Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter has remade himself as a world statesman, human rights activist, humanitarian, and currently, best-selling author. But when Jimmy Carter was elected President of the United States in November of 1976, he had already transcended his humble beginnings as a Georgia peanut farmer. He took pains to project the image of a "common man." He and his wife, Rosalyn, got out of their limousine and walked to the White House during his inaugural parade, and he stressed the importance of his Christian faith and his experience as a Sunday school teacher in his role as presidential peacemaker.
One of the high points of Jimmy Carter's presidency occurred on September 17th 1978, when he announced the so-called Camp David Peace Accords between Israel and Egypt after thirteen days of private negotiations.
"When we first arrived at Camp David," the president announced, "the first thing we agreed upon was to ask the people of the world to pray that our negotiations would be successful. Those prayers have been answered beyond any expectations…"
President Carter was often criticized for his handling of domestic challenges including the energy crisis, economic "stagflation" and the taking of American hostages in Iran after its Islamic revolution. But he was lambasted for his so-called " national malaise" speech in July of 1979 that some likened to a pessimistic sermon.
"… It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will," he said. "We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation. The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America."
In 1980, Mr. Carter was soundly defeated in his run for re-election by Ronald Reagan. Yet, in 1982, together with his wife Rosalyn, he used his famous name to found the Carter Center in Atlanta. It's an international not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting sustainable development, health, human rights and conflict resolution. In an interview with VOA, he explained why he did this.
"I had just left the White House and I realized I was one of the younger presidents that had survived being in that top office in the world … and we wanted to make sure that the rest of my life was spent in a productive fashion…"
Productive it most certainly has been. As he recently told VOA, almost every president that followed him has asked him to mediate in international crises, when direct government intervention was considered impolitic. And on two occasions, he has mediated disputes that have prevented war - once with the North Koreans in 1994, and later, when the United States was poised to invade Haiti. "So, sometimes," he told the VOA, "with the approval from the White House, that 'Second Track' diplomacy can be very valuable."
One highly visible role played by Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalyn -- whom he has called a full partner in everything he has done -- is as volunteers for Habitat for Humanity, a Christian-based organization that builds and renovates houses in partnership with low-income homeowners. Mr. Carter took a break from putting up drywall in Habitat's 100 thousandth home to say that he believes the work is not about charity. It's about community.
"It's their house," he said. "They pay for it. They have the key to it. They've earned it. It's not a giveaway. The giveaway part is just a mutual blessing that homeowners give the volunteers and the volunteers give to the homeowners."
In 1999, when President Bill Clinton awarded Jimmy Carter the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one the nation's highest honors, Mr. Clinton acknowledged the public aspects of President Carters' work on behalf of people the world over, but said that the full picture lies in pictures we don't see.
" Of the one hundred and fifteen countries he's visited since leaving office to end hunger and disease and to spread the cause of peace, of the more than twenty elections he's helped to monitor, where democracy is taking root thanks in part to his efforts, of the millions in Africa who are living better lives thanks to his work to eradicate disease like Guinea Worm and River Blindness, of the dozens of political prisoners who have been released thanks in part to letters he has written away from the public spotlight…"
Not that the public spotlight has avoided the 39th President. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, and his 20th book, "Our Endangered Values," is currently number one on the New York Times bestseller list.