As I watched former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter mingle with the crowd at the recent inauguration, I thought of their legacies after leaving the White House and the possible legacy President Barack Obama will forge after he bids farewell to the Oval Office.
Clinton and Carter, through their nonprofit organizations and their powers of persuasion, have made many positive contributions to the lives of people worldwide.
I am convinced that although Carter had more dramatic failures than successes during his single term, 1977-81, he enjoys the most successful post-presidency of all time as a result of his humanitarian and peacemaking efforts. He is the only U.S. president to win the Nobel Peace Prize after leaving office.
While Carter was at the inauguration, World Health Organization officials and others were praising him for spearheading the overwhelmingly successful campaign to rid the world of Guinea worm disease, a parasitic worm infection that occurs mainly in Africa.
The disease is contracted by drinking standing water containing a tiny water flea that carries the larvae of the insect. Inside the human body, the larvae mature and grow as long as 3 feet. After a year, the worm emerges through a blister in the skin, usually in the lower limbs. The suffering is severe and can be crippling.
To eradicate the disease, the Carter Center in Atlanta collaborates with UNICEF and WHO. An estimated 50 million people were infected with the disease during the 1950s, but numbers released this month indicate that only 542 known cases remain in the world, mostly in South Sudan.
In 1986, when he began the campaign, Carter vowed "to outlive the last Guinea worm." WHO stated in a recent report that Guinea worm will be eradicated by 2015. Carter turns 89 in October.
What determines the actions and careers of former presidents? I am convinced that it is character — an individual's pattern of behavior or moral constitution. In 1996, Hendrik Hertzberg, who served as a Carter speechwriter, wrote a book on the subject, Character Above All.
"It's useful to look at post-presidential careers, because if they can't change our judgment of a presidency they can certainly deepen our understanding of it," he wrote. "Away from the constrictions and exaggerations of office, undistorted by the powers he wielded and was buffeted by, a president's character and personal qualities may emerge in stronger relief once he is back in private life. We can see which of the qualities he projected as president were authentic and which were fake, which of his strengths and weaknesses were inherent in his character and which were products of chance and circumstance."
Hertzberg and others close to Carter say that in almost every way, the former commander in chief was motivated primarily by his religious faith, not by politics. He believed that peacemaking ultimately would triumph and that he had a calling to promote global human rights.
We can see Carter's idealism and selflessness in many areas besides the Guinea worm. Since its opening in 1982, the Carter Center, whose slogans are "Waging Peace" and "Fighting Disease," has developed dozens of programs that improve people's daily lives. As far back as 1984, Carter and his wife have wielded hammers and saws and used their own money to help Habitat for Humanity build lost-cost houses for the poor.
The center's peace efforts include monitoring elections, resolution conflict, the promotion of human rights and democracy and agricultural programs to eliminate hunger, especially in Africa.
Carter, the private citizen, set aside time to help tomato pickers in Florida in their struggle to win a living wage.
The president of the "malaise days" has become an elder statesman by force of character and by his post-White House deeds. I wonder how Obama will use his time after becoming a private citizen. He cannot go wrong by studying Carter's example.