After a long ceremony in honor of the Carter Center’s volunteers, Carter and I walk to his office through the building’s burgundy corridors, past Warhol silkscreens of the president and of his mother. “I feel more sure of myself today than ever,” he says. “Which is a kind of egotistic thing to say. But I’ve sorted through a lot of possibilities and I’ve decided on a lot of things that I feel quite certain are right and proper.”
In his bright, sunny office, Rosalynn, his wife and co-founder of the Carter Center, is standing behind the desk, looking through some papers. Her dark hair frames her heart-shaped face, as in memory. At the ceremony, Carter said, “I’ll let Rosalynn fill in the gaps and correct my mistakes,” but now she leaves the room as we begin to talk. After a while, the conversation turns to Lillian, another outspoken, stubborn, independent-minded, non-cuddly Carter and the subject of his latest book, A Remarkable Mother.
“People who know me intimately say that I have become more like my mother in my older age,” he says, leaning forward on the double-wide, slatted rocking chair that sits at a coffee table in front of his desk. “Mama never was reluctant to take a stance on things that would be unpopular among her peer group. If she thought she was doing right, she was impervious to criticism.
“I’m more willing to take a chance now, more willing to be outspoken, more willing to be confrontational in my attitude,” he says. He bugs out his eyes at me. It’s so brief that one barely notices the tic. “In my earlier years, I was more inclined to be searching for accommodation with people who had views contrary to my own. Now I’m not nearly so cognizant of that or nearly so accommodating.”
In part, he says, this is because “I’m never going to run for anything again, and I’ve got Secret Service protection around the clock for the rest of my life: So I feel pretty much immune to contrary criticism.” An octogenarian former U.S. president is, in other words, a dangerously free political agent.