EXCLUSIVE: Every day that it continues, Jimmy Carter’s post-presidency sets a new record. 

In hospice care now for over a year, the former president has held the record for the longest ex-presidency for more than a decade. 

Two generations, the millennials and Generation Z, have come of age since he left the White House in 1981. 

And James Earl Carter Jr. – a man who, when he told his mother in the 1970s, “Mama, I’m going to run for president,” was met with the nonplussed response, “President of what?” – has transformed the post-presidency into an institution with a power and purpose of its own.


The 39th president was young when he left office, at just 56 years old. Before he ran for high office, few Americans outside of Georgia had heard of Jimmy Carter, let alone thought of him as commander in chief. 

The New York Times didn’t know what to make of him, and called him either a “Southern-style Kennedy” or “just another Democratic dark horse.” 

When Gallup commissioned a survey for a list of possible presidential candidates for 1976, respondents came up with 31 contenders. 

Carter’s name wasn’t on the list. 

His breakout was in the Iowa Caucuses, where he came in a surprise second place, behind “Uncommitted.” 

With America still reeling from the Arab oil embargo, Vietnam War and political scandals, a Southern governor with a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. hanging in his Atlanta office, an evangelical Christian with a charming smile, and, most importantly, an outsider who had spent his career far away from Washington and Watergate was a man that voters believed could be trusted. That’s what mattered.


Four years later, unpopular and on the other side of the White House, he was known around the world and would soon become synonymous with the post-presidency. 

Carter turned his status as a “former” into a kind of lifetime appointment, one that would allow him to continue the work he started during his presidency and to chart his own path.

To Carter, what began for him in Iowa and continued at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue didn’t end on Jan. 20, 1981. 

As he told a group of alumni from his administration, “What we’re doing at the Carter Center,” his post-presidential home base in Atlanta, “is an extension of what we were doing in the White House.” And as Emory University president James Laney once observed, Jimmy Carter was “the only president who ever used the White House as a steppingstone.”

After his loss at the polls in 1980 resulted in what he called his “involuntary retirement,” Carter had unfinished business. He became an activist, a humanitarian, a global health advocate, a human rights defender, and a democracy promoter. He worked with, criticized and even undermined his successors, regardless of party. 

Together with the love of his life, Rosalynn Carter, who passed away late last year, he traveled to more than 145 countries after the White House.

That post-White House journey began in an unusual way. On his first day out of office, Carter was surrounded by the trappings of his old job, and he could be forgiven if he had forgotten for a moment that he’d actually lost the election. When he arrived at Andrews Air Force Base to leave Washington, he stepped out of a limousine decked out in American flags. He boarded the president’s plane, on loan from Ronald Reagan. 

The plane had the seal of the president of the United States on its side. 

He was accompanied by his former vice president, his chief of staff and his domestic policy adviser. After a brief stop in Plains, the team headed to West Germany to meet with 52 Americans who had just been released after the 444-day Iran hostage crisis. If Carter had won the election and then secured the release of the hostages, this is exactly what he would have been doing as president on Jan. 21, 1981.


When they returned home to Plains, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter worried that it was all over. With the White House behind them, as the former president confessed, they feared that all that awaited was an “altogether new, unwanted and potentially empty life.” The Carters made sure that didn’t happen.

Former presidents have a powerful voice, and they use it. Carter became an author, writing 32 books after his presidency on everything from fly-fishing and faith to the Middle East. 

When the former president and first lady collaborated on 1987’s “Everything to Gain: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life,” the experience turned out to be “the worst threat [they] ever experienced in [their] marriage.”

The two were territorial, stubborn and competitive. Frustrated with her husband’s writing style, the late Mrs. Carter would hang up a “Do Not Disturb” sign on her door so that she could have peace to edit his work. She’d cross out entire pages he’d written. Unable to agree, they compromised by writing different sections of the book. 

The sections ended with a tag of “J” or an “R” at the end of different pages, so that the readers could tell who was responsible for the content. Mr. and Mrs. Carter never coauthored a book again. 


But the Carters didn’t want a quiet post-White House life as writers. 

Through the Carter Center, they led humanitarian missions around the world, including an effort to eradicate a disease called Guinea worm. Working with partners like Dr. Bill Foege, the man who helped to eradicate smallpox, and in collaboration with national ministries of health, and philanthropies like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Carter Center and the World Health Organization have had a real impact. 

Between 1986 and 2018, the prevalence of Guinea worm declined from 3.5 million cases a year to a mere 28. No other former president has matched that accomplishment.

