Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter said he plans to “fairly dramatically” reduce his work at the Carter Center as he undergoes treatment for cancer.
What does it mean for the Carter Center?
Carter, 90, has been the face of the Atlanta-based institution since its founding in 1982.
The Carter Center has helped improve lives of people in more than 80 nations, campaigning for everything from eliminating diseases to ensuring free and fair elections and fighting for the rights of girls and women, with Carter often showing up himself.
Carter was the first to assure people that the center will continue its mission and that he’s not stepping away entirely.
Knowing the day would come when the Carters would reduce their participation was an organic part of the Carters’ planning for the center and of management for decades, said center spokeswoman Deanna Congileo.
Steps included raising endowment funds, establishing an independent board of trustees as the governing body in the early 1990s, and building a 33-year track record of accomplishments and staff experience on targeted global issues in peace and health.
Earlier this year, Jimmy Carter’s grandson, Jason Carter, an attorney, former state senator and gubernatorial candidate, was tapped to take over as chairman of the board this fall, a plan that was in place before the cancer diagnosis.
“The Carter Center is well prepared to continue on without any handicap” if he and his wife, Rosalynn, scale back, said Carter during his Aug. 20 news conference discussing the disease that has spread to his brain.
Amir Pasic, dean of the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, said having Jason Carter at the helm of the institution’s board “is very important to its brand and legitimacy.”
“One always worries about transitions when they take place,” he said. “There’s a highly professional staff there and there’s reassurance that family engagement with the center will span generations. It speaks well to the future.”
Benjamin Hufbauer, author of “ Presidential Temples: How Memorials and Libraries Shape Public Memory,” praised the center for its international work and said what the Carters built in Atlanta is “critical” in looking at the history of presidential centers and libraries in the United States.
“Before the Carter Center, libraries were really just museums and archives. It has really defined what an ex-president can do,” he said. Its work “has been positive for his (Carter’s) reputation as well. He wasn’t a particularly popular president but he is one of the most effective presidents in U.S. history, and the Carter Center allowed that to happen.”
The center has a $600 million endowment, and the elder Carter said he plans to continue to sign letters to donors and make key calls to raise funds. He hopes to continue to travel, as treatments and his health allow, and spoke of his desire to go on a planned trip to Nepal with Habitat for Humanity International in November. He also plans to continue his role as a professor at Emory University and to attend meetings whenever possible.
He has made it clear that issues affecting women and girls would remain a priority.
CEO Mary Ann Peters said the elder Carter doesn’t manage the day-to-day running of the institution, although the Carters are still members of the trustee board, which provides governance, reviews the center’s budget and decides on new programs.
When not traveling on speaking engagements, book tours or on international missions, Carter and his wife spend much of their time in Plains. He still signs letters to leaders on world topics, studies reports and weighs in on global issues. Every month, they come to Atlanta for work weeks. He usually teaches a class at Emory University and attends meetings.
“Even though he said he was going to dramatically cut back, you can see just how involved he is,” Peters said.
She recognizes that the former president and Nobel laureate’s name carries a lot of weight in international circles. He is in contact with some pretty high-level leaders.
“We’re not going to ignore that,” she said.
There are others who also are internationally recognized experts in their fields, including Dr. Frank Richards, on river blindness; Karin Ryan on human rights; and David Carroll on elections and democracy.
“We do have a team of true professionals who have learned from President Carter,” she said.
Jimmy Carter joked during the news conference that he would give advice, if Jason Carter asked.
For his part, Jason Carter said he has no intention of trying to fill his grandfather’s shoes.
He said the center is in a good position financially, has a solid collection of global experts in health and peace and a track record of expertise that’s going to allow it to continue. “But this is his legacy that he has built,” the younger Carter said in an interview after the press conference.
“And I have no intention of trying to be Jimmy Carter to this organization. We’re going to build on the incredible foundation that already exists here.”
Board member Leah Ward Sears is confident that Jason Carter is a good choice to head the trustees.
It wasn’t a given because Jason is the grandson of Jimmy Carter, she said, but that’s “icing on the cake,” said Sears, a former state Supreme Court justice and now a partner with Schiff Hardin. “Jason is extremely talented and very, very committed to his grandparents’ legacy. I know that the Carters trust and believe in him.”
Nearly two years ago, she said, the board began an assessment and reorganization with a look toward what the Carter Center would look like when the Carters could no longer play an active role. They pored over draft after draft and finally agreed upon a plan, voting Jason Carter as the chairman in March.
Jimmy Carter was fully involved, although he made it clear during the deliberations that his life, his career and his professional life at the Carter Center “was not over, until it was over.”
“The president cares very, very deeply for the work of the Carter Center and wants to make sure it maintains its viability going forward,” Sears said. “It was just pretty obvious to all that we just needed to have these plans. Just like I’m 60 and I should have a will. There are just things you should have.”
Few expect Carter to disappear from the global scene.
Dr. Tebebe Temane-Berhan, of Lions Clubs International, has worked with the center to fight blindness in Ethiopia. He said in an interview he is confident he will see his friend again in Africa.
“He is thoughtful and convicted to the cause,” he said. “He has done much for the Third World, especially Africa. Before he started, no one else paid attention. I have faith that he will continue and continue and continue.”
Atlanta businessman and philanthropist Arthur Blank said Carter’s life’s work is not complete.
“He will continue to look outside of himself to focus on the work that matters so deeply to him and what the Carter Center was founded upon,” Blank said in an emailed statement. “President Carter has always led by example, making Jason well prepared to carry out the mission and influence of his grandfather’s work.”