Jimmy Carter stops to build shelters on his journey along high road

June 16, 1992|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Staff Writer

He was a one-term wonder, reviled and scorned, granted an ignominious early retirement by American voters in 1980.

Bitter? Some say so. Broke, too, with debts of $1 million. But not beaten.

Novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that there are no second acts in American lives. James Earl Carter proves him wrong. Twelve years after the Iranian hostage crisis dragged him to historic lows in the polls, Jimmy Carter has emerged as America's most popular ex-president and the Third World's favorite mediator.

The 67-year-old former president, who comes to Baltimore today to help renovate 10 ramshackle rowhouses in a "blitz-building" program for Sandtown Habitat for Humanity, has prevailed by refusing to change.

The man who wore a cardigan sweater, urged Americans to turn down their thermostats and warned of malaise is still telling people things they probably don't want to hear. In announcing an anti-poverty initiative in Atlanta last year, the born-again Christian castigated area houses of worship.

"I see the churches as basically a dormant element of self-gratification and security," he said. "We don't even know what goes on outside this plastic shell we build around ourselves."

It was vintage Jimmy Carter -- his earnest manner, his idealistic bent, his solemn moral tone and his emphasis on getting personally involved.

Mr. Carter flies around the globe half a dozen or more times a year monitoring elections and talking with heads of state -- including controversial figures like Yasser Arafat of the Palestinian Liberation Organization or Hafez el Assad of Syria. He spends the third week of every June with Habitat for Humanity International, helping build or rebuild housing for the homeless. (This year, he is working in both Washington and Baltimore.)

But he still tries to make sure he is back in tiny Plains, Ga., each week in time to teach his Sunday school class.

When he shows up at the work site in West Baltimore this morning, don't expect the Naval Academy graduate to expound on world hunger or the problems of emerging democracies. Friends expect him to put in about 5 1/2 hours of hammering and sawing.

"He does very little socializing," said Nancy McCutchen, associate director of Habitat's Jimmy Carter Work Project. "It's a work camp, and that's what he's there to do."

Nor can Mr. Carter abide slackers.

"He wants everyone to do their job, and he doesn't have a lot of patience with anyone who is not pulling their weight," she said.

Last June, Ms. McCutchen helped the former president build 10 homes and a 4,000-square-foot day-care center in Miami's impoverished Liberty City neighborhood, the site of riots during Mr. Carter's presidency.

"He really felt good about going back and rebuilding," she said.

If Mr. Carter is admired in this country, he is revered in some Third World nations for his advocacy of human rights. As a result, he seems to be the world's busiest, and most prominent, election referee and self-employed peacemaker.

In 1989, he managed to persuade both sides of Ethiopia's bloody civil war to begin negotiations. When Nicaragua's Sandinistas were booted out of power by voters in 1990, Mr. Carter smoothed the transition by bringing together Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega and the victor, Violeta Chamorro.

Before the Panamanian elections of 1989, Mr. Carter spent several hours with strongman Gen. Manuel Noriega in a fruitless effort to persuade him to agree publicly to abide by the results.

After the balloting, Mr. Carter accused General Noriega of election fraud. (A few months later, the general was arrested by invading U.S. troops and taken to Miami for trial. He has since been convicted of drug charges.)

Mr. Carter has poll-watched during elections in Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Zambia. On an African trip last year, he talked with warring factions in the Ivory Coast, Liberia, Nigeria and Ethiopia.

His return to public life may date back to 1982, when he started teaching at Emory University. Today, the Emory campus includes the Carter Presidential Library and the Carter Presidential Center, the former president's private think tank and foundation.

The Carter Center sponsors various mediation efforts, and raises money for public health and agriculture efforts, including a push to eradicate the Guinea worm, a parasite that maims and cripples in Pakistan, Ghana and Nigeria, and a program to help small farmers increase crop yields in Ghana, Zambia and the Sudan.

Habitat for Humanity, started by a Georgia millionaire who dedicated his life to Christian works, is probably Mr. Carter's favorite charity. Since 1984, when Mr. Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, helped rebuild tenement apartments on New York's Lower East Side, they and their cadre of volunteers have constructed 150 housing units in the United States and Mexico.

Looking homeward, Mr. Carter launched the Atlanta Project in September, an effort to persuade the city's political, business and religious leaders to do more to help the poor.

Mr. Carter's political rehabilitation probably dates back to the 1988 Democratic convention in Atlanta. In 1984, party leaders had to have their arms twisted to give him a chance to speak during prime-time television network coverage. In Atlanta, Mr. Carter was invited to address the nation.

It was a long way from Mr. Carter's last months in office. Hammered by critics inside and outside his party, Mr. Carter received a 21 percent approval rating in July 1980, three points lower than Richard Nixon when he resigned in the wake of Watergate. But by 1988, Mr. Carter's approval rating had bounced back to 47 percent.

This spring, Mr. Carter has given his blessing to the likely nominee, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, while meeting with President Bush to explain the Atlanta Project.

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