When the Georgia peanut farmer was elected president in 1976, some wrote of him as a hayseed who could not drawl out a decent speech and could not possibly deal effectively with more "sophisticated" world leaders.
Mr. Carter was dubbed "weak" and "bumbling" when he failed to negotiate the release of American hostages held by Iran and when a military effort to rescue them turned into a Keystone Cops failure.
His bravery was ridiculed by many stories, including comic routines about his fighting off a "killer rabbit" that had leaped into his boat. His manhood was questioned when media marauders dubbed Mrs. Carter, one of the un-pushiest and gentlest women I have ever met, the "Steel Magnolia" -- the suggestion being that she was dictating the president's decisions.
Mr. Carter's judgment was belittled when he dared suggest during a period of great national economic troubles that America was in a sort of malaise. It was -- and is now -- in a malaise, but for different reasons.
It was easy to conclude that Jimmy Carter was one of those nice guys who always finish last.
A lot of people groaned or snickered recently when Mr. Carter was chosen for a delicate mission to North Korea aimed at defusing a crisis between the U.S. and North Korea over the possible building of nuclear weapons by Kim Il Sung's Pyongyang regime.
Although he irked President Clinton and timid State Department honchos with his independence while in North Korea, Mr. Carter helped prevent a war in which many thousands of American soldiers, North and South Koreans and even some Japanese would have died or been contaminated by nuclear fallout. We shall never know how many Americans are indebted to Jimmy Carter for preventing that stupid war.
Now, in a dramatic last-minute negotiation, Mr. Carter has erased the need for a hostile, deadly U.S. military invasion of Haiti. The Carter team has gotten a murderous military clique to agree to give up the power they seized illegally. This means that the junta's long, bloody orgy of murder and repression will end and that those elected democratically will be returned to power. Democracy will have a feeble chance again in Haiti, thanks to the wisdom and the reputation of Jimmy Carter.
Top-level aides told President Clinton not to pick Mr. Carter to lead a desperate peace mission to Port-au-Prince. But credit this president for knowing that Jimmy Carter is beloved all over the world (except in some troglodyte American circles) because he has never tried to use his position as an ex-president to rake in money. He does not waste his time on golf courses; he builds houses for the homeless. He does not squander his clout by endorsing scary politicians -- as George Bush endorsed Col. Oliver North to become senator from Virginia.
Credit Mr. Clinton for the gut shrewdness to know that in the last hours of his brinkmanship a team of Carter, a Jamaica-born African-American military hero (retired Gen. Colin Powell) and a powerful senator (Sam Nunn of Georgia) had to be listened to by the Haitian junta and would probably provide the top leaders with a face-saving way to relinquish control. Mr. Clinton knew that Jimmy Carter is a lifesaver in many ways.
Jimmy Carter has every reason to remember all the ridicule and insults he has endured since 1976. He has a right to sing that old song "Who's got the last laugh now?"
But the genuine greatness of Mr. Carter is that just as he hates the mean rhetoric of the warmongers, he also hates the mean-spirited divisiveness of loudly taking "the last laugh."
Jimmy Carter deserves the Nobel Peace Prize.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.