August 18, 2017

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The unbreakable Jimmy Carter

Ex-president back on his feet after collapse at Habitat for Humanity build site

The first thing to know, as Jimmy Carter bid his second and likely final farewell to Winnipeg, is that he felt fine.

There were other things on Carter’s mind, when he sat down with the Free Press on Friday: thoughts about justice and housing, human rights and ballooning income inequality. Thoughts about a love over seven decades strong.

All in good time. First things first: after collapsing at the Habitat for Humanity build in St. James on Thursday and spending a night in St. Boniface Hospital with his wife, Rosalynn, by his side, Carter bounced back and felt fine.

In fact, the former U.S. president adds, he felt "fairly good" the day before too, after he recovered. It’s just that he’d been working too hard in the scorching sun, he says, sawing boards for what will be a Lyle S treet home’s front steps.

When that happened, international media snapped to attention. Carter’s collapse drew a flurry of headlines; thousands of his admirers tweeted into the ether, urging the nonagenarian ex-president not to work too hard.

Carter lets out a hearty laugh, hearing that. Then again, he’s heard that advice so many times before.

"The doctors emphasized that last night too," he says, and flashes a familiar smile from so many old photos.

Yet, Carter is unlikely to take it too easy, to let go of the work, to rest on his laurels. It’s not that his age isn’t showing: at 92, the president walks gingerly, and with a slight stoop. It’s that the hopes of so many rest on those shoulders.

His close relationship with Habitat is an example. This year’s Carter Work Project build, split between Edmonton and Winnipeg, is the 34th annual edition; in all those years he skipped only once, in 2015, when he was battling cancer.

"Habitat has made it easy for us to accommodate the circumstances as they change," Carter says, a tacit nod to his age. "It’s diverse enough to keep it challenging, and interesting, and adventurous, and gratifying."

To think, it started before many of this week’s volunteers were even born. In 1984, the Carters led a bus full of 40 Habitat volunteers to New York City, where they renovated a six-storey building and slept in a church dormitory.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Volunteers were back at it Friday morning finishing up homes on Lyle St. for the Habitat for Humanity’s 34th Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project.</p>

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Volunteers were back at it Friday morning finishing up homes on Lyle St. for the Habitat for Humanity’s 34th Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project.

At the time, Carter says, he wouldn’t have imagined he’d still be travelling to build houses in 2017 — "I didn’t dream I’d live this long," he says.

But with his support, Habitat’s profile soared; today, he remains its most valuable asset.

Yet, if Habitat needs Jimmy Carter, it seems as if Carter needs them too. On the build site in St. James, staff from his Georgia-based Carter Center made fond quips about his work ethic; it’s what keeps him going, one staffer said.

They love him, too. That’s notable. Even in casual conversation, staff speak of their boss with obvious affection; the gentleness, they say, is the real Carter too. With the 39th president, one said, what you see really is what you get.

In conversation, that seems true. Security and media protocols surrounding the president are tight, but Carter himself is warm and personable. (When a Free Press photographer asked if she could shake his hand, the president looked surprised she would even ask. "Of course," he said. "I like that.")

He is eager to talk, too, about the issues battering the world today. Habitat for Humanity staff were understandably keen to keep media questions non-political, asking to focus on the Habitat build, and affordable housing in general.

Still, that’s difficult. Presidents — even 36 years after they leave office — are inextricably linked with the political visions of entire generations. People sometimes mark the passage of their lives by presidential administrations.

With Carter, that nostalgia is magnified. His dutiful post-presidency humanitarian work has made him beloved to many; the stark contrast to the bellicose tone of the current American president is almost too obvious, too easy.

So visiting American volunteers sighed, and noted wistfully how they wished the world had more Jimmy Carters; others bluntly described how United States President Donald Trump’s election inspired them to sign up for this year’s Carter Work Project.

In truth, it’s not difficult to draw a line connecting these dots. One of the reasons that few cities have taken a truly aggressive approach to ensuring affordable housing, Carter muses, is the disconnect between people and power.

"I think there’s an inadequate understanding by the people that are in power, quite often the most favoured citizens of a country or a community, and who’ve had everything themselves," Carter says.

"Quite often they don’t pay adequate attention to the low-income people, who are struggling for life."

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Carter being interviewed by <em>Free Press</em> columnist Melissa Martin and videographer Mike Deal at the Carter Habitat for Humanity site.</p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Carter being interviewed by Free Press columnist Melissa Martin and videographer Mike Deal at the Carter Habitat for Humanity site.

To solve this, Carter thinks, nations need to work to close the income inequality gap; income inequality in the United States has ballooned since he left office in 1981, and wages for the vast majority of workers are now stagnant.

"One of the reasons we had, I would say a somewhat disappointing election in 2016 in the United States, was that people didn’t believe they were getting a fair deal," he says.

"Average, hardworking middle-income people just felt their lives were not any better than they had been a few years back, and didn’t have any prospect of getting better in the future.

"With that sense of discouragement, they turned to almost any alternative that was offered to them."

If there’s a way out of that sense of frustration, he believes, it’s to recommit to the basics, and focus on human rights. He points to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which lists adequate housing among its 30 core tenets.

He points out too, as he did in a 2012 New York Times op-ed, that the United States has violated a number of those tenets. He mentions the founding ideals of the United Nations, the noble vision of the human rights declaration.

"In a way," he says, "both of those ambitions have been abandoned."

But behind him, 21 new houses rise in St. James, almost ready to welcome their owners. In the grand scheme of things, it is a drop in the bucket, a vast global need; but at least, Carter agrees, it is getting us back to basics.

"I think so," he says. "Just building houses, just hammering a nail or putting in a screw, or sawing a board — in a way, that is our small contribution, I think, to human rights."

The interview glides to a close; the Carters’ time in Winnipeg was growing short. One last bit of work to do, before they headed out: they visited each of the 21 houses, posing for photos with beaming volunteers and homeowners.

That night, the president was set to visit the Canadian Museum for Human Rights — "I’m very interested in that," he says — where he looked forward to browsing the galleries before attending the Habitat build’s closing ceremonies.

Then it will be time for the Carters to go: back to their home in Plains, Ga., and to the Maranatha Baptist Church where he’s slated to teach a Bible class on Sunday. Back to their work and the time-honoured routines of their life.

Last week, the Carters celebrated their 71st wedding anniversary.

When the couple first arrived at the build site on Thursday, he made a beeline to Rosalynn to take hold of her hand; they do that a lot, he says, and they always have.

His advice for a long marriage draws on tradition: every night, Carter says, they still read Bible passages to each other. They try to resolve arguments before they go to bed.

Through that, he says, there are more ups than downs.

"We give each other plenty of space," he says, with a gentle nod.

"She does her things that she loves, we do the things we both love together and I do the things I like to do as well. We don’t interfere with each other."

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Melissa Martin.

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