On Jimmy Carter’s Ambitions and Industriousness

I know little about Jimmy Carter except what is known by most politically-aware Americans. He oversaw both an energy crisis and an international crisis; he was more successful after his presidency than during. I know of his Christian faith and his relatively simple lifestyle.

But I don’t know much else.

Recently, I read a short article that mainly focused on the humble house of the Carters. While former presidents often cash in on their fame and live much more luxurious lives after their presidency than they did before, the Carters still live a simple lifestyle. After reaching around a some, I came across a 2011 article by Nicholas Dawidoff in The Rolling Stone entitled, “The Riddle of Jimmy Carter.” The article highlighted the tensions of Jimmy Carter’s personality and activity. Dawidoff writes:

And who really is Carter anyway?

That has always been the rub, the core elusiveness of the man. It would be hard to find a person of comparable fame and ongoing public presence who has remained more personally remote.

But what interested me more is the description of Jimmy Carter’s simplicity, ambitions, and industriousness. (The tension between Carter’s ambitions and humility is one of the tensions written about.)

On his simplicity, Dawidoff writes:

This morning, he’s wearing khakis, casual black shoes, a blue shirt and a red tie. In other words, he still dresses like a high school guidance counselor. He shops like one, too. Carter flew to Africa on a supporter’s private jet, but he buys his clothes at the Dollar General store back in Plains, Georgia. “Tight as bark on a tree” is Carter’s old friend Dot Padgett’s cheerful assessment of his Depression-era frugality.


Jason [Carter’s grandson] has prepared me for my visit to Plains….“They built their house in the 1960s, and they almost haven’t changed a thing. They were superexcited — legitimately excited! — when the Dollar General store opened in Plains. They buy their clothes there.”


“My grandparents, their microwave is from 1985. It goes tick tick tick tick! It takes 12 minutes ticking down to pop popcorn, because why would you buy a new microwave? The point is that nothing is easy, and why should it be?”

The brown-brick, ranch-style house where Jimmy and Rosalynn live is just as Jason described it. Shaded by tall pines, it looks like the sort of suburban residence where you might expect to find a young ophthalmologist and his family. There is a tennis court and an outdoor swimming pool and a carpentry shop. When Carter left the White House, his staff planned to buy him a Jeep, but he let it be known he’d prefer a set of woodworking tools. Carter has since built many of the wooden furnishings, including a handsome four-poster bed for the master bedroom, a coffee table he fashioned out of a livestock trough, and a chess set….But the house doesn’t really reveal the range of Carter’s worldly concerns. It suggests that he doesn’t want anything around that would distract him from them.

This truly is astonishing, if true. Jimmy Carter is one of the most influential men in the world, and yet he buys his clothes at a discount store and lives in a relatively modest house. Yet, Dawidoff sees in this simplicity more of a desire not to be distracted from his projects than a renunciation of worldly possessions.

To me, this is the other interesting thread throughout this article that interests me: Jimmy Carter is extremely hardworking. Dawidoff writes:

Carter’s days rarely involve spontaneity. Through the agency of the Carter Center, the flourishing, action-oriented organization he founded in 1982 to resolve international conflicts, promote democracy and fight disease, he keeps so busy that his calendar is a legendary document covered with transverse lines, abstract art made out of advance planning. Rita Thompson, a volunteer on his 1976 campaign who now serves as a family assistant, says, “He relaxes once a year. The week after Christmas.” That’s when Carter takes a family trip with his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren that he organizes right down to the minutes set aside for “free time.” To be late for anything on the itinerary is to be left behind, with an exception granted for Rosalynn, whose 57th-birthday present from Carter was a promise to never again nag her about “tardiness.” The other 51 weeks, Carter’s preferred pace is constant motion, flurrying from briefing to meeting to press conference, maintaining a slam-the-door-and-go tempo that keeps everyone who works for him aware at all times of where the exit signs are.

While talking with Dawidoff, Jimmy Carter describes his campaign for the 1970 election that made him the Governor of Georgia:

With a borrowed automobile, Carter says, “I drove all over Georgia for four years. I’d work all day at the warehouse and on the farm. In the late afternoon, I’d drive all over the state giving speeches” — to the Jaycees, Lions Clubs, Kiwanis. Late at night, driving home, “I’d dictate on a hand-held Dictaphone the names of people I met.” Then letters were sent to all of them. “It was rudimentary, but detailed,” Carter says of this extraordinary effort. He mentions the 600,000 hands he shook, the 12,000 pamphlets he handed out and the factories he visited — every one in the state.

Read the article. I learned much about Carter, changing him from a boring former president (in my mind) to someone with a multi-faceted personality, worthy of more study to understand.

Join other dedicated readers of Thinking and Believing and subscribe to the email list. You'll receive every new post in your inbox, so you never have to worry about missing a post. Click here to subscribe.