Few American politicians have ever been as low as former President Jimmy Carter was in 1981. "When Carter came out of the White House, he was at the nadir of popularity," remembers his friend and colleague, Dr. James Laney of Emory University. "I mean, it wasn't just that he was unpopular. People avoided him... he was a loser." Yet today, the same man is an admired figure in America and around the world, an elder statesman whose name is synonymous with honesty, integrity, and service to others. Carter received the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize for his ongoing efforts to make the world a better place. It is one of the great comeback stories of all time.
Looking for a Role
Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter didn't know what they would do with themselves when they arrived back in Plains, Georgia, in January 1981. Still stung by a humiliating defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan, the former leader of the free world faced what he called "an altogether new, unwanted, and potentially empty life" at the age of 56. The first year he spent working in his wood shop, writing his White House memoirs, and reluctantly raising money for a presidential library. But none of these things would suffice, in the long run, for a man with Carter's energy and ambition. "The notion that somehow he could do like some ex-presidents, playing golf and traveling around and sort of relaxing -- anyone who knew him, knew this wasn't going to happen," says historian Dan T. Carter. "The only question was not whether he was going to do something after he left the White House. The question was what he was going to do."
Then, as Mrs. Carter recalls, "One night I woke up and Jimmy was sitting straight up in the bed. This is after we'd been home about a year, or maybe not quite that long. And I said, 'What's the matter?' I thought he was sick because he always sleeps all right, even in the White House, he can turn things off and go to sleep. And he said, 'I know what we can do at the library. We can have a place to resolve conflicts. If there had been such a place, I wouldn't have had to take Prime Minister Begin and President Sadat to Camp David.' And so that was the germ of the idea for what became the Carter Center."
A Grandiose Vision
As former Secretary of State and fellow Georgian Dean Rusk commented, what Carter had in mind was not a normal presidential library or even a think-tank, but nothing less than "a mini-United Nations" in Atlanta. "He shared with me his vision," recalls Dr. Laney, then president of Emory University where former President Carter was teaching some classes, "He was going to do this and that, and I thought: 'Oh no, that's so grandiose.' Frankly, I was embarrassed for him." But Carter -- who had spent a lifetime defying the odds -- was unfazed, and went to work raising the money and making plans for the 35-acre campus just outside of downtown Atlanta.
A Modest Beginning
In the meantime, it was a far less ambitious project that caught the imagination of the public and made Americans see Carter in a different light. In 1984 President and Mrs. Carter began working with Habitat for Humanity, a Christian organization based just down the road from Plains, devoted to building low-cost housing for the poor. That fall they journeyed to New York City to rebuild a tenement, where the sight of the hammer-wielding former president caused many Americans to reappraise the man they had voted out of office four years before. Now that he no longer served them from the White House, it seemed, people were free to appreciate the idealism and selflessness they had first appreciated in Carter in 1976. "When you're there as a private citizen, and you're there because of your faith, there's something nice and fresh and humble about that," notes Ambassador Andrew Young. "It's a language people understand."
The Carter Center's Efforts
Since the Carter Center opened its doors in 1982, it has developed dozens of programs to alleviate suffering and improve lives around the world. Its efforts fall broadly under two categories, "Waging Peace" and "Fighting Disease." The Carters' peace work includes conflict resolution, election monitoring, and the promotion of human rights and democracy. Health programs include agricultural initiatives to eliminate hunger in Africa, Rosalynn Carter's mental health task force, and programs to control or eradicate preventable diseases afflicting the world's poorest people. The best example of the latter is the Guinea worm eradication program, which has so far succeeded in reducing this debilitating disease by 98% world-wide, making it potentially just the second disease after smallpox to be wiped out by human effort. In all, Carter Center programs have reached 65 countries, with the greatest impact on the developing world.
Missions for Other Presidents
Though he is always representing the Carter Center in some capacity, Jimmy Carter has also carved out an individual role as an elder statesman. He never served under President Reagan -- bitterness over the 1980 election and Carter's vocal criticism of Reagan's foreign policy made it unthinkable -- but Carter has gone on diplomatic missions under each of his other successors. When he bravely declared the 1989 elections in Panama rigged by Manuel Noriega, Carter received an avalanche of favorable press for what the New Republic called "a masterpiece of guerilla diplomacy." Though some Republicans remained wary of him, Carter's zeal and his good relationship with President George H. W. Bush's Secretary of State, James Baker, led to peace missions in Ethiopia and the Sudan. In 1994 he helped the Clinton administration broker peace in three dangerous conflicts, traveling to North Korea to arrange a nuclear freeze with dictator Kim Il Sung, to Haiti to persuade General Raoul Cedras to step down before an American invasion force arrived, and to the former Yugoslavia to negotiate a cease-fire between warring Bosnian Muslims and Serbs.
A Political Problem?
Carter's highly personal, mercenary-for-peace approach did not always sit well with the presidents he served. When he reported his version of the Haiti mission to the CNN television news channel before debriefing the White House, President Clinton was furious. Conservatives also accused Carter of appeasing dictators in pursuit of peace. As Brinkley wrote, "the Clinton administration now saw Carter as a serious political problem that had to be contained," and he was all but sidelined during Clinton's second term. Despite the lack of official portfolio, Carter's status as a world statesman has hardly diminished. In May 2002 he became the highest American official to visit Cuba since Fidel Castro came to power, receiving front-page coverage which showed he had not exactly retired from the world stage, even at the age of 77.
Even in his role as elder statesman, Carter has always had his critics. "To his admirers, he was a blue-blazered reincarnation of Mahatma Gandhi," wrote Brinkley. "To his detractors he was Jimmy Swaggart with an over-stamped passport." But while some feel he is motivated by a selfish desire to redeem his presidency or win the Nobel Prize that has eluded him, even most of his critics admire his genuine desire to do good. Whether building homes with Habitat or brokering peace between warring factions, monitoring democratic elections or eradicating life-threatening epidemics in Africa, the president of the “malaise days” has earned wide respect and admiration. "He's been at it full-time, around the clock, with that same dedication, that same laser-like concentration," notes former Vice President Walter Mondale. "Finally now the American people are seeing all of this happen, and people say, 'Hey, here's really a good man.'"
The Post-Presidency and Carter's Legacy
"Being a good ex-president doesn't somehow retrospectively make you a better president," says former Carter speechwriter Hendrik Hertzberg, describing the effect the last 20 years have had on Carter's place in history. "What a post-presidency can do, though, is to shed light on the character of a president. It can show you in greater relief the strengths and weaknesses of a person, which were real, which were fake. We've certainly seen that very clearly with Jimmy Carter in the qualities of perseverance, dedication, integrity, devotion to the values of human rights and peace. Those have all turned out to be very, very real." Carter's former pollster, Patrick Caddell, concurs. "I think he's going to be remembered as a great man," says "The presidency was [just] the beginning of everything he helped build in this world. And that there will not be many American presidents who can walk away saying they accomplished what he's accomplished."
My American Experience
Who was your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Kennedy? Reagan? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?