WASHINGTON -- It may not seem possible that such a hallowed thing as the Nobel Peace Prize could be getting a bad name. But Norway's esteemed award has taken some hits in public commentary as its 1990 recipient, Mikhail Gorbachev, has been crumbling to repression from the reactionary Soviet Army and KGB in the Baltic states.
The fact that Gorbachev won the prize for his conspicuous role in lifting the heavy hand of Moscow from the countries of Eastern Europe and encouraging liberalizations at home is brushed aside in allegations that he is now showing his true colors as a committed Marxist or even, some say, a Stalinist.
The Nobel Peace Prize hasn't carried the same luster in many quarters in this country, either, since it was awarded in 1973 to then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, along with North Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho, for diplomatic efforts to end the war in Indochina. Rather than the Vietnam conflict ending, though, it continued into 1975, when American forces were ignominiously withdrawn.
So it is ironic that one of the most maligned of American public figures while he was in office, former President Carter, could be the individual to put the luster back on the Nobel Peace Prize. He has been nominated for it by the American Friends Service Committee for devoting himself "to public service on a global scale" since leaving the presidency in 1981.
It is ironic as well that Carter has been nominated for his service as a former president, when as president he pulled off what arguably was the most impressive example of personal diplomacy by an American president in years, in the Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel. Carter's tenacity in keeping Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin at the presidential retreat for 13 very contentious days until the peace agreement was hammered out was easily the highlight of a presidency widely regarded as failed.
In a sense, Carter's performance as a former president has been just as remarkable. While the other living former chief executives have busied themselves trying to resurrect a tarnished image (ex-President Nixon) or just making millions on the lecture circuit or on corporate boards (former Presidents Ford and Reagan), Carter has devoted himself to public service on two distinct levels.
The first has been his personal participation as an amateur carpenter in Habitat for Humanity, the non-profit group of citizens who build homes for the homeless with their own hands in such slum areas as the Bronx, the Lower East Side of New York, San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico.
On a larger stage, Carter has continued to be a human-rights trouble-shooter in Latin America, personally assisting in the conduct of free elections and monitoring them on the spot. In Nicaragua last March, for example, he provided a bridge between defeated Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega and the winner, Violeta Chamorro, in a way that made it impossible for Ortega to claim he had won. Earlier, in Panama, Carter blew the whistle on Manuel Noriega's rigged election.
Carter also has been the key figure in Global 2000, an organization that focuses on food production and disease control problems in Africa and elsewhere in the Third World, where he has traveled widely since leaving the presidency. Finally, there is the Carter Center in Atlanta that houses not only the Carter Presidential Library but also facilities for the discussion of worldwide conflict resolution, to which many world leaders have come.
All of these activities have gone forward without great publicity, but with Carter's stature as a former White House occupant opening doors and building the kind of personal relationships with world figures on which he can draw in his trouble-shooter role. The very fact that he does not represent the American administration in his efforts gives him a special entree in places, such as Latin America, where U.S. policy remains under heavy criticism.
If Carter were to be given the Nobel Peace Prize, he would be the 18th American and the first former president to receive the honor. Two presidents, Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 and Woodrow Wilson in 1919, won it while still in office. The presentation to Carter would cap a resurrection of his public image remarkable for a man who left the presidency in political ridicule 10 years ago but who persevered, determined to play a constructive role as a private citizen.
Political columnists Germond and Witcover of The Evening Sun's staff appear Monday through Friday. Beginning next Monday, their column will appear on the editorial page.