TERENCE SMITH: For Jimmy Carter, it has been a busy post-presidency. The nation's 39th President may indeed be the world's foremost eyewitness to emerging democracies. He has seen history made on the smallest scale, at these unprecedented party elections in rural China, and on the largest.
Two years ago in Mexico, he was on hand when the Pri Party was toppled after seven decades in power. In 1999, the former President flew to Indonesia when the country held open elections for the first time.
JIMMY CARTER: (1999) I think that this departure from 45 years without free and fair and transparent peaceful election, sends a signal to all of us who might be contemplating democracy that it is worth their effort to attempt to achieve this same goal.
TERENCE SMITH: But Mr. Carter has been more than just an automatic seal of approval. In places like Nigeria and Peru, he publicly questioned whether their elections were legitimate.
Conflict resolution has been another specialty of the former President. In 1994, he helped two countries avoid threatened U.S. military attack. In Haiti, he convinced military leaders to step aside in favor of former President Jean Bertrand Aristide. And in North Korea he successfully urged leaders to freeze their nuclear missile program.
That same year in Bosnia, he managed to bring Muslims and Serbs to the peace table.
JIMMY CARTER: (1995) Both sides have agreed that the forces within the demilitarized zone just adjacent to Sarajevo airport will be withdrawn.
TERENCE SMITH: In 1995, in Central Africa, he helped negotiate the return of refugees to their homes in Rwanda and Burundi.
JIMMY CARTER: There will be an intense observation of the activities of the governments of Rwanda and Burundi concerning the safety of the refugees who return.
TERENCE SMITH: And most recently in Cuba, President Carter conducted baseball diplomacy, calling for a thaw in relations between Havana and Washington. In all, according to the Carter Library and Museum, the former President has personally observed elections in at least 15 countries across three continents.
His other missions, which focused on human rights, peace talks, humanitarian aid, and global disease, have taken him to more than 30 additional countries. The former President has not relaxed on the home front, either. He has pitched in to help build homes for the poor with Habitat for Humanity and been active on everything from urban renewal to Native American elections.
TERENCE SMITH: Now some perspective on Carter's post Presidential years from NewsHour regulars: Presidential historian Michael Beschloss; journalist and author Haynes Johnson; and Roger Wilkins, professor of history at George Mason University.
Joining them tonight is jack nelson, former Washington bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times. He's covered Jimmy Carter since the 1960s when he was a Georgia State Senator. We had hoped to be join by Richard Norton Smith, director of the Dole Institute at the University of Kansas. He could not make it because of transportation problems.
Gentlemen, welcome to you all. Jack Nelson, having covered Jimmy Carter all these years, are you surprised by his approach to his post presidency?
JACK NELSON: Not really because I think he's always been sort of a man on a mission. He showed that when he was President and as soon as he got out of the office he could hardly wait to t busy doing all of the things you've just seen on this program. In addition to all of that he's written 13 best selling books. He's writing his 14th one right now, "George's Part in the Revolutionary War." That's a novel.
He's written about poetry. He's written poetry, written about religion, he's written about politics. If you call down to plains and try to reach Jimmy Carter he may be draining his pond, fixing his roof; he may be making furniture. I mean, the guy's a real renaissance man. And I think he's perpetual motion.
TERENCE SMITH: Very active indeed. Michael, what are some of the historical parallels that spring to mind when you think about ex-Presidents.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: They usually don't get as active as Carter did. For instance when Eisenhower left the presidency he was 70, Ronald Reagan was almost 80 when he became an ex-President in 1989. So usually you see these people retired.
For every John Quincy Adams who went back to the House of Representatives you see a rather fallow period. That's why Carter is so arresting because he left office at the age of 56, very young 56. He wanted to do something with this period in his life. And also I think as Jack said, it shows a lot about Carter because he had social values that always went beyond the presidency.
One fascinating thing that Carter says nowadays, if you ask him what was the most exciting period in his life, most former Presidents say the White House. Carter says his former presidency.
TERENCE SMITH: That is telling. Roger, what comes to your mind when you think of past -- ex-Presidents?
ROGER WILKINS: You know, people say does Jimmy Carter upset the current President by doing the things that he's doing? And the answer has to be yes because he's a truth-teller. And the art of politics is the art of the possible. The art of idealists is showing how things might be. Well the politician doesn't want to get there right now. Maybe the day after tomorrow. That's Carter.
TERENCE SMITH: So there's a built-in conflict you're saying.
ROGER WILKINS: Sure. Just think how Martin Van Buren must have felt with John Quincy Adams sitting there saying we shouldn't have slavery anymore. It must have just driven him nuts.
TERENCE SMITH: Herbert Hoover is another example, Haynes, that people talk about as someone who was sent on a mission.
