It is not hard to understand why 300 people could reasonably believe that they are best friends with Jimmy Carter.
That is why they come from all over the country every year to attend the Carter Center Weekend.
That is why they spent more than $4 million in a raucous auction, to help fund the Carter Center’s work in promoting peace and eliminating disease.
That is why they line up early to get a photograph with Carter and his wife of 72 years, Rosalynn.
“This is like a family and a family reunion,” said Patty Garrett, who has been volunteering to work the event for 22 years.
At that moment, Garrett had just gotten a standing ovation at karaoke event that she hosts. She did “Rapper’s Delight.” The full 7-minute, 7-second version.
“I had to contact the deejay prior to make sure they had the long version,” Garrett said. “Karaoke and bingo night can get pretty crazy.”
The Carter Center Weekend, held this year at Lansdowne Resort and Spa in Leesburg, Virginia, is actually a five-day event where the personable former president gathers old friends and family members who have been supporters of his administration, organization and work.
Some people have been to every annual gathering. Others were making their first trips.
The nights might be crazy with rapping, bingo, karaoke and Elvis impersonators, but the days are intense with workshops and panels.
“Every weekend event is a culmination of all those that came before it,” said Phil Wise, a longtime Carter aide who grew up in Plains and attended Carter’s Sunday School lessons as a child in the 1960s. “The spirit of caring and compassion that they all share. Being together every year becomes so special and the bonds that have been created are real and genuine.”
Trump enters the fray
Emmanuel Miri, who runs the Carter Center’s operations in Nigeria, came and spoke about the eradication of Guinea worm disease in that country, which as recently as 1988 had reported 650,000 cases across the nation.
Alexis Herman, who was the director of the Labor Department’s Women’s Bureau under Carter between 1977-1981, and Margaret MacKenna, a former deputy White House counsel, led a discussion about Carter’s role in advancing women’s rights and access.
And former Vice President Walter Mondale sat with Carter on a panel about human rights. It was on that Friday panel that Carter questioned the legitimacy of President Donald Trump, sparking an international conversation and an expected response from the current president. Carter said Trump would have lost the 2016 election without Russian help. Trump, at the Group of 20 summit in Japan, called Carter, “a terrible president.”
“My grandfather is 94,” said Jason Carter, who chairs the Carter Center’s board. “He has earned the right to say what he thinks.”
Hooked on the mission
Carter never addressed his Trump comments again, and by Friday night everyone’s attention had turned to the dinner which always doubles as a birthday party — albeit four months early — for Carter, who will turn 95 in October.
» PHOTOS | Jimmy Carter through the years
» JIMMY & ROSALYNN | Photos from more than 70 years of marriage
Earlier, Brent Slay and his wife, Diane, noticed a note under their door. That is how Carter communicates on official matters or invitations to people at the event. This note was an invitation to the Slays to sit at the Carters’ table for dinner.
In 1998, while their daughter was in medical school at Emory University, she gave them a Carter book as a gift. Along with a “modest donation,” the Slays sent the book to Carter in hopes of getting it signed. Carter signed it and sent it back. Two months later, he invited them to what was then the “Winter Weekend.”
“We said yes, but we didn’t think that we would see the Carters,” Diane Slay said.
But that was just the beginning of a relationship. The Slays have traveled all over the world with the Carters and have eaten leftovers on TV trays in the living room of their Plains home.
When Carter’s predecessor, Gerald Ford, died in 2006, the Carters stayed with the Slays in their Grand Rapids, Michigan, home.
“We got hooked on the mission of the Carter Center and we have been back every year. From that point forward, we have had some wonderful experiences with them,” Brent Slay said. “He is the epitome of grace and his Christianity is so important to him. He is one of the most generous human beings that we have ever known.”
Ed Haddock brought about 15 family members to the weekend.
“To us, it is just a family thing and the Carters are like family to us,” Haddock said.
A former practicing attorney in Florida, Haddock met Carter during the 1976 presidential campaign, when he was trying to raise money and win that neighboring state’s crucial primary.
“If you won there, you were a serious candidate,” Haddock said. “He was trying to figure out a Florida strategy and they just showed up in our office one day. I really admired Jimmy and Rosalynn from the first day I met them.”
Carter won the Florida primary, beating George Wallace by four percentage points.
“He has often said, ‘If it weren’t for (Haddock and his law partner), I wouldn’t have been president,’ “Haddock said. “That has always meant a lot to me.”
The highlight of the weekend, as always, was the annual auction, where the Carter Center has raised close to $40 million to advance global peace and health care since 1992.
In 2018, the highest item sold for $600,000 as part of a $3.5 million record haul.
This year, a handcrafted chest that Carter made circa 1997-1998 sold for $1.25 million. Organizers said that early tabulations of the live auction and an earlier silent auction raised $4.2 million.
“Rosalynn and I are humbled by the outpouring of support from donors who contributed to this successful auction,” Carter said Monday. “Their generosity is helping the poorest people in the world to achieve their human rights to peace and healthcare."
Among the items sold included:
• An original painting by Carter called the “Old Grist Mill” - $775,000.
• A fishing boat dubbed “Bass Force One” - $160,000.
• A guitar signed by all the members of the Rolling Stones - $150,000.
• A pair of framed photographs of Barack Obama and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. above their signatures - $130,000.
• A photograph of Carter and former presidents George H. W. Bush, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, signed by all the pictured presidents - $120,000.
• An autographed Abraham Lincoln lithograph - $100,000.
“We were so heartened by the people who were here and committed to the ideals of Jimmy Carter,” said Vicki Balint, who was attending with her husband for the first time. She bid and won a signed U2 album box set and print. “I was so proud to be able to contribute.”
Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary fame, donated himself.
For a winning bid of $20,000 a couple was able to book him for a private concert.
“I have always supported the things that are epitomized here,” said Yarrow, who co-wrote the classic song “Puff the Magic Dragon,” which was sung several times over the weekend like an unofficial theme among attendees. “Part of my work is to acknowledge and support others. That is why I do this.”
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