A Weapon for Peace

The Baltimore Sun

Jimmy Carter stood eye-to-eye with the Sudanese security official, a man who was barring him and other human-rights officials from visiting refugees displaced by the country's continuing conflict. The official shouted at the former U.S. president, saying the group's proposed visit to the refugee area was not on its itinerary.

"Well, we're going anyway," said the 83-year-old Carter, insisting that he visit those too afraid to speak publicly. He added that Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, whom Carter has known for years, would have no problem with the visit.

"He would say, 'Let Carter go anywhere he wants.'"

It's moments such as this one, which took place only a month ago, that have marked Carter's life since his term in office ended 26 years ago. When it comes to aiding the powerless, speaking out for the voiceless and helping to heal the sick, few will tell Carter where he can't go.

Indeed, the man from Plains, Ga., has become one of the most productive and outspoken former American presidents - a point that is hammered home in his new book, Beyond the White House: Waging Peace, Fighting Disease, Building Hope.

Carter is on tour promoting the book, just as Jonathan Demme's documentary, Jimmy Carter Man From Plains, is set to be released (Oct. 26 in some markets).

When Carter left office in 1981, defeated by Ronald Reagan in his re-election bid, many of his accomplishments were overshadowed by criticism of his handling of the Iran hostage crisis, which lasted from 1979-1981.

Nowadays, Carter capitalizes on his statesman's stature and international appeal to make inroads in places many elected officials have not. His 2002 Nobel Peace Prize shows his status as a revered and influential world figure.

As he conducts his book tour and embarks on the talk-show circuit, Carter still flashes a gap-toothed smile. He still speaks in a smooth, Southern drawl, still exhibits the demeanor of a kind uncle who slips you coins for candy money when your parents say no.

His fiery nature is not indicative of a cantankerous old man who insists on having his way, but a compassionate sage compelled to stand up for what he believes.

"Carter is Carter; he speaks out and says what he feels like saying," says I.M. Destler, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland.

Destler notes that Carter has backed much of his talk with work through the Carter Center, the Atlanta-based nonprofit he established the year after his presidency ended.

The center has helped to all but eradicate the spread of the deadly Guinea worm in Africa and Asia. Carter and Carter Center officials also played a major role in peacekeeping efforts in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Haiti and North Korea and monitored 65 elections in troubled nations.

"I don't think that any president has been engaged internationally to even a fraction of a degree that Carter has been," says Destler, who adds that the former president has silenced many of his detractors as well.

"I remember he once gave a speech at the annual meeting of American political scientists, and there were professors there who didn't think much of him as a president. And Carter ate them alive," Destler says. "A colleague of mine said, 'He's the best ex-president we've ever had.'"

In his latest book, Carter looks back on the work he has achieved with the center.

"The primary reason I wrote the book is that this is the 25th anniversary of the Carter Center, and I wanted to tell the story of what this unique institution has done," Carter says in a phone interview.

News of his confrontation with the Sudanese security chief made headlines here before Carter returned home.

But he says it was merely a misunderstanding. Ultimately, a compromise was reached for the group to visit the refugees at another location.

"By the time we left the village, we were shaking hands and grinning," Carter says of the security official. "I told him that I knew he was doing his job, and he said he understood that I was just anxious to see the refugees."

Many of the efforts by Carter mentioned in the book have drawn little attention. Among them: the work to help wipe out Guinea worm disease, which afflicts those who drink water containing larvae from parasites.

Those larvae become linguine-like worms that can grow up to 3 feet long. They invade the small intestine and ultimately make their way into other areas of the body before boring a hole, usually through the legs or feet, to exit. The worm's exit is painful, and if the worm breaks off before leaving completely, the remaining portion decomposes into a substance that can kill the host.

Carter wrote while visiting a Guinea worm-infested village in Ghana: "I noticed one beautiful young woman standing near the edge of the crowd, apparently holding a baby in her right arm. Thinking it was the youngest sufferer of all, I went to see this special case.

"As I approached I saw that she was holding not a baby but her grossly swollen right breast," enlarged with the parasite, he wrote. "(Later I was told that the same girl had eleven other worms emerge from her body). I fought back tears."

The Carter Center and other relief organizations helped design a water filter to protect people against the parasites. When the team encountered language barriers, the members used cartoon drawings to tell villagers to use only filtered water.

"This particular disease afflicts those people in isolated communities, those living in poverty," Carter says. "Many don't know how to read or write, and some have never heard of television. We had to find a way to communicate other than word of mouth."

Carter says that when the center began efforts to help eradicate Guinea worm disease about 10 years ago, it encountered an estimated 3.6 million cases among 20 countries (three in Asia and 17 in Africa). As of last year, 11 of those nations reported no remaining cases, and seven had a total of 497 cases, which were contained.

That work has largely been overshadowed, however, by Carter's outspokenness. He has been critical not only of the Iraq war but also of the alleged abuses of detainees in prisons at Abu Ghraib, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He says in Beyond the White House, "Since 2001, the U.S. government has abandoned its role as champion of human rights."

Yet Carter has drawn the most attention - and criticism - for his previous published work, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, released last year. His criticism of Israeli officials, as well as a book title that alludes to South Africa's former racially oppressive regime, drew widespread outcry and condemnation.

Some Jewish leaders, many of whom said the book omitted facts about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, protested. Carter ultimately held several meetings with rabbis and addressed concerns before audiences on college campuses.

Carter says that he's "surprised and somewhat appalled" by some of the responses, in part because he said some critics hadn't read the book.

He adds, "I have a relatively independent situation in my life. I feel that I have an obligation to speak the truth, even if it's uncomfortable to some people."

Demme's documentary is largely based on Carter's life during his tour to promote Palestine.

In a prepared statement, Demme said that period brought out many of the former president's nuances, "how terrifically complicated he is as a human being, with such an active sense of humor, an encyclopedic knowledge of a seeming endless array of subjects - and how super-sensitive yet bold, feisty and obstinate he can be at times.

"I love how his un-self-censored behavior and attitudes help reveal how authentic and deep President Carter's faith-based motivation really is," Demme added.

Indeed, as he has traveled the world, Carter stays true to his roots as a man of principle, a Southerner and a Christian.

Despite his hectic travel schedule, he says, "On Sunday morning, I still plan to teach Bible study at our local church."

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

Jimmy Carter

Born:

James Earl Carter Jr. on Oct. 1, 1924, in Plains, Ga.

Education:

Graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1946.

Public life:

In 1962, he won election to the Georgia Senate. He became Georgia's 76th governor in 1971. In 1976, he defeated incumbent President Gerald R. Ford; in January 1977, he was sworn in for his only presidential term, as the 39th commander in chief.

Major foreign policy accomplishments:

Panama Canal treaties and brokering the Camp David Accords, which led to a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

Post-presidency:

In 1982, he became university distinguished professor at Emory University in Atlanta and founded the Carter Center, a nonpartisan organization that focuses on national and international policy issues.

Awards:

Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.

Family life:

He and his wife, Rosalynn, have three sons, John William, James Earl III and Donnel Jeffrey, and a daughter, Amy Lynn.

[From Web and wire reports]

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