Jimmy Carter becomes unlikely source of inspiration for underdogs in Democratic 2020 primary

Bill Barrow

Former president Jimmy 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 the age of 94 to win over his fellow Democrats once again.

A peanut farmer turned politician then worldwide humanitarian, Mr Carter is carving out a unique role as several Democratic candidates look to his family-run campaign after the Watergate scandal as the roadmap for toppling Donald Trump in 2020.

"Jimmy Carter is a decent, well-meaning person, someone who people are talking about again given the time that we are in," Minnesota senator 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."

Ms Klobuchar is one of at least three presidential hopefuls who have ventured to the tiny town of Plains, Georgia, to meet with Mr Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, who is 91.

New Jersey senator Cory Booker and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, have also visited with the Carters, including attending the former president's Sunday School lesson in Plains.

Mr Carter had planned to teach at Maranatha Baptist Church again on Sunday, but he was still recuperating at home days after being discharged from a Georgia hospital.

The former president had hip replacement surgery at the hospital following a fall as he was preparing for a turkey hunt.

"An extraordinary person," Mr Buttigieg told reporters after meeting Mr Carter. "A guiding light and inspiration," Mr Booker said in a statement.

Ms Klobuchar has attended Mr Carter's church lesson, as well, and said she emails with him occasionally. "He signs them 'JC,'” she said with a laugh.

The attention is 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.

However, more 2020 candidates have quietly sought counsel from Mr Trump's predecessor, former president Barack Obama. Several have talked with former president Bill Clinton, who left office in 2001.

But those huddles have been more hush-hush, disclosed through aides dishing anonymously. Sessions with Mr Carter, on the other hand, are trumpeted on social media and discussed freely, suggesting an appeal that Mr Obama and Mr Clinton may not have.

Unlike Mr Clinton, who was impeached after an affair with a White House intern, Mr Carter has no MeToo demerits; he and Rosalynn, married since the end of World War II, did not even like to dance with other people at state dinners. And unlike Mr Obama, who was popular among Democrats but polarising for conservatives and GOP-leaning independents, Mr Carter is difficult to define by current political fault lines.

He is an outspoken evangelical Christian who criticises Mr Trump's serial falsehoods, yet praises him for attempting a relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Mr Carter touts his own personal relationship with Russian president Vladimir Putin, another Trump favourite. "I have his email address," Mr Carter said last September.

For years, Mr Carter has irked the foreign policy establishment with forthright criticism of Israel and its treatment of Palestinians.

He also confirmed that he voted for Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist, over Hillary Clinton in Georgia's 2016 presidential primary.

In 2017, Mr Carter welcomed Mr Sanders, who is running again this year, to the Carter Centre for a programme in which the two men lambasted money in politics. Mr Carter called the United States "an oligarchy."

Yet he has since warned Democrats against "too liberal a programme," lest they ensure Mr Trump's re-election.

Ms Klobuchar credited Mr 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 towards universal coverage failed mostly because party liberals thought it did not 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.

It is enough of an enigma that Mr Carter is the only living president not to draw Mr Trump's ire or mockery, even if Republicans have lambasted him for decades as a liberal incompetent.

Mr Trump and Mr Carter chatted by phone earlier this spring after he sent Mr Trump a letter on China and trade. Both men said they had an amiable conversation.

Nonetheless, 2020 candidates cite Mr Carter's juxtaposition with Mr Trump.

"There was a feeling that people had been betrayed in our democracy by someone who wasn't telling the truth," Ms Klobuchar said, referring to Richard Nixon's resignation in 1974.

Mr Buttigieg said he and Mr Carter "talked about being viewed as coming out of nowhere" and how Mr Carter ran two general election campaigns entirely on the public financing system that now sits unused as candidates collectively raise money into the billions.

Ms Klobuchar recalled Mr 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 would all be prepared on their next trips, she said.

It was "a different era," she added, recalling that Mr Carter said he felt "hi-tech because they had a fax machine on his plane."

Indeed, Ms Klobuchar, born in 1960, was not old enough to vote for Mr Carter until he sought a second term. Mr Booker, 50, recalls voting for Mr Carter, but in a grade-school mock election. Mr Buttigieg, 37, was not even born when he left office.

Nonetheless, Ms Klobuchar said she regularly meets Iowans who remember Mr Carter and his family members campaigning in 1975 before his rivals and national media recognised his strength, and she said she sometimes references on the campaign trail how her fellow Minnesotan and Mr Carter's vice president, Walter Mondale, remembers their term: "We obeyed the law. We told the truth. We kept the peace."

Whatever the reasons for the renewed attention, Mr Carter’s allies say they hope the 2020 campaign plays a part in bolstering his reputation as a president.

"People are tired of hearing that he was a better ex-president than president," said DuBose Porter, a former Georgia Democratic chairman who has known the Carters for decades. "Of course he's done amazing things at the Carter Centre, but he did great things for the country, and we're proud of it."

Associated Press