I always have been interested in what happens to U.S. presidents after they leave office. What does the once-most-powerful human on the planet do after he no longer holds such awesome power?
Upon leaving office, John Quincy Adams, the sixth president, said: "There is nothing more pathetic in life than a former president." Franklin Pierce, the 14th president, did not do much better, saying: "After the White House, what is there to do but drink?"
I have observed the post-White House lives of 10 presidents, beginning with Harry Truman. Some used their fame to financially enrich themselves; others faded from public life; and a few went on to do good public work.
From all I can tell, James Earl "Jimmy" Carter Jr., our 39th president — who probably never will be a hero here at home — has created the most successful post-presidency of all time as a result of his humanitarian and peacekeeping efforts. The Independent, a British newspaper, declared that "Carter is widely considered a better man than he was a president."
He is the only U.S. president to win the Nobel Peace Prize after leaving office.
Detractors during Carter's one term in office, 1977 to 1981, mainly remember the 444-day Iranian hostage debacle, the energy crisis that produced long gas lines, the "Malaise Speech" beseeching Americans to sacrifice and the decision to boycott the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.
Admirers, of which I am one, like to recall some of Carter's other decisions: the Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel, signing of the SALT II nuclear arms reduction treaty with the Soviet Union and the courageous but failed push for comprehensive health coverage.
I was motivated to write about Carter because of a recent Associated Press article describing the former president's 24-year battle to rid the world of the guinea worm disease, a parasitic worm infection that occurs mainly in Africa. People contract it when they drink 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, Carter, through his foundation, the Carter Center in Atlanta, collaborates with UNICEF and the World Health Organization. Their efforts are succeeding. According to WHO, an estimated 50 million people were infected by the disease during the 1950s, but at the end of 2010, fewer than 1,700 cases were reported in just four African countries.
"I'm still determined to outlive the last guinea worm," Carter told the AP.
The Carter Center is one of a handful of charities to which I donate money each year. In addition to the guinea worm disease, the center is assisting with eradicating other diseases, including river blindness and malaria. Its international peace programs involving human rights and conflict resolution are highly regarded and sought after.
I became a Carter admirer in 1971, when he delivered his controversial inaugural speech as Georgia governor. He said in public what no other white statewide officeholder in the South had ever dared. He said that racial segregation was over; it had no place in the future of the Peach State. As a young black born in the South and who despised its racism, I was impressed with this white man who spoke so boldly and earnestly.
I have been even more impressed with Carter's humanitarianism since he left the White House. In 2002, I had the honor of joining him, along with his wife, Rosalynn, and thousands of other volunteers in Durban, South Africa, where we built 100 homes for black South Africans living in what I saw as uninhabitable shacks. This effort was part of the Jimmy Carter Work Project, an affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International.
At 86, Carter shows no signs of slowing down. I think the time has come for Americans to give the man his due. Although he may have been an ineffective president by most measures and may get his dander up when his legacy is criticized, he has established a fine example of service that future former presidents should follow.