When Jimmy Carter stepped onto the national stage, he brought those closest to him with him, introducing Americans to the colorful Georgia family that helped shape the 39th president’s public life and now, generations later, rally around him in the private final chapter of his 98 years.
“Family was always important to Uncle Jimmy,” said Kim Fuller, whose father, Billy Carter, was the former president’s younger brother and a favorite subject of national political reporters drawn to this family of Washington outsiders.
Carter has long outlived his nuclear family, including his mother Lillian and Billy, both of whom figured prominently in his political life – bringing charm, occasional scandal and even a forgotten brand of cheap brew: Billy’s Beer. The former president’s most consistent political partner, wife Rosalyn, remains by his side as he receives end-of-life care at their home in Plains, Georgia, the small town where both were born.
Married since 1946 – longer than any other first couple – the Carters have four children and more than 20 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Along with nieces, nephews and relatives, it’s a large family that has provided Jimmy Carter with a near-constant stream of visitors since he announced on Feb. 18 that he would forego further medical intervention and transition to hospice at home.
“It’s something I’ve known all my life, something most of us have known,” said Fuller, who was of school age when Carter was elected governor in 1970 and then president in 1976. “I remember riding the train to Atlanta. to see them at the governor’s mansion.’
The Carters are not an establishment dynasty like the Republican Bushes or the Democratic Kennedys, whose descendant Ted Kennedy was Carter’s rival. But family is central to understanding the former president, from his methodical style to his outspoken Baptist faith.
When he launched his national campaign in 1974, it consisted mostly of the “Georgian mob” — as Washington would have given his home-state advisers who had come to the capital as outsiders — and his relatives. The peanut farmer-turned-politician added other Georgia supporters who traveled across the country campaigning.
Together, they were the “Peanut Brigade” and set a new standard in presidential politics for retail campaigning in early primary states.
“The family members went out to different states and then they all came back on Friday, back to the questions they got,” the Minnesota senator said. Amy Klobuchar explained to The Associated Press in 2020 after she visited Carter as she sought the Democratic nomination.
As a candidate, Carter would “talk about how he’s going to respond” to voters so that his backups are prepared for future trips, Klobuchar said.
The Carters’ older sons were part of the crew. Their daughter, Amy, was seven years old when the campaign began; she has remained mostly sheltered apart from being seen at public events with her parents. It was Carter’s mother and ‘brother’, 13 years his junior, who grabbed the headlines.
Lillian was a widow – Carter’s father, ‘Mr. Earl,” died in 1953, who turned over the management of the family farm and peanut warehouse to Jimmy and Rosaleen. In the late ’60s, Lillian applied for the Peace Corps and spent several years in India while her son worked his way up to the governor’s mansion. Upon her return, Carter told her he planned to run for president.
“President from what?” she answered.
“She ran the family,” Fuller said. “Dad and Uncle Jimmy may have acted like that, but we all knew.”
This, of course, did not necessarily apply to Carter’s campaigns. Whether candidate or executive, Carter was a famous micromanager. However, Fuller believed he got it from his parents, exact figures who demanded a lot from Carter on the family farm.
Unlike Earl Carter, Lillian was relatively progressive, even when Carter was a child. “She was impervious to criticism because of her independent spirit,” Carter wrote around her 90th birthday.
Some journalists called her “the most liberal woman in Georgia”, but she preferred other topics to politics. She declared life in the White House “boring” and scorned images of non-drinking Baptists.
“I know people rave about it, but I like a little bit of bourbon,” she said. “I’m a Christian, but that doesn’t mean I’m a long-faced square.”
Billy Carter never seemed to find a comfortable place for himself in his brother’s political activities.
“Dad was very happy at the gas station,” Kim Fuller said, pointing across the street from her Friends of Jimmy Carter office, which is lined with posters and memorabilia from 1976.
Initially, this meant showing off his “powerful pickup truck” to foreign reporters.
Amber Resner, a professor at the University of Tennessee and an expert on Carter’s campaigns, said some in the national media looked down on the Carters as rural Americans unworthy of the White House. Some reporters indulged in snobbery by covering Billy Carter while avoiding direct attacks on his brother, a Naval Academy graduate and engineer by training.
The younger Carter earned his image by signing with “Billy Beer.” News sources at the time reported that he received $50,000 in annual royalties from one brewer. Today, that would be about $240,000 when measured by consumer price index inflation. The president’s annual salary at that time was $200,000.
The beer deal, however, was mostly an eccentricity, as was the Lillian Carter joke.
More seriously, the president’s brother received a $220,000 loan from the Libyan government, prompting one of several IRS and government investigations into Carter’s activities as an apparent middleman between American and Libyan oil interests. A Senate committee found that Billy Carter never influenced American politics, effectively clearing the president of any wrongdoing. But the drama was another devastating blow before Carter’s 1980 defeat.
After returning to Georgia, Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter built the Carter Center in Atlanta, staffed not by the “Peanut Brigade” but by policy experts promoting their international diplomatic and public health missions. In Plains, they became members of the Maranatha Baptist Church, teaching Sunday school to fill the crowd until recent health issues and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lillian Carter died in 1983, less than three years after her son left the presidency. Billy Carter died in 1988.
While they avoided dynastic tendencies, Jimmy Carter passed on some of the family business. Eldest son Jack unsuccessfully ran for the US Senate in Nevada in 2006. Grandson Jason served in the Georgia State Senate, as did his grandfather, and lost the 2014 gubernatorial election.
Jason Carter now chairs the board of the Carter Center, but only after his grandparents finally retired in their 90s.
“He wanted to be able to see and experience the transition for the Carter Center without him,” the younger Carter said in September, adding that he “would be shocked if I ever ran for office again.”
Billie’s daughter, meanwhile, inherited the church pulpit. She taught again on Sunday, at one point emphasizing her uncle’s individual faith journey.
“Every breath he takes, he must. Every step he takes, he has to take,” she said. “And once. . . he is going to meet Christ, and he knows it. He knows it. And it’s hard for us. But he is not. His heart is not heavy.”