The qualities that were so maligned during Jimmy Carter's presidency—his modesty, his faith in the democratic process, his collaborative approach to problem solving—now define his reputation as a remarkable man. His Christianity wasn't always well regarded, nor was his affinity for the little guy, and many critics mistook his considered approach for weakness. But he pressed on, and at 82, he's still doing his life's work his way. He uses the power of his rarefied position to move the mighty, and through the Carter Center, his nonprofit organization, manages to keep his feet on the ground: monitoring elections, training farmers, promoting programs to foster peace and health. He can righteously claim to have ended the suffering of millions; thanks to efforts by the Carter Center, the incidence of guinea worm disease—a horrible parasitic infection that's been around for more than 2,000 years—dropped from 3.5 million in 1986 to slightly more than 10,000 in 2005. And so the peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia, population 614, is no longer served up as the subject of jokes.
Carter traces his convictions to his mother (a registered nurse who joined the Peace Corps in her 70s) and Rachel Clark, his honorary mother, an African-American neighbor who taught him what he calls the real facts of life: "how to relate to the environment, how husbands and wives relate, that strong people don't have to abuse weak people to show their strength." Some of the rockier times of his years in office had to do with his devotion to Mrs. Clark's quiet pragmatism; his gentle presentation wasn't welcome in a commander in chief. Yet he consistently delivered on the beliefs he voiced (one example: appointing a record number of women and minorities to high-ranking governmental jobs and judicial posts).
Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, still live in the same home they raised their kids in. Like plenty of husbands, he spends free time in the garage. Since leaving the White House, he's made more than 150 pieces of furniture, some of which are auctioned off to fund human rights initiatives. "People like to have something built by a former president," he says with a trace of wry bafflement. They pay upwards of a million dollars for these pieces. But he's proudest of the cradles he's made for his grandchildren and great-grandchildren—gifts of labor that are implicitly hopeful, comforting, and of use. He's fond, too, of a coffee table he crafted from the trunk of a walnut tree. Roots are what he draws strength from, and what he always returns to. He'd like to be buried in front of his house, in the rich soil of land that has been in his family since 1833.