There were questions personal and political, silly and serious, but former President Jimmy Carter answered them all with a smile during the 38th Carter Town Hall at Emory University Wednesday.
A packed gymnasium delivered a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday” to the nearly 95-year-old humanitarian and university professor, who quipped that it only took him writing 33 books to finally get tenure.
The Carter Town Hall gives first-year students and other members of the Emory community the opportunity to interact with the 39th president by submitting questions on paper and online on a variety of topics.
The first question sought to understand a book that changed his life. Carter, a lifelong Baptist, said that he and his wife Rosalynn read the Bible together every night, and that he recently has been binging novels by Patrick O’Brian about the British Navy while recovering from a broken hip.
“I read voluminously; I have a pretty good library at home,” he said. “I’m a very avid reader of all kinds… obviously the Bible and Patrick O’Brian, that’s a pretty wide range.”
For many in attendance, the opportunity to see and hear Carter up close was surreal.
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Dalya Samarah, a master’s in public health student, said she ran to campus from her apartment to claim the last ticket her program director had for interested students.
“Today, I listened to a podcast about Jimmy Carter before coming, just so I had more of an idea than what I learned in high school social studies class,” the Georgia native said, adding that she loved his peaceful take on things. “Honestly, there's no words to describe it.”
Tony Mufarreh is a graduate student studying epidemiology. He came to Emory and Atlanta because of resources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the Carter Center, and called the chance to attend the town hall a “dream come true.”
“One of the things that makes [Carter] a public health icon is his outreach and all the influence that he has,” Mufarreh said. “So the fact that he’s connected with Emory and founded the Carter Center is really inspiring.”
One day before his Emory appearance, Carter made headlines wading in to the 2020 presidential election, of sorts. He said during his annual report at the Carter Center that Carter didn’t believe he could serve as president at 80.
Former Vice President Joe Biden is 76 and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is 78.
At the town hall, Carter continued his political perspectives responding to a question asking how the U.S. could increase its female representation in politics. He began by noting that things have improved tremendously since his time in the White House.
“We’ve had an increase in senators and congresswomen, and we also as you know have a number of highly qualified women running for President of the United States,” he said to cheers. “I think that we have a good chance this next year of electing a woman president.”
Carter added that he hasn’t yet made up his mind about an endorsement in the expansive Democratic primary field, but has previously indicated candidates should not go too far to the left and alienate potential voters who are needed to defeat President Donald Trump.
Not every inquisition touched on the news of the day. A 6-year-old asked Carter’s favorite African animal (an elephant), and a first-year student wanted to know how he motivates himself (listens to his wife, and tries to do what’s best for others).
When asked about polarization in the country, Carter said that gerrymandering of legislative districts and the increasingly exorbitant amount of money and spending that goes into campaigns.
“That has meant that America has changed from a democracy to an oligarchy,” he said. “So wealth determines, basically, who is elected and who is not elected.”
The final question of many Carter Town Halls hearkened back to the Plains resident’s history as a peanut farmer. A questioner from Instagram wanted to know Carter’s take on almond butter.
Grinning, he said “I never have tasted it, and I don’t intend to.”
The Carters only have peanut butter in their house.