A Weapon for Peace

Soft-spoken but strong-willed, President Jimmy Carter draws help, attention to causes he cares about

October 16, 2007|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,Sun Reporter

Jimmy Carter stood eye-to-eye with the Sudanese security official, a man who was barring him and other human-rights officials from visiting refugees displaced by the country's continuing conflict. The official shouted at the former U.S. president, saying the group's proposed visit to the refugee area was not on its itinerary.

"Well, we're going anyway," said the 83-year-old Carter, insisting that he visit those too afraid to speak publicly. He added that Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, whom Carter has known for years, would have no problem with the visit.

"He would say, `Let Carter go anywhere he wants.'"

It's moments such as this one, which took place only a month ago, that have marked Carter's life since his term in office ended 26 years ago. When it comes to aiding the powerless, speaking out for the voiceless and helping to heal the sick, few will tell Carter where he can't go.

Indeed, the man from Plains, Ga., has become one of the most productive and outspoken former American presidents - a point that is hammered home in his new book, Beyond the White House: Waging Peace, Fighting Disease, Building Hope.

Carter is on tour promoting the book, just as Jonathan Demme's documentary, Jimmy Carter Man From Plains, is set to be released (Oct. 26 in some markets).

When Carter left office in 1981, defeated by Ronald Reagan in his re-election bid, many of his accomplishments were overshadowed by criticism of his handling of the Iran hostage crisis, which lasted from 1979-1981.

Nowadays, Carter capitalizes on his statesman's stature and international appeal to make inroads in places many elected officials have not. His 2002 Nobel Peace Prize shows his status as a revered and influential world figure.

As he conducts his book tour and embarks on the talk-show circuit, Carter still flashes a gap-toothed smile. He still speaks in a smooth, Southern drawl, still exhibits the demeanor of a kind uncle who slips you coins for candy money when your parents say no.

His fiery nature is not indicative of a cantankerous old man who insists on having his way, but a compassionate sage compelled to stand up for what he believes.

"Carter is Carter; he speaks out and says what he feels like saying," says I.M. Destler, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland.

Destler notes that Carter has backed much of his talk with work through the Carter Center, the Atlanta-based nonprofit he established the year after his presidency ended.

The center has helped to all but eradicate the spread of the deadly Guinea worm in Africa and Asia. Carter and Carter Center officials also played a major role in peacekeeping efforts in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Haiti and North Korea and monitored 65 elections in troubled nations.

"I don't think that any president has been engaged internationally to even a fraction of a degree that Carter has been," says Destler, who adds that the former president has silenced many of his detractors as well.

"I remember he once gave a speech at the annual meeting of American political scientists, and there were professors there who didn't think much of him as a president. And Carter ate them alive," Destler says. "A colleague of mine said, `He's the best ex-president we've ever had.'"

In his latest book, Carter looks back on the work he has achieved with the center.

"The primary reason I wrote the book is that this is the 25th anniversary of the Carter Center, and I wanted to tell the story of what this unique institution has done," Carter says in a phone interview.

News of his confrontation with the Sudanese security chief made headlines here before Carter returned home.

But he says it was merely a misunderstanding. Ultimately, a compromise was reached for the group to visit the refugees at another location.

"By the time we left the village, we were shaking hands and grinning," Carter says of the security official. "I told him that I knew he was doing his job, and he said he understood that I was just anxious to see the refugees."

Many of the efforts by Carter mentioned in the book have drawn little attention. Among them: the work to help wipe out Guinea worm disease, which afflicts those who drink water containing larvae from parasites.

Those larvae become linguine-like worms that can grow up to 3 feet long. They invade the small intestine and ultimately make their way into other areas of the body before boring a hole, usually through the legs or feet, to exit. The worm's exit is painful, and if the worm breaks off before leaving completely, the remaining portion decomposes into a substance that can kill the host.

Carter wrote while visiting a Guinea worm-infested village in Ghana: "I noticed one beautiful young woman standing near the edge of the crowd, apparently holding a baby in her right arm. Thinking it was the youngest sufferer of all, I went to see this special case.

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