HAYNES JOHNSON: There are very few former Presidents as we've just said here who really get in the history books. John Quincy Adams who leaves the White House disgraced really by the people. He wasn't a popular President. Brilliant man. Great Secretary of State -- he goes on and runs for the Congress and dies on the floor giving a great speech in favor of abolition. You can't go higher than that. That was a mark of honor and distinction in our history.
Herbert Hoover defeated by the Great Depression. It wasn't his fault. He did wonderful things, the civil service in the United States and so forth. I would say William Howard Taft. Here he leaves office. He's defeated by Theodore Roosevelt who ran and broke the Bull Moose Party. He goes in and he become the chief justice of the United States. There aren't many like that.
Harry Truman going back to his hometown and being Mr. Citizen. But Carter of all of them I think particularly in our age this is a modest guy who knows exactly what he's doing. His presidency was not successful. He was defeated overwhelmingly by Ronald Reagan. He is I think our favored former President.
TERENCE SMITH: Jack Nelson, isn't there something of a continuation of President Carter's approach to Cuba? Wasn't he....
JACK NELSON: Absolutely.
TERENCE SMITH: Moving towards a softening.
JACK NELSON: Absolutely. To begin with when he was President he was relaxing our relations with Cuba. He lifted the ban on tourist travel. He established a process whereby we have a Cuban intersection here or a U.S.... Cubans have a U.S. intersection here and we have a Cuban intersection down there. The fact is I went to Cuba in 1978 with a group of businessmen on a... that had been set up because of his loosening the travel restrictions, and I interviewed Carter... Castro, and Castro said, you know, that they saw Carter as a positive figure from the standpoint of Cuban relations even before he was elected.
He referred to him as a man of high ethics and that sort of thing. But the fact is that Carter and Castro kind of hit it off. I mean they've had a lot of telephone conversations together. Two years ago in Montreal at the funeral of Prime Minister Trudeau, the two of them were honorary pall bearers. They had a conversation, a private conversation of several hours. So they hit it off. There's no question of it.
TERENCE SMITH: This is of the peace.
JACK NELSON: Absolutely. I think had there been a second Carter term there might have been a really chance to normalize relations. I know Castro thought that and said that.
TERENCE SMITH: Will it make any difference to U.S. policy towards Cuba, President Bush is supposed to make a speech on this on Monday. So he's got it under review.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And I think on Monday he might actually take a harder line if than if Carter had not been there just to get his back up and demonstrate especially to Miami Cuban Americans that he has not changed his position. But you know Terry, I'd be will to go bet, you know, that the thing in Jimmy Carter's mind when he goes back to his presidency, he sees the highlight of that period as the Camp David Accord between Begin and Sadat on the Middle East. I just wonder whether in Carter's mind he thinks of himself sort of like Sadat going to Jerusalem, the fact that that was able to able to break the log jam that the highest ranking American in history at least since 1959 goes to Havana and begins to get things moving, whether it will or not I think is highly questionable, but I wonder if that's to some extent driving him.
ROGER WILKINS: I think this is just part of a pattern. I don't think we ought to take this out of the pattern. This is an extension of who Jimmy Carter always was. I mean, if you look back at his inaugural address, he said what we need to do is get rid of all nuclear weapons. Well, he just kind of....
TERENCE SMITH: A sweeping proposal.
ROGER WILKINS: Right. He becomes President. He thinks there's too much frou-frou around the President. He and Mrs. Carter walk up Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol. He wants to humanize the presidency so he starts wearing... remember he wore blue jeans, cardigan sweaters. Jimmy Carter, I think, has always had kind of an inner drum. He still teaches Sunday school. He thinks that he needs to use his persona and what it... what comes with it to help change the world.
TERENCE SMITH: Haynes, does it set a pattern for ex-Presidents?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, his life and what he's done and being involved and having an issue and making a difference in this... I think Michael is exactly right. To be the emissary to the world, to solve conflict resolutions that's who Jimmy Carter is.
But I don't think we ought to put bronze on him yet. I mean he's doing fine. He's a wonderful, admirable human being with great moral values. He was not a successful President. But what he's doing is devoting his life to things that really count. Building Habitat for Humanity -- this is a modest, hard-working guy sticking to his principles. We should celebrate him for that. But I don't think we should all of a sudden his presidency wasn't raving with success necessarily. It was a hard and difficult time.
ROGER WILKINS: I don't think we ever said that.
HAYNES JOHNSON: I know that.
TERENCE SMITH: Let me ask this. Is there a danger in any of this, of ex-Presidents free lancing in foreign policy around the globe? Surely it makes life difficult for the administrations.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It does. That's been pretty rare in history. Richard Norton Smith, if he were here, I'll bet he would have told us something he wrote really wonderfully about which was to as a former President Herbert Hoover went to Germany during the Hitler time and caused a lot of problems because people abroad didn't understand that Hoover had not been sent by the American President.
