Jimmy Carter: Why that grin is back again

On eve of Carter Center opening, old wounds begin to heal
Jimmy Carter gives a thumbs-up sign as he and Rosalynn give a tour of the Carter Center to Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

Credit: AJC file

Credit: AJC file

Jimmy Carter gives a thumbs-up sign as he and Rosalynn give a tour of the Carter Center to Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

Editor’s Note: This story on the Carter Center dedication was first published on Sept. 26, 1986. The Carter Center was dedicated Oct. 1, 1986

Jimmy Carter stood at the entrance to the Carter Presidential Center, flashing his famous grin and gripping every hand in the group of more than 80 guests.

The business of this recent encounter was part of the selling of Atlanta to the 1988 Democratic convention site selection committee. But beyond the attempt to dazzle the party loyalists with the $27 million facility to be dedicated Wednesday, there was something else. It was a dress rehearsal for the comeback of Citizen Carter.

Nearly six years ago, he was turned out of the White House in a landslide Electoral College vote by Ronald Reagan, the first Republican challenger to defeat an incumbent Democrat since 1888. Retreating to Plains, Carter was shunned by his successor and given the cold shoulder by his own party. By 1982, he had such a low profile that Time magazine was calling him "virtually a non-person, a president who never was."

The reunion of the former president and the convention committee began like a divorced couple bumping into each other unexpectedly. But the tension started to fade as he guided the group through the center's museum, which recalls happier times - the Camp David Accords, the Panama Canal treaty - for the Democrats.

The good spirits stayed with the gathering through brunch, after which Carter gave an aggressive speech scoring Reagan's "abominable policies, " praising the Democrats' ongoing concern about human rights and calling for unity at the '88 convention. And there was one last matter: "I really appreciate your honoring me with what I think is the highest political office in the world. I enjoyed it, " Carter told his visitors. "We did the best we could."

The applause that followed was loud and long. There were wall-to- wall smiles. The healing had begun.

James Earl Carter, who will turn 62 on the day the center that bears his name is dedicated, was 56 when he left the Oval Office. Resolved that a political career that dated to 1962 was over, the former Georgia senator and governor was far from ready to retire. The personification of the Protestant work ethic, Carter recalled feeling out-of-sorts when he and his wife, Rosalynn, returned to their small brick house in Plains and their uncertain future.

"I had never spent a working day in my house since I was a child, " Carter said in a recent interview in his new office in the stately complex overlooking downtown. "I had always been in the Navy, in the Statehouse, or the peanut warehouse, or on my farm, or campaigning, or in the White House, and all of the sudden I was home all day. We had to adjust, and it wasn't always easy."

Repairs to the home where they had not resided in a decade, unpacking moving boxes stacked ceiling high, book contracts to fulfill and family and business decisions kept them busy. "It was good because we didn't have time to think about 'Oh, we got beat, ' " said the former first lady. "We were just snowed under from the beginning."

After putting their personal lives in order, the Carters threw themselves into plotting the nation's eighth presidential library, a repository for the 27 million documents and photographs, tapes and mementos from his administration. He loved the planning, but he dreaded the prospect of having to turn again to supporters with hat in hand, Mrs. Carter said.

During his first year home, Carter had many discussions with his wife and other advisers about his desire to build something more than a "monument, " but the answer to what that something should be was elusive.

One night, Mrs. Carter awakened to find her husband sitting up in bed. "I thought he was sick, " she recalled.

A place like Camp David

Nothing was wrong. Restless, Carter had been brainstorming about the library and told his wife that he finally had figured it out. He wanted his presidential library to be much like Camp David, a peaceful place where seemingly unresolvable international conficts could be worked out through mediation. In subsequent weeks, he added to that the idea of a policy center where scholars could seek solutions to issues of human rights, arms control, hunger, health, environment and world peace.

Attempting to broaden the purpose of the library, dreaming of what was to evolve into the non-partisan Carter Presidential Center, he felt he had carved a worthy role for himself.

The Jimmy Carter Library and its museum, which make liberal use of technology, including a "Town Meeting" attraction where Carter has prerecorded responses to a computer menu of questions, are the only elements of the center that dwell on the past.

Also located in the four interconnected, circular buildings are the Carter Center of Emory University, which engages nine "fellows" in research and consultations on worldwide problems, and Global 2000, focusing on developing food self-sufficiency in four African countries. Additionally, it is soon to launch health programs in several Third World nations.

The Carter-Menil Human Rights Foundation, which plans an annual award for acts of courage and work to promote the implementation of human rights policies, will establish offices in the center soon. The Task Force for Child Survival, an independent group working to help rid the world of vaccine-preventable diseases by 1990, is headquartered in the complex as well.

Carter did not single-handedly found these organizations, but he is the force that brought them together. "It's his view of the world that led to this complex, " observed Dr. William Foege, the former head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control who recently was named executive director of the Emory policy center. "He's a prime example of an internationalist, with broad interests that all lead to the idea of being a citizen of the world."

The wellspring from which Carter's humane urges are fed is religion. Born into the Southern Baptist church, the former president continues to draw a flock when he teaches Sunday school at Maranatha Baptist Church when in Plains.

