Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Jimmy Carter strides through an impoverished neighborhood of the Dominican town of Dajabon, where cattle mope behind a tangle of barbed wires, the heat suffocates and the air is thick with mosquitoes.

He marches to a bluff overlooking a river, the sun glinting off his “JC” belt buckle, followed by a pack of barefoot children and their sun-drenched parents. He clutches each hand that comes his way, occasionally dropping a “muchas gracias” laced with his Southern twang.

When he gets to a hovel owned by Juan Taveres, a weathered grandfather whose family once was afflicted by malaria, he eases into a rocking chair. Roosters crow, reporters shuffle, but it seems they could talk all day if not for the waiting convoy rumbling up the hill.

“There’s no malaria here, right?” Mr. Carter asks.

No, Mr. Taveres responds eagerly.

“And none in the future,” Mr. Carter declares.

He flashes that smile — the megawatt grin beloved of editorial cartoonists, an incongruous trademark of a disappointing one-term presidency.

Nearly three decades have passed since Mr. Carter left office. He is 85 years old. Yet here he is, in a torrid, desolate corner of the world pushing two reluctant Caribbean neighbors to fight malaria, a disease long eradicated from richer countries.

And he is smiling, because this is what he does. Since leaving the White House, he has logged millions of miles and visited dozens of countries on missions to wipe out diseases, mediate conflicts, advocate for human rights and monitor elections. He has built a legacy that few, if any, American ex-presidents can match.

“I would say that this life, for the last 25 or 30 years since we left the White House, has been the most enjoyable and the most gratifying,” he says.

He’ll tell you his motivation stems from a frustrating desire to solve what he believes are solvable problems, from seemingly eternal international conflicts to public health dilemmas. He’ll also admit it’s driven by his growing sense of mortality, an understanding that his life could end next week or next decade.

But the ex-president’s age is also an ally. It gives him “great solace” as he contemplates the inevitable, he says, a feeling of equanimity that helps even out his competitive nature. It’s all driving him to make the most of this phase of his life — even if the grueling pace reminds him of those tiring days of his childhood on the farm.

His wife, Rosalynn, has a simpler explanation.

With a shrug, she says: “He’s miserable if he’s not doing anything.”

“I get this feeling he has this ‘Schindler’s List’ going on,” says John Stremlau, a longtime Carter friend who heads the Carter Center’s peace programs. “He wants to squeeze [out] every ounce of helping people that he can. It’s inspiring, and it’s exhausting. I think he thinks every minute about what he can be doing.”

Even some of Mr. Carter’s closest friends say they were skeptical when he first outlined his post-presidential plans. Stuart E. Eizenstat, who was Mr. Carter’s domestic policy adviser, remembers that most of Mr. Carter’s inner circle thought the president was being “overly dewy-eyed” when he dreamed up the idea of mediating those never-ending conflicts.

Almost three decades later, though, Atlanta’s Carter Center is the embodiment of that legacy. And on the warm October day when he turned 85, it staged a reunion of sorts. His top political allies, four generations of his family and hundreds of others convened to celebrate the center’s newly renovated museum.

Mr. Carter, surveying the crowd from a stage, showed that smile once again, grinning ear to ear.

His supporters, all these years later, are still quick to rush to his defense.

Walter Mondale, his vice president, says Mr. Carter took the political heat upfront “so we could all be better off.” Andrew Young, Mr. Carter’s ambassador to the United Nations, says it might take a few more decades for historians to realize the impact of Mr. Carter’s term in office.

“It took 100 years to understand Jefferson. It took 100 years for people outside the North to understand Lincoln. And it’s got to take at least 50 years to understand Carter,” Mr. Youngs says.

And Douglas Brinkley, a Rice University history professor who has written a book about Mr. Carter, says Mr. Carter’s presidency may be more fondly remembered overseas than at home.

“Pick the country — they view him as one of the most successful presidents,” Mr. Brinkley said. “He has helped America’s image around the world because he’s been able to make everyone trust him. And he earns that trust because he’s honest.”

Mr. Carter himself wants to be remembered at least as much for his work outside Washington as in it. The museum renovation speaks to that — it devotes more space than any other presidential library to an ex-commander in chief’s time outside the White House.

“I’d like to be associated with the words ‘peace’ and ‘human rights,’” he says. “Peace, hope, human rights.”

And so he continues to wander the globe at a pace that would exhaust men half his age.

“He’s unbelievably energetic and conscientious. There was no fun and games in the airplane — he was working all the time,” says Bill Gates Sr., who took a 2002 trip with Mr. Carter through Africa. “He’s very disciplined. … He’s a worker.”

His travels — such as his trip to the Balkans in 1994 to try to broker a cease-fire — often draw criticism. Few controversies have earned him more ire than his rebukes of Israel in his quest for Middle East peace, what he calls his greatest unfulfilled mission.

He pays no heed to the critics.

