Editor's Note: This story about Jimmy Carter's active involvement in world issues past his presidency was first published in the Atlanta Journal on Feb. 6, 1987.
President George Washington was named commander in chief of the armed forces but, with no real duties, he spent the remainder of his years puttering about his plantation at Mount Vernon. Lyndon Johnson retired to his ranch on the Pedernales River; Gerald Ford has primarily limited himself to the golf course and corporate boardrooms; and Richard Nixon has remained in virtual seclusion since being forced from office.
Jimmy Carter, operating with customary missionary zeal, has taken on a bolder and riskier post-White House agenda. Operating from the offices of his sprawling, new $25 million Carter Presidential Center atop the hill where Gen. William T. Sherman watched the Battle of Atlanta in 1864, the former peanut farmer from Plains, Ga., has set out to rid the world of disease, hunger, ignorance and war.
His mission is, of course, impossible. But Carter, 62 and looking 10 years younger than when he left office in 1981, has thrown himself into it with the same single-mindedness that led him from obscurity to the highest office in the land. And scholars are suggesting that if he is successful, he will earn himself an unprecedented place in history.
"I can't think of a single former president who has tried to do anything like this, " said Vanderbilt University political science professor Erwin C. Hargrove, who recently completed a book on the Carter presidency. "But that tells you something about Jimmy Carter. He's an unusual Baptist who thinks he has to take his faith to the problems of the world. It's very much in character. He likes to solve problems; that was the main focus of his presidency. And he has created an institution which gives him the scope to deal with real problems."
Dr. William R. Emerson, director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, N.Y., agreed that at least in terms of Carter's hands-on commitment, what he is doing is precedent-setting. "It's perfectly in character with Mr. Carter's personality and temperament, " he said. "This involvement in such a specific, active, alleviatory way is unique among former American presidents. All in all, I'm very impressed with what he is trying to do."
"He probably has taken more direct action than any of the others, " adds Georgia Tech History Professor Dr. Robert McMath."It has the potential for creating a whole new dimension in presidential libraries. I don't know of any others who have tried it. Carter has almost a missionary sense about what he is trying to do. People laughed at his ideas as presidentabout making human rights a part of foreign policy. But, for better or worse, he believed in it."
The library is what most people focus on when they think of the center. But it is only one of four separate but interlocking entities under the organizational umbrella of the Presidential Center, and the only part managed and funded by the federal government. The others are The Carter Center of Emory University, the academic think tank section; Global 2000, primarily involved in international hands-on projects; and The Carter-Menil Human Rights Foundation. The operating budget for the three non-governmental wings of the center is $2.5 million.
The ideas that form the foundation of the center are like old brick brought over from the dismantled one-term Carter presidency to be built upon in a more flexible environment. Consequently, the alleviation of worldwide poverty and disease, the enhancement of human rights, and the lessening of international tensions are the key elements in the center's charter.
Expanding greatly on the functions of all the existing presidential libraries or centers, it involves far more than teaching, consulting and think-tank activity. With 15 full-time employees in its executive offices, the four-month-old Center has launched several on-going Global 2000 field projects with broad financial, political and institutional backing.
The center already has 20 representatives stationed in four underdeveloped African countries - Sudan, Ghana, Zambia and Tanzania. Programs for Pakistan and Bangladesh are in the planning stage. Executive Director George Schira said the number of field workers involved in environmental, agricultural and health care programs will double by the end of the year when projects will be under way in 24 nations. The two major private contributors to Global 2000's $5 million annual budget are 87-year-old Japanese philanthropist Ryoichi Sasakawa, who in the past has contributed $40 million to the United Nations alone, and international banker Agha Hasan Abedi of Pakistan. This funding is matched dollar for dollar by the host countries, which also provide scientific and technological assistance.
The projects are designed to follow through on findings of a 1980, Carter-commissioned study on problems in the underdeveloped world and their projected effects on political and social stability. Schira said representatives will be in China at the end of June, and planning is under way to expand into Latin America in the near future.
Carter has personally visited - to lay the groundwork and put his personal prestige on the line - every country where Global 2000 projects have been launched. "In many countries I'm treated like I was still president, " Carter said. "That's what I can contribute.
