In praise of Carter: We can all learn from an exemplary post-presidential career


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The life of the former US President Jimmy Carter, who announced this week that he had brain cancer, is proof of two things: that America is the land of second chances and very often more good can be done from outside government than from within it.

One reason that Mr Carter was ignominiously booted out of the White House in 1980 was that he was too much of an outsider, even for his own Democratic Party. Having served just a single term as Governor of the not especially important state of Georgia, he was in many respects an accidental President, who owed his election to the disillusionment with government created by the Watergate scandal.

But that same outsider status, his readiness to speak truth to power, coupled with willingness to act where government either could not or would not, has driven his astonishing career since 1981. Mr Carter has not only remade his reputation, but has done more to help humanity than he ever did with the might of the American presidency at his direct disposal.

He did, of course, have a head start on the rest of us, with the contacts, celebrity and ability to open doors that come with having occupied the Oval Office. He has also been fortunate (if that is the right word) in that his extraordinary post-presidency has coincided with a decline in the prestige of the US around the world – not least because of the disastrous decision to invade Iraq – and with the domestic political gridlock and partisanship that have sapped the power of  American government.

But Mr Carter offers a lesson to all of us, whether American or not. A determination to do what you believe is right bestows moral authority. And moral authority means you can make a difference even without the formal levers of power.