Jimmy Carter's comeback: Peacemaking is reviving the reputation of America's most unfashionable president, says Godfrey Hodgson

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The Independent Online
SHORTLY after James Earl Carter had left the White House in 1981, and retreated to his tiny home town of Plains in South Georgia, his wife Rosalynn woke in the night to see him sitting bolt upright. 'What's the matter?' she asked, thinking he must be sick. And he told her he had decided what to do with the library which every ex-president is allowed to build and staff to look after his papers. 'We can develop a place to help people who want to resolve disputes,' he said.

This resolving of disputes took Carter and his wife to North Korea last week and a meeting with the dictator Kim Il Sung. He got concessions which may help to defuse an international crisis over North Korea's refusal to co-operate with international nuclear installation inspectors. And he brought off what looks like a remarkable coup: a plan for the first summit between the presidents of north and south in the 49 years of Korean division. But, in public at least, there was a distinctly sniffy response from Washington. This is nothing new. If Nixon's presidency was the most sleazy of the century, Carter's was probably the most unfashionable. In his election campaign, Bill Clinton took good care to dissociate himself from it. Carter's southern earnestness and simplicity had provoked hilarity and contempt from the snobbish hostesses of Georgetown and the cynics of the media. He is what Americans call a 'Christer': a Christian whose embarrassingly saintly behaviour can turn him into a busybody.

Nevertheless, Carter has made himself into a volunteer peace- maker, unofficial diplomat and apostle of democracy, in a way that demands to be taken seriously. Like Richard Nixon, who achieved near-apotheosis as an elder statesman 20 years after leaving office in disgrace, Carter is showing that a man can rescue his reputation even from what is widely dismissed as a 'failed' presidency.

In the past few years, he has brought the Ethiopians and the Eritreans together to negotiate an end to a war that had lasted 28 years. He has been much in demand as an observer and overseer of the honesty of elections: in Zambia, Nicaragua, Panama. He has done all this using the Carter Presidential Center, just outside Atlanta, as his base; money from rich local people and corporations helped to top up the usual congressional funding.

Carter's conservative enemies detested him because they saw him as what Margaret Thatcher would have called 'wet'. They never forgave him for 'giving away' American sovereignty over the Panama Canal Zone. But there is nothing wet about the way Carter goes about these apostolic journeys in the Third World. His involvement in the elections in Nicaragua in 1990 contributed to the fall of the communist leader, Daniel Ortega, while in Panama the following year he waded in while the count was taking place, asking in Spanish, 'Are you honest, or are you thieves?' But it was Somalia which provided the most dramatic evidence of how effective his quiet modus operandi can be. While the US Marines and half the world were looking for the troublesome leader, General Mohamed Farah Aideed, whose men had killed at least 50 US, Italian and Pakistani United Nations peacekeepers, Carter let slip in an interview to an Atlanta newspaper that he had kept in regular contact with Aideed all along. He wasn't negotiating with Aideed, 'just relaying what he says', and he duly dropped in on the State Department to hand the baffled Secretary of State a letter from the fugitive warlord.

Not all Carter's interventions have brought instant success. He himself points out that even a week's talk under the trees in a Nairobi park with the Ethiopians and Eritreans is not likely to soothe the anger left behind by almost 30 years of war in the Horn of Africa. What is remarkable is rather the way he works which, in the technique of diplomacy, is quite the opposite of the way Kissinger worked. Where Kissinger was noisy, ebullient, the master of publicity and not above brandishing the military power of the United States, Carter's style is to be self- effacing, always seeking agreement by emphasising the common humanity of antagonists, as when he brought Menachem Begin of Israel and Anwar Sadat of Egypt together at Camp David in 1978.

Conflict resolution is only one part of what the Carters do - for Jimmy and Rosalynn work as a team, travelling together, sitting in on each other's meetings. They have a whole organogram of bodies, the main one called, with no false modesty, Global 2000. The Carters are interested in human rights, but they interpret that broadly. 'Life and health are the basic human rights' is one of his slogans. He is particulary obsessed with his fight to eradicate a parasite called the Guinea worm, which is found in stagnant water and grows to be as much as three feet long in sores in the bodies of some 10 million Africans.

Carter is amused by the suggestion that there is anything new about what he is doing now. His efforts for conflict and human rights, as he sees it, are exactly what he was trying to do as president. Then, his idealism and his uncomfortably literal Christian beliefs embarrassed and annoyed people. Now, it seems, people admire him for practising what he believes. He is still on a roster to mow the grass round the little Baptist church he and Rosalynn attend in Plains; and it was entirely in character for him to work as a volunteer carpenter renovating tenements for poor New York families.

Even Washington sophisticates are coming round to the view that Carter was not as disastrous a president as they said he was at the time. This is not just a reaction against the conservative orthodoxy of the Reagan and Bush years. Reagan is usually credited with the military build-up that persuaded Mikhail Gorbachev to reach an accommodation. But the build-up began under Carter. Again, even neo-conservatives who scarcely had a good word for Carter when he was in the White House would accept that the recent progress towards an agreement between Israel and the Arabs stems from Carter's achievement at Camp David.

Carter got it wrong essentially in stylistic terms. Most famously the Washington sophisticates laughed and laughed like Brer Rabbit when Carter said he had committed adultery in his heart. He had a habit of striking the wrong note. It was one thing to resolve that he would not lie to the American people; it was quite another to tell the Washington press corps that he would never do so. The energy crisis indeed represented a shock to American assumptions but it was foolish to call it 'the moral equivalent of war'. After the traumas of the Nixon years, it was almost an under- statement to say that the United States was undergoing a malaise. But presidents are not supposed to cancel a trip to Tokyo, make an official announcement of 'the national malaise' and retire to Camp David to consult, not congressmen and senators, but a hand-picked seminar of moralists and gurus.

Carter was the victim of many circumstances: of the mischance of the Tehran hostage crisis and the failure of his desperate helicopter rescue mission to the Iranian desert; of the rise of radical conservatism, itself a reaction, not to his presidency, but to liberal policies stretching back to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society; of hurt national pride after the fall of Saigon and queues at the petrol pumps. He also mishandled almost every group with power in Washington. Not just the media and Georgetown society, but the pragmatic barons of Congress, who were infuriated by his high-mindedness.

One reason Washington could neither understand nor tolerate Carter was the very reason he was nominated by the Democratic party and elected President. He is a Southerner. The wax museum of American folk myth has a whole department for Southern stereotypes. There is Rhett Butler the dashing cavalier, Simon Legree, the cruel overseer, 'Bull' Connor, the brutal sheriff. Jimmy Carter is a far more representative type of Southerner: a plain small-town Baptist farmer with uncompromising Christian and American beliefs, even if he did win a PhD in nuclear physics and build up a multi-million dollar peanut business.

Americans, perhaps more than most, are ambivalent about virtue. It may be a tiresome reminder of one's own shortcomings, but it is, after all, somewhat preferable to vice. As the United States reacts against the 'greed is good' creed of the Reagan years and the 'I'm all right, Jack' philosophy of suburban conservatism, a politician who is not ashamed to say that he wants to be as good as the American people may well be ripe for rehabilitation. And as a nation which not so long ago was made up of three-pack-a-day smokers and two-Martini lunchers bans smoking and sips coolers between work- outs, a President whose adultery was only committed in his heart may be ahead of the times, not behind them.

(Photograph omitted)