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Remarks by Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter at The Carter Center Celebration for His 90th Birthday

My major trepidation is over — I didn't have any idea what Rosalynn was going to say. I think I came away fairly unscathed, and I'm grateful to you, sweetheart.

Well, it's been a good first 90 years. I've written a lot of books about my life, and today and in the previous couple weeks, I've had the chance to spend some quiet moments thinking about some of the most cherished times that I have in my memory.

I was blessed, as you all may know, by growing up in and around Plains, Georgia. And I think one of the best things that happened to me was living in Archery, where our family was completely surrounded by African-American children, with whom I played and worked in the fields and hunted and fished in the woods. And I got to know, eventually and slowly, the difference between a privileged group and the ones around us who were not permitted to vote, or to serve on a jury, or to go to a decent school.

I think this, more than anything else, has shaped my life — partially because of the guilt I still feel in not having recognized that disparity between us early on. I took it for granted that if the Supreme Court and the Congress and the American Bar Association and the universities and the churches said it was OK for white people to be superior, that was OK with God. And I think that that experience has been the most overwhelming factor in shaping my life, except for my marriage with Rosalynn, that shapes my life in so many beneficial and gratifying and glorious and wonderful ways.

I was lucky enough to serve in the Navy, as most of you know. I was in two battleships and served on two submarines — almost lost my life three times. And I felt looking back on those times that God saved me for maybe some special reasons — not in an exalted way, but with additional responsibility.

I came home and took over where I thought my father left off and tried to fill his shoes, unsuccessfully. I was a farmer for 17 years, with no thought in most of that time that I would ever go into political office. But I became the leader of the Lions Clubs, and I became the chairman of the education board in Sumter County, and of the hospital authority, and head of all the seed producers in Georgia, things of that kind. And eventually I ran for office and learned the frustrations — and sometimes the gratifying experiences — of helping to shape laws and to see the magnification of what I did. One vote, even in the state legislature, can affect the lives, beneficially or otherwise, of many people.

And then I became governor of Georgia, as you know, and then ran for president. That was the highlight of my political life, obviously, being what some people say is the most powerful person on Earth. In some ways that's true, and in other ways it's not. And I think it's good in our society that the power of a president is limited.

But we still have a great nation with a long way to go. I had a very challenging question at Emory the other night: "How would you describe the United States of America today in one word?" And I didn't know what to say for a few moments, but I finally said, "Searching." I think the country in which we live is still searching for what it ought to be, and what it can be, and I'm not sure we're making much progress right at this moment.

I've had a lot of good things in my life, but the best times have been the last 32 years, here, in this beautiful place on Earth that has set, I'd say, moral and ethical standards that exemplify what a superpower like America ought to be. I don't think we've betrayed that ambition one day since I've been here.

And my life has been additionally expanded and benefited by being associated with Emory University, which has given me a freedom to say what I want to say, and given me the inspiration to reach for greatness — academically and otherwise — and also to have a diversity of opinion — that's very important for any human being.

So today, on my birthday, I'm very, as you can tell, overwhelmed with thoughts about what to tell you. You're my friends, and I love a lot of you as personal friends, in a genuine way. And I am grateful. I feel the love you give to me. I have family sitting in front of me. I noticed some of them were working on the butterfly garden, which was kind of a surprise to me. But they've always been there to support me.

I don't know what the future's going to hold either. Rosalynn and I have to explore and see, but I know it will be guided in the days to come like you've guided my life in the last years that I've been alive, and I look forward to those days with anticipation — and, as I use my favorite word, trepidation.

But I think that it's going to be good together. And maybe all of us together can continue to work to make this country itself reach for greatness. I hope The Carter Center can continue, as it has in the past, to set a pattern of life that would be an inspiration to everyone who knows what we do here. So, from the bottom of my heart, I thank you for this great ceremony and look forward to working with you in the days to come, with a heart full of gratitude, and if you'll excuse the expression, love. Thank you.

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