Hammering for Habitat

"The man is serious about his Christian faith, " said Millard Fuller, founder of Habitat for Humanity, an organization that builds houses for the homeless. "Jimmy Carter simply has embraced the Christian faith as his philosophy of life, and ministering to the least is a big part of who he is."

Not wanting to "commercialize" his presidency, Carter has rejected numerous offers of lucrative corporate board memberships. He did accept Fuller's challenge to join the board of the non-profit Habitat, for which he has worked a week a each year since 1984 as the country's most renowned carpenter.

Carter's hammering for Habitat is not just for show, though he does submit to interviews to help promote the organization based in Americus. "Frankly, he enjoys the physical aspect - driving the nails and sawing boards - more than he does the interviews, " Fuller said. "There's nobody on any building crew that works harder than Jimmy Carter."

He is no less dogged in pursuit of his goals now than he was in Washington.

Carter's loyal lieutenants - who view his White House term as misunderstood and his "exemplary" post-presidency as underappreciated - anxiously anticipate the opening of the Carter Presidential Center. They are confident that, six years removed from the futility of the Iranian hostage crisis, it will spur a renewed appreciation for the perpetual political outsider.

In terms of his self-image, Carter always has kept the faith, they say. "I don't sense that he thinks about the center in terms of rehabilitation, " observed Carter legal adviser Terry Adamson. "He's very much at peace with himself and what he did in his administration. I don't think he second-guesses himself a lot or second-guesses other people's views because he recognizes that opinions vary."

Though Carter rarely reveals his personal feelings, friends suspect he would be pleased at the newfound respect engendered by the center's opening. "Jimmy Carter's values are such that he doesn't have to set foot inside the (Washington, D.C.) Beltway to bolster his identity, and that's a mark in his favor, " said former Attorney General Griffin Bell. "Still, he'd be less than human not to care what people think."

He still stays on the go

Plains will continue to be Carter's base, but he rarely spends more than seven full days there each month. He stays on the go between his international travels (usually four trips a year), monthly college speaking engagements, teaching two days a month at Emory and various Presidential Center responsibilities. To make their trips to Atlanta easier, the Carters had a small apartment with a fold-out bed and kitchenette built off of their center offices.

Carter receives 2,000 pieces of personal mail per month, nearly a quarter of which are requests for appointments to see him. In addition to a personal assistant, he employs two full-time schedulers. Each week, he is given a typed agenda, which always is jampacked.

As he did in the White House, Carter awakens no later than 6 a.m. and usually jogs three to five miles before breakfast. Nancy Koningsmark, Carter's director of scheduling, said she gave up attempting to start his appointments later in the morning after a late-night event. "He was always calling me in and asking, 'Why am I starting at 9?' said Ms. Koningsmark, who often schedules Carter's appointments six months in advance.

Yet for all his efforts, the former president has sought, and received, little national attention, a source of consternation to his wife. "Even when Jimmy was running for the state Senate, I'd say, 'Let people know what you're doing.' And he'd say, 'If it gets done, that's all that's important.' He's always been that way, but in my opinion, the more people know about what we're doing, the more support we get for it."

Reticence is damaging

Carter's reticence about the Presidential Parkway has been particularly damaging to him in some quarters and, associates acknowledge, kept the public's attention on the road instead of the library.

In recent months, Carter has spoken strongly about the need for the 2.4-mile parkway linking the center to downtown and Ponce de Leon Avenue, reversing a previous public stance of neutrality. Richard Ossoff, president of the anti-road group CAUTION, charges that Carter privately was politicking for the parkway and that his refusal to even acknowledge letters from the group seeking a meeting is "contemptuous."

"Regrettably, we probably have not been as good at putting our side out as we should have, " attorney Adamson said, "but that's also a matter of style."

The same restraint has guided Carter in his mostly mild comments regarding Re agan, who will attend Wednesday's dedication with first lady Nancy Reagan. "I recognize that he has a right to pursue his own philosophical goals, and I don't feel that I need to be a crusader in attacking him, " Carter said.

Though the political differences between the former president and president are many, Carter indicated that his greatest frustration with Reagan is a lack of communication. "We've had a non-existent relationship, although I had a regular relationship with Presidents Nixon and Ford when I was in the White House, specifically concerning China, the Middle East, Salt II and the Panama Canal. It's just a different attitude toward the presidency."

Carter may be persona non grata in Washington, but he believes his policies on arms control and human rights have earned enduring respect in many foreign nations - a plus in helping organize the Emory policy center's consultations. "I've been pleasantly surprised that I do have direct access to almost any leader on Earth and not just political and military leaders, but leaders in education, science, agriculture, health, trade and commerce, " he said.

Almost on cue, the telephone rang and Carter moved across the room to his desk to take a call from the Sudanese ambassador to the United Nations. In late Oc tober, Carter plans a visit to the North African nation, as well as several stops in Asia and the Middle East, to check on Global 2000 programs.

"We're very excited about all the cooperation we've had from officials in your government, " Carter said into the receiver, a ray of contentment breaking across his often solemn face. "We want our project there to expand very rapidly and to not only incorporate agriculture, but a comprehensive health program."

Beside a Bible on Jimmy Carter's orderly desk was a small plaque given to him by a mentor, the late Navy Adm. H.G. Rickover. The inscription: "O, God, Thy Sea Is So Great And My Boat Is So Small."