"Almost invariably they heads of statewill call in their entire cabinets, experts and people powerful enough to act, and I will explain the program to them. It is not unusual for the top man to instruct the appropriate minister to cooperate right there, so when I go back home it's not just another project on the library shelf to be ignored. If there are problems I can just pick up the phone here and call the leader of a country."
"Sometimes the simple fact of his presence in a country can get done in a few weeks what ordinarily would take 15 to 20 months to do, " said Schira. "He has immediate access to heads of state and he will ask them to lend their support. Then he follows up by getting them to sign an agreement. We won't go into any country without a formal five-year contract commitment."
In conjunction with private institutions and world health and government organizations such as the United Nations and the U.S. Agency for International Development, several specific targets have been set. They include:
The eradication by 1990 of the Guinea worm, a parasite that exists in impure water supplies, grows to 3 feet inside the body and afflicts millions in central Africa and on the Indian subcontinent. Some $2.5 million has been earmarked for the program. Of the 24 countries that will host Global 2000 projects by next year, 21 have serious Guinea worm problems. "I have seen villages where from one-third to half the population is infected, " said Dr. William Foege, a former head of the Atlanta-based Centers For Disease Control, who is now executive director of both the Emory-affiliated wing of the Presidential Center and the Task Force for Child Survival, which is headquartered at the center and works closely with Global 2000.
The immunization by the year 2000 of all the world's children against diseases such as polio, typhoid, diphtheria, mumps and measles, a major cause of death in poorer countries.
More immediately, the eradication of polio from the Western Hemisphere, an effort for which Rotary International has pledged $120 million. "If they governmentshave a good plan for inoculation, we will furnish the vaccine, " says Foege.
The introduction of Oral Rehydration Therapy throughout the underdeveloped world. Dehydration is the most prevalent cause of death among children in poor nations and can be often be reversed by administering a simple mixture of salt and sugar. "We want to teach parents how to use ORT, " Carter said, "and we're trying to do it in conjunction with our agricultural programs."
Schira, Foege and others travel abroad almost constantly and Carter schedules at least two major overseas trips a year to lend his visibility to the center's programs. It is not unusual to find him tramping about some remote village in a destitute part of the world, a sorghum field in Sudan or a corn field in Tanzania. "These are the places where I want our efforts to be remembered, " he said, adding with a smile that "I'm always more comfortable out of the office than in it." He has scheduled a working trip to Pakistan in March.
On another front, Carter is using his ex-president status, the center's state- of-the-art conference facilities, and the expertise of his Carter Fellow Emory academics to promote international conflict resolution and policy discussions. In November, a few days after its October dedication, the center hosted more than a dozen current and former Latin American heads of state for a two-day session, co-chaired by Carter and former President Ford, on strengthening democracy in the Americas.
Carter reasons that his role as private citizen and the center's non- partisan approach has helped get people talking "who otherwise wouldn't come into the same room."
He said the bringing together of such divergent interests "would be impossible if a meeting were being sponsored by some government or politically affiliated group. I had a gathering of Middle East leaders here which included all kinds of factions, including the Israelis and Palestinians. Some of them refused to talk directly to each other but nobody walked out, and at least that's something."
Carter also plans to use himself and the center to promote human rights internationally through the Carter-Menil Foundation, co-named for Houston philanthropist Dominique de Menil.
Last December, the first $100,000 annual prize for outstanding achievements and heroics in human rights was split by Soviet dissident Yuri Orlov and The Group for Mutual Support, a Guatemalan organization whose members have been kidnapped, murdered and tortured for their efforts on behalf of political prisoners in that Central American country.
Emory political science professor Dr. Cortney Brown, an expert on international politics, predicts that the Carter-Menil human rights activity will grow in importance and recognition in future years. "You have to remember that the Nobel Peace Prize started on a very small basis, " he said. "It's only a matter of time."
"He stood for a set of ideas that are still represented in things coming out of the Carter Center, " said Brown. "In the long run, ideas are the things that flourish. They've never developed on the spot, but through long historic and intellectual tradition. Maybe he wasn't the best administrator, but eventually that won't matter as much."
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