The Riddle of Jimmy Carter

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That has always been the rub, the core elusiveness of the man. It would be hard to find a person of comparable fame and ongoing public presence who has remained more personally remote. In 1976, candidate Carter created the impression of an honest, God-fearing peanut farmer with a loving heart who would be a purgative to American integrity in the troubled aftermath of Watergate and Vietnam. Much of what drew people to him was his smile, the most seductive American politics has ever known. It switched on like a floodlight, an intense glow that lingered, warming people long after he was gone. But four decades later, even those close to Carter are still struggling to understand what's behind that luminous grin. There are people like that, about whom we know many things and yet who seem forever unknowable. For a man who has lived his entire life in politics, this opaqueness can serve a useful purpose. It draws us closer to him, encourages us to fill in the blanks, to see our best selves in him. But if that proves impossible, the ensuing disappointment and frustration can also produce a ferocious backlash, an untethered need to lash out at what we have been denied.

"Carter's always been an enigma," says Jerry Rafshoon, who served as Carter's White House communications director. "The problem is that people can't categorize him, pigeonhole him. Is he liberal? Moderate? Conservative? Tell me the issue! Even then it's complicated. You can't put labels on him. Never could. When he got into office, the liberals were unhappy with him. Conservatives, especially in the South, were unhappy with him: 'He's one of ours and he disappoints us!' I used to hear complaining from all sides. I'm seeing that with Obama now."

The rituals of arriving in a foreign country still give Carter obvious satisfaction. Although he and Rosalynn, his wife of 64 years, are usually inseparable — during his presidency she sat in on his Cabinet meetings — he has come to Juba without her. She had taken ill in Khartoum, their previous stop, and stayed behind to rest up and visit the Nubian pyramids. Carter has been under the weather himself; on the flight to Juba, he later confesses, "I threw up two or three times." But for the most part, long-distance travel affects him as little today as it did when his conveyance was Air Force One, and he traversed the world, impervious to jet lag.

This morning, he's wearing khakis, casual black shoes, a blue shirt and a red tie. In other words, he still dresses like a high school guidance counselor. He shops like one, too. Carter flew to Africa on a supporter's private jet, but he buys his clothes at the Dollar General store back in Plains, Georgia. "Tight as bark on a tree" is Carter's old friend Dot Padgett's cheerful assessment of his Depression-era frugality.

Carter's days rarely involve spontaneity. Through the agency of the Carter Center, the flourishing, action-oriented organization he founded in 1982 to resolve international conflicts, promote democracy and fight disease, he keeps so busy that his calendar is a legendary document covered with transverse lines, abstract art made out of advance planning. Rita Thompson, a volunteer on his 1976 campaign who now serves as a family assistant, says, "He relaxes once a year. The week after Christmas." That's when Carter takes a family trip with his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren that he organizes right down to the minutes set aside for "free time." To be late for anything on the itinerary is to be left behind, with an exception granted for Rosalynn, whose 57th-birthday present from Carter was a promise to never again nag her about "tardiness." The other 51 weeks, Carter's preferred pace is constant motion, flurrying from briefing to meeting to press conference, maintaining a slam-the-door-and-go tempo that keeps everyone who works for him aware at all times of where the exit signs are.

Although Carter insists that he travels as a private citizen, the truth is that he operates as a foreign service of one, going where he pleases, making his own assessments, issuing statements that can alter the course of world events. The ambiguity of this official-yet-unofficial status has irritated every American president from Reagan on. ("I didn't like it when a certain former president — and it wasn't 41 or 42 — made my life miserable," George W. Bush has complained.) But it's not hard to see why foreign leaders find the time to talk with Carter; a former American president, even one often at odds with his own government, possesses an inevitable patina of power. Up in Khartoum, Carter had met with Omar Al-Bashir, the Northern dictator whose militias have slaughtered millions, to remind him that the Carter Center was organizing impartial observers to monitor this month's highly charged referendum on independent Southern statehood. Now, after meeting with the Southern president, Salva Kiir, Carter climbs into a Land Cruiser and heads off to pursue his other major project in Sudan: curing the great plague caused by a waterborne parasite called the Guinea worm.

Guinea worm has been an excruciating human scourge dating back to biblical times, when it was known as the Fiery Serpent, and is thought to have tormented the followers of Moses. Once someone becomes infected from drinking stagnant water, a white worm as long as three feet forms in the abdomen before slowly emerging through a burning lesion. Although rarely fatal, Guinea worm cripples those infected, leaving them temporarily unable to participate in life and exacerbating their poverty. When Carter left the White House, an estimated 3.5 million people in 20 countries suffered from the disease.

One of the great tensions in Carter is the relationship in him between virtue and ambition; it's often hard to square his public image of piety and good works with his relentless competitive streak. This is a man who, while out turkey hunting, once claimed he could make a better turkey call than a turkey could. Carter's protégé and campaign director, Hamilton Jordan, called his boss "the world's worst loser." Jordan may have had Carter's tennis playing in mind. At the Georgia governor's mansion, there were thorny rose bushes growing alongside the tennis court, and Carter liked working the angles to place shots that produced scarred as well as defeated opponents. In 1986, still smarting from as conspicuous a defeat as this country can provide, Carter was looking to win at something big when he was approached by an old health policy adviser, Dr. Peter Bourne.

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