[Meanwhile] The greatest former U.S. president

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[Meanwhile] The greatest former U.S. president

The author is the Washington correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

It was during the summer of 2001 that I met former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. I interviewed him when he visited Korea with his wife, Rosalynn, to participate as a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, a campaign to build homes for low-income families. He skillfully cut wood and hammered at the Asan site in South Chungcheong. I was impressed by how a 77-year-old former president did not put down the tools in the hot summer day.

In the interview, Carter expressed his regret about the botched summit between President Kim Young-sam and North Korean leader Kim Il Sung due to Kim Il Sung’s sudden death in 1994, even though Carter tried hard to mediate between the two Korean leaders for their first-ever summit. He was passionate enough to express a willingness to visit North Korea again if needed for the reunification of South and North Korea.

Carter was not so popular during his term from 1977 to 1981. American voters did not give him a chance to serve a second term. He ran for reelection in 1980, but Republican candidate Ronald Reagan was elected president after winning in 44 states.

That was a humiliating defeat for Carter. Main causes for the debacle were stagflation and the hostage incident at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran. He had a disgraceful exit as the first president to serve only one term in 48 years since 1932.

But Carter did not obsess over the past. He set up the Carter Foundation to volunteer as an election observer in underdeveloped countries, drive out diseases and improve human rights, carrying out the mission to spread democracy and resolve social issues.

I learned about him again in the summer of 2021, when guests celebrated his 75th wedding anniversary in Plains, Georgia, where Carter and his wife live. Upon leaving the White House, Carter returned to his hometown, with a population of 700. He lives in the house he had built in 1961.

The house is no mansion. The two-bedroom house was valued at a paltry $210,000 two years ago. He is the only former U.S. president to leave the White House and returned to the same house in which he had lived before becoming president.

It is rare for a president in the United States and Korea alike to finish their term and return to the same residence as before the election. Bill Clinton settled in New York instead of Arkansas. Barack Obama and Donald Trump did not return to Chicago or New York.

In most cases, they would live in a more grandeur, luxurious home than before.

Unlike other former presidents, Carter did not do high-paying lectures or serve on corporate boards, as he did not want to monetize his White House experience. Instead, he used his power to change the world. He was more respected after retirement, earning the nickname, the “greatest former president.”

Americans support his choice to be in hospice care instead of receiving aggressive treatment. Now, he can hear the “tributes” to him in his lifetime. It suits Carter to choose a farewell with his family at home instead of fighting for his life at the hospital.
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