“It seems foolish for him to worry about what the secretary of state tells him over his conscience — he’s going to listen to his conscience,” Mr. Brinkley says.

There’s one lonely balcony in Mr. Carter’s hometown of Plains, a southwestern Georgia town that is exactly as it sounds: flat as a dime. Mr. Carter’s up there, sitting in a rocking chair, waiting for the start of a parade that celebrates his town’s two biggest exports — peanuts and a president.

An approaching reporter receives a flash of recognition and a smile — this time, with mischief.

“Were you at the town hall?” he asks. “That caused quite a stir.”

Just days earlier, he dropped a bombshell at a buttoned-down discussion at the nonprofit Carter Center. When asked about his reaction to Rep. Joe Wilson’s “You lie” outburst interrupting President Obama’s speech on health care, Mr. Carter answered in measured tones, knowing his words would soon echo.

(Watching Mr. Carter stir up a hornet’s nest is like watching an eager child topple a carefully engineered set of dominoes. He knows exactly what he’s doing and takes a certain delight in the outcome.)

“I think it’s based on racism,” he told the town hall meeting. “There is an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president.”

The uproar had mostly blown over by the time he got to Plains, the town where he’s called Mr. Jimmy almost as much as he’s called Mr. President. This town has more than nurtured his political career. It fueled it, as residents eagerly fanned out across the state and the nation during Mr. Carter’s campaigns for governor and president.

Mr. Carter still makes his home here and has deeded the family farm to his children and grandchildren in hopes that the latest generation of Carters can explore the same woods that he did as a child. He still drops by City Hall, pokes his head into the local bed-and-breakfast, strolls along the quiet downtown streets where he once sold boiled peanuts.

The town’s population of about 500 has stayed about the same since Mr. Carter was a little boy. Nowadays, this part of Georgia is called “Presidential Pathways,” and tourists wander around his old high school, explore his modest campaign headquarters and visit the church up the road.

The giant wooden cross hanging on the chapel of the Maranatha Baptist Church was built by Mr. Carter at the woodshop in his house. So were the wooden collection bowls that ushers pass around during breaks.

Like his father before him, Mr. Carter teaches regular Sunday school classes. It’s a big to-do, with people gathering about two hours before he begins, but nothing like it was in the 1980s, when folks would line up at the church before dawn.

He sprinkles his lessons with personal stories, like the one about when he tried fasting with a group of rabbis, and the one about him jogging around the ancient wall that circles the Old City of Jerusalem before sunrise.

“That’s a bragging session,” he says, with a laugh.

His faith in Christianity has forged a “perpetual ministry,” as the Rev. Joseph Lowery calls it, a nagging urge to do more. Mr. Carter says it’s a “constant pressure from my deep religious faith to reach for improvement at all times, to recognize my own fallibilities and my own mistakes.”

“He believes it’s important to try to help people. It’s unbelievable how he mobilizes his energy, the way he speaks so openly and so forcefully,” said Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Brazil’s former president and a longtime friend of Mr. Carter’s. “And he’s happiest when he’s achieving.”

But his faith also gives him a reservoir of happiness in an unstable world, he says, something to fall back on when he feels overwhelmed.

His Sunday school lesson on this sunny morning speaks to that. It focuses on Nehemiah, who gave up a lucrative job after intense prayer and decided to move to Jerusalem and rebuild the city.

“We all have problems, and we all have difficult decisions,” Mr. Carter says. “And we should do exactly what Nehemiah does — pray and ask God for guidance.”

Mr. Carter is clearly a Plains asset. A sign boasts that visitors are in the home of the 39th president. Antique stores sell Mr. Carter’s books, his images and an array of knickknacks, including figurines bearing that grin.

Secret Service agents still fan out whenever he roams the quiet downtown streets, but there are no metal detectors here, no rope lines.

“He’d probably be upset if I called him ‘President Carter.’ He’s part of the population, the community here. He’s a small-town person,” says C.L. Walters, a neighbor. “Here, he’s just another guy walking down the block — he may have a Secret Service agent behind him — but he’s still another guy.”

On this day, hundreds have gathered for the parade, and from the balcony, Mr. Carter jokes with the crowd, telling them that Plains’ long-serving mayor has one-upped him.

“That’s one thing I was unable to do — get re-elected,” he says.

The Mr. Carter who quietly joins a private party at the mayor’s house later that weekend isn’t at the center of attention. Far from it, actually. There is no anxious crowd to greet him, no applause when he arrives. He quietly takes a folding chair near the pool and watches a few dozen of his neighbors mingle.

A friend walks over with a generous helping of peanut-butter ice cream. If it’s too big a serving, the friend suggests, Mr. Carter can throw it over the fence. “That would be sacrilegious,” the president replies.

Soon, a group of high school students gather in a circle and serenade Betty Godwin, the mayor’s wife and a longtime patron whose birthday is the next day.

Mr. Carter sways along, and he smiles.

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