The New York Daily News
By James Warren
Fumbling, bumbling Jimmy Carter has put his critics to shame.
If you watched his candid, graceful and even wry announcement about his brain melanoma, you were reminded that there are multiple stages in life, not just cancer.
A man largely laughed out of Washington after one term 34 years ago is now the exemplar of the honorable post-presidency.
“It’s a model for the future,” said George Edwards III, a Texas A&M political scientist. “He’s shown how a former President can use his fame, status, connections and talent to make the world a better place.”
“He invented the modern ex-presidency,” says historian Richard Norton Smith, who noted the deep friendship that developed between Carter and Gerald Ford, the incumbent he defeated in 1976.
President Obama is plotting what he’ll do when he exits and seeking counsel from his own personal focus groups. They’ve so far included famous novelists, directors, New York hedge fund managers, Silicon Valley CEOs, journalists and actors.
It’s Obama: He’ll analyze this to death, as if he’s a corporate marketing strategist seeking an under-exploited consumer niche.
It was less pre-meditated for Carter, who was involuntarily jobless after Ronald Reagan defeated him in humiliating fashion in 1980. I remember well the American hostages in Tehran, long gas lines, double-digit inflation and a moralizing, micromanaging incumbent.
Like every ex-President, Carter raised lots of money for his presidential library and wrote his memoirs. In his case, he also spent much time in his woodworking shop in tiny Plains, Ga.
He was 56 when he left office, very young by ex-President standards (Obama will be 55). In the modern era, most have been far older or in lousy health, including Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson and Reagan.
A year after leaving, he woke up from bed and startled his wife of 69 years, Rosalynn, who assumed he was ill.
“I know what we can do at the library,” he said. “We can have a place to resolve conflicts.”
That was the spark for what became his Atlanta-based Carter Center, something we’d never seen associated with a former President, a kind of mini-United Nations.
Yes, he still worked building homes with Habitat for Humanity, including one on the Lower East Side in 1984. But the Center was his focus.
Carter and aides travel the globe in missions of conflict resolution, human rights and election monitoring. In May, at age 90, he was monitoring an election in Guyana.
Other than Reagan, he served every one of his successors. He audaciously declared that the 1989 elections in Panama were rigged, led peace missions to Sudan and Ethiopia for George H. W. Bush and successfully helped Bill Clinton with tricky messes in North Korea, Haiti and the former Yugoslavia.
That meant succesfully arranging a nuclear freeze with a dictator, cajoling a general to leave Haiti before we invaded and bargaining a cease-fire between Serbs and Bosnian Muslims.
On the health front, the center’s most admirable programs targeted hunger and an awful disease, Guinea worm. There were 3.5 million cases of Guinea worm in Africa and Asia when the center began its efforts in 1986. Last year, a mere 126 were reported.
“As an evangelical Christian, Carter adhered to the servant-leader model. This did not always serve him well in the White House, where he was often seen as indecisive and hesitant, but it made his post-presidency the most important in American history,” said Nicole Hemmer, a media and politics historian at the University of Miami and researcher at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.
“He’s one of the rare ex-Presidents who didn’t care about what his party thought about him, and didn’t care about making money as some sort of retroactive compensation for his years of underpaid public service, ” said Andrew Rudalevige, a Bowdoin College political scientist.
Conservative critics find him too sympathetic to bad guys, a “Jimmy Swaggart with an over-stamped passport,” as historian Douglas Brinkley puts it.
And the Obama administration has kept a certain distance — a call from Secretary of State John Kerry about his cancer was the “first time he’s called in a long time,” joked Carter.
But after Obama cashes in, which he will do, he could do worse than follow Carter’s legacy.
It’s the greatest second act in White House history.
This article was originally published in the The New York Daily News