Carter tributes pour in as ex-president turns 99

Denise Frazier, Atlanta district director for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, administers the oath of allegiance to 99 new American citizens gathered at The Carter Center, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2023, in Atlanta, on former President Jimmy Carter's 99th birthday. (AP Photo/Bill Barrow)
Denise Frazier, Atlanta district director for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, administers the oath of allegiance to 99 new American citizens gathered at The Carter Center, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2023, in Atlanta, on former President Jimmy Carter's 99th birthday. (AP Photo/Bill Barrow)

ATLANTA -- Jimmy Carter broke routine Sunday, putting off his practice of quietly watching church services online to instead celebrate his 99th birthday with his wife, Rosalynn, and their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren in Plains.

The gathering took place in the same one-story structure where the Carters lived before he was first elected to the Georgia Senate in 1962. As tributes poured in from around the world, it was an opportunity for Carter's family to honor his personal legacy.

"The remarkable piece to me and I think to my family is that while my grandparents have accomplished so much, they have really remained the same sort of South Georgia couple that lives in a 600-person village where they were born," said grandson Jason Carter, who chairs the board at The Carter Center, which his grandparents founded in 1982 after leaving the White House a year earlier.

Despite being global figures, the younger Carter said his grandparents have always "made it easy for us, as a family, to be as normal as we can be."

At The Carter Center in Atlanta, meanwhile, 99 new American citizens, who came from 45 countries, took the oath of allegiance as part of a naturalization ceremony timed for the former president's birthday.

"This is so impressive, and I'm so happy for it to be here," Tania Martinez said after the ceremony. A 53-year-old nurse in Roswell, Martinez was born in Cuba and came to the U.S. from Ghana 12 years ago.

"Now I will be free forever," she said, tears welling.

Celebrating the longest-lived U.S. president this way was inconceivable not long ago. The Carters announced in February that their patriarch was forgoing further medical treatments and entering home hospice care after a series of hospitalizations. Yet Carter, who overcame cancer at 90 and learned to walk again after having his hip replaced at 94, defied all odds again.

"If Jimmy Carter were a tree, he'd be a towering, old Southern oak," said Donna Brazile, a former Democratic national chairperson and presidential campaign manager who got her start on Carter's campaigns.

His latest resilience has allowed Carter a rare privilege even for presidents: He's been able to enjoy months of accolades typically reserved for when a former White House resident dies. The latest round includes a flood of messages from world leaders and pop culture figures donning "Jimmy Carter 99" hats, with many of them focusing on Carter's four decades of global humanitarian work after leaving the Oval Office.

Katie Couric, the first woman to anchor a U.S. television network's evening news broadcast, praised Carter in a social media video for his "relentless effort every day to make the world a better place."

She pointed to Carter's work to eradicate Guinea worm disease and river blindness while advocating for peace and democracy in scores of countries. She noted that he has written 32 books and worked for decades with Habitat for Humanity building houses for low-income people.

"Oh yeah, and you were governor of Georgia. And did I mention president of the United States?" she joked. "When are you going to stop slacking off?"

Bill Clinton, the 42nd president and the first Democratic president after Carter's landslide defeat, showed no signs of the chilly relationship the two fellow Southerners once had.

"Jimmy! Happy birthday," Clinton said in his video message. "You only get to be 99 once. It's been a long, good ride, and we thank you for your service and your friendship and the enduring embodiment of the American dream."

In Atlanta, the Carter Library & Museum and adjacent Carter Center held a weekend of events, including the citizenship ceremony. The commemoration there was able to continue Sunday only because Congress came to an agreement to avoid a partial government shutdown at the start of the federal fiscal year, which coincides with Carter's birthday.

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