable conversation.
Klobuchar recalled Carter telling her that “family members would disperse to different states and then they would all come back on Friday, go back through the questions they had gotten.” Then “he would talk about how he would answer them” so they’d all be prepared on their next trips, she said.
It was “a different era,” Klobuchar added, recalling that Carter said he felt “high-tech because they had a fax machine on his plane.” Indeed, Klobuchar, born in 1960, wasn’t old enough to vote for Carter until he sought a second term. Booker, 50, recalls voting for Carter, but in a grade-school mock election. Buttigieg, 37, wasn’t even born when Carter left office.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.