But one reason why Carter is unusual is that especially in recent times and especially during the Cold war time and afterwards, former Presidents generally try to do things that are not out of concert with the President of the... in the White House. Carter sees himself much more as a global figure and I think that's driving this.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. But he's getting out ahead, is it not, certainly of this President?
JACK NELSON: He is but the fact that he has very good relations with President Bush. Better relations with....
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: He may not anymore, Jack.
JACK NELSON: Well, he's had better relations with President Bush though than he had with President Clinton, for example. My guess is he's going to come out of all right with his relations with Bush. I mean Bush may be a little bit upset. After all he had to approve the visit though.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: My feeling was that after this trip, Bill Clinton is a man that has just become George W. Bush's favorite Democratic President.
TERENCE SMITH: Does this establish a pattern for Bill Clinton? Here's another very young ex-President.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Yeah, he would love to be in this role of being sent on missions. If George Bush would make him the roving ambassador to solve the Middle East problems which I think would be a good idea as a matter of fact but it's not going to happen politically. No way that's going to happen right now.
The role of former Presidents is a very tricky one. I mean, look at Richard Nixon when he left office and the people were so... sort of looking at Richard Nixon as this great, gloomy, dark figure. People ran against him. He never got along with the other Presidents. It's been that way. Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt fought each other bitterly. It's a hard thing to establish this relationship. I think Carter has done very well in that respect.
JACK NELSON: However, Terry, back to your question about does it set a pattern, President Clinton is trying to set his ex-presidency very much in the mold of Carter. He's setting up his library as an international learning center very much like the Carter Center. The Carter Center motto: waging peace, fighting disease, building hope. My feeling is that in Cuba, maybe that's all he's done is build some hope. But that's not bad. That's not a bad accomplishment if he's built some hope down there.
TERENCE SMITH: He was very sober in fact, in describing, Roger, his limited achievements and maybe even limited expectations. He said he did not believe that Fidel Castro was going to welcome dissidents.
ROGER WILKINS: Right. I think that's one of the reasons that we won't see Bill Clinton in the model of Jimmy Carter. Because there is... there is a drive in Jimmy Carter but there's also a discipline. He mean he may do things that annoy occupants of the White House, but you never get the sense that Jimmy Carter is out of control, that he's... I think that future occupants of the White House and even this one will not feel that Bill Clinton will not get out of control. By that I mean Clinton is so talky and he's so smart and he's so full of energy and he's so spontaneous that it is really hard to envision him in this kind of role.
TERENCE SMITH: Of course he's heading off to East Timor so there is a role even for this ex-President. Go ahead.
HAYNES JOHNSON: I was just thinking about Cuba though. What we've seen here, this former President did something extraordinary. When he spoke to the Cuban people, Castro let him do it over television -- Castro sitting right in front of him, the first President, ten American Presidents and he's the first one to have gone down there to Cuba and talks' human rights, criticizes their records, names the dissidents and so forth.
ROGER WILKINS: In Spanish.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Hey, bravo. That's pretty good.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And he's betting on the possibility that that may lead to a softening of the tough policies of Castro and a better world in Cuba. If that happens historians will look very well on this trip but as always, time will tell.
TERENCE SMITH: And the Middle East? There is another area. Is that ripe for an ex-President or is that too hot?
JACK NELSON: Well, you know, there was some talk about President Bush sending over his father and sending over Bill Clinton and sending over Jimmy Carter. Carter was very interested. I don't know about he other two. I don't know about the other two. My guess is they might have been. But, as Haynes says, that will never happen.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, I think with Carter, I must say he's got the background certainly, the expertise. The Camp David accords, and so forth.
JACK NELSON: Don't expect him to send him over.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I don't expect to see Carter because has made himself almost like a Secretary General of an international organization.
HAYNES JOHNSON: That's right.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: The Carter Center, it's very hard for him to pry himself from the limited role of being essentially an American emissary.
HAYNES JOHNSON: You have to be someone who is particularly for the President not only for your own organization.
TERENCE SMITH: Finally, roger, it sounds like we're struggling to find a role for ex-Presidents, and they're finding it for themselves.
ROGER WILKINS: Well, I think that they do find it for themselves. Lyndon Johnson left office and he was low and he was unhappy. And I saw him in New York about six months before he died. And we had a chat. And I said, "Why don't you speak out on civil rights?" He said, "Do you think anybody would listen to me?" I said, "sure." He said, "I'll think about that."
Well, in a few months, at the LBJ Library dedication, he stood up -- and he was very ill -- and he made a stem-winding, brilliant civil rights speech. So there is, in most of these men, a desire to do something good and to change things. Johnson did it. I think most of them... and we're living longer and so many... we'll see much more of this in the future I think.
TERENCE SMITH: Gentlemen, thank you all very much.