Carter is a humanitarian, and he is also a diplomat. After his overwhelming defeat in 1980, even his fellow Democrats didn’t want to have much to do with the most senior member of their party. It was ironic, then, that the man most responsible for bringing Jimmy Carter back to the global stage was Republican James A. Baker III, President George H.W. Bush’s secretary of state. 

When Bush took office, Baker thought the former president could be an asset. 

“[Carter] just wants to be useful,” he wrote. “He never complains. But if you don’t clearly spell out his assignment, and then ride herd over him, then he can get in your way.” 

So, the Bush administration sent Carter to Panama to monitor the country’s election in 1989, as Carter was widely respected throughout Latin America, and especially in that country, for negotiating a series of treaties that transferred control of the strategically significant Canal Zone from the United States. 


In Panama, Carter had one of the finest hours of his post-presidency, when he called out rampant electoral fraud perpetrated by the Noriega regime and – standing on a platform in the middle of the National Counting Center in Panama City – exposed the corrupt vote counters and demanded of them, “Are you honest or are you thieves?” 

It was after Panama, according to the New York Times, that Carter began to “shed [his] negative public image.”

Former presidents can be powerful allies for their successors, but they can also undermine them. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, Carter decided for the latter. He formulated a peace proposal, what became known as the “linkage solution.” 

Rather than endorsing an American-led military coalition to liberate Kuwait, Carter proposed that Iraq withdraw from Kuwait in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank. 

When the White House didn’t take up the idea, Carter wrote to the other leaders of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, urging them not to endorse Bush’s “line in the sand rhetoric,” and to oppose any military intervention. 

He did not send a letter to the United Kingdom’s Margaret Thatcher, and later stated it would have been “a waste of a stamp.” When the Bush administration heard what Carter had done, everyone from national security adviser Brent Scowcroft to Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney was shocked. 

In Carter’s view, a former president is free from political constraints, and that empowers him to advance his policy preferences, without fear or favor when it comes to the current occupant of the Oval Office, regardless of party. 

In 1994, North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung was developing and accelerating the Hermit Kingdom’s nuclear weapons program, and conflict looked more likely every day. At Kim’s invitation, and with President Bill Clinton’s blessing, Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter crossed the DMZ on June 15 to open a line of communication.  

He went beyond that mandate, though, and on his return appeared on the Atlanta-based CNN – his favorite network – to tell the world that he had reached a “new breakthrough” with North Korea. In a wide-ranging interview, Carter recounted his talks with Kim and urged the United States not to pursue sanctions. 

Incredulous, a Clinton official commented, “We have no way of knowing why [Carter] thought what he thought, or why he said what he said.” 

Through the second Bush and Obama presidencies, Carter’s humanitarian and diplomatic work marched on, no matter the preferences of the current occupant of the White House, or stated U.S. policy. He courted controversy on the Iraq War and the Israel-Palestinian conflict


Under President Obama, he wrote that the U.S. was “abandoning its role as the global champion of human rights,” particularly over its use of drones for targeted assassinations abroad.

As a private citizen, Carter saw himself as free to advocate for his own approaches to foreign policy — and he didn’t think that a former president needed to make friends. 

A born-again Christian who taught Sunday school nearly all of his life, Carter stated, “My faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I can, whenever I can, for as long as I can.” No matter what his critics said, or if his policies always achieved their desired outcome, that idea drove him.

For more than four decades, Carter turned his 1980 defeat into a source of strength. He was no longer the president. He did not have to compromise with Congress or run for re-election. He was not the leader of the Democratic Party, and he didn’t need to play politics. 

But he would always be a former president. He saw the power of that status. A former president doesn’t need to be on the inside to push for his agenda. As he once told an audience, he “intended [his] former position to enhance everything [he] did in [his] later years.” 


For older Americans, Carter’s name still evokes long gas lines, stagflation and their fellow citizens held hostage in Iran. 

But younger Americans think of an old man, a public servant and a devoted husband and faithful Christian teaching Sunday school at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia. 

Maybe he just came back from hammering a nail into a new Habitat for Humanity project, visiting the home of a woman in the Global South who’d once been suffering from Guinea worm — or even making a television appearance to lambaste U.S. foreign policy, no matter who was in the White House. 

Both views of Carter are every bit a part of his story, both in and out of the White House. 

Jimmy Carter opened the door to a new kind of post-presidency. Every one of his successors has followed in his footsteps.

Excerpted from “Life After Power: Seven Presidents and Their Search for Purpose Beyond the White House,” © copyright Jared Cohen (Simon & Schuster, Feb. 2024), by special arrangement. All rights reserved. 

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