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The Riddle of Jimmy Carter

He seemed like the most open and honest man ever elected president. So why does his true nature remain so elusive, even to those who know him best?

Photograph by Mark Seliger for RollingStone.com

On a cloudy morning at the airport in Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan, a long motorcade of white Land Cruisers is lined up on a battered runway, motors idling. Secret Service agents listening stoically to their earpieces, clusters of soldiers in camo fatigues, tall Sudanese dignitaries in dusty suits — we’ve all been waiting out on the tarmac since well before nine, checking the sky. Jimmy Carter likes to say, “I have a fetish about being late,” and even here, halfway across the world, everyone knows that showing up early to see him arrive precisely on schedule is part of the experience, like watching Clinton eat a cheeseburger or Bush clear some brush.

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There is also something distinctly Carter about the choice of destination. Southern Sudan is seeking independence from the North, but after five decades of on-again, off-again civil war, the country has been so traumatized by killing, famine, slavery and disease that it can seem like a feral place — a failed state even before it has become a state. Though it is early in the morning and still cool, this is late winter, the dry season in northeast Africa, when temperatures rise through the day past 110 degrees. A faint scent of burning fills the air, and the distant echo of things either being constructed or torn apart; in Juba, a war-smashed city with gutted armored personnel carriers strewn along the White Nile, it’s often difficult to tell what is a building site and what is rubble.

This article appeared in the February 3, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.

A white plane banks out of the clouds, and everyone on the runway immediately stops speaking and watches while it lands and taxis to a halt. The cabin door is flung open and there they are, those iconic images from a thousand newscasts: First the smile, then the wave and the climb down to the tarmac, the dignitaries striding forward for formal greetings — the familiar ritual executed with such precision that it is easy to forget for a moment that Jimmy Carter is not still the American president.

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I have come to Sudan to begin a period of months of thinking about Carter. The midterm elections are still nearly a year away, but there is already a public perception in the United States, faint but growing, that the Obama presidency is not going well. As observers assail the president for his scattered ambitions, his lack of a grand vision, his outsider’s discomfort with the ways of Washington, his fumbling economic policies, how aloof and detached he seems, his undervaluing politics because substance is more important, his having written too many memoirs, and above all for his supposed lack of toughness, the man he is increasingly compared with is Carter. In Foreign Policy, the writer Walter Russell Mead has published an article called “The Carter Syndrome,” in which he warns “the conflicting impulses influencing how this young leader thinks about the world threaten to tear his presidency apart — and, in the worst scenario, turn him into a new Jimmy Carter.” Peter Baker, White House correspondent for The New York Times, comes to a similar conclusion. Obama, he observes, seems to be looking more and more to Clinton’s presidency as a model, “because, in the end, it’s better than being Jimmy Carter.”

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Carter is the great national sinking feeling. Carter is where you end up when you lose your way. These days, the kindest thing most people have to say about Carter’s presidency is that he is the best former president, a compliment that Carter tells me doesn’t trouble him — “it does annoy my wife” — but which others in a position to know claim “galls him.” What does it say about Carter that Obama kept clear of him during the midterm elections, even as he sent Bill Clinton out to stump for Democrats? Clinton! — who had said all those nasty things about Obama back when Hillary was running against him. Carter is where the danger lurks for Obama. Democrats who voted for change in 2008 thought they were getting FDR for the global age, or JFK with better morals. Now they are more like Democrats in 1978, discovering just how uninspiring an inspired man can be.

As for Republicans, Carter has the same effect on them that George W. Bush has on Democrats: He brings out a kind of sputtering, incoherent rage, infused with a deep tincture of fear. A recent poll of prominent conservative bloggers, who were asked to rank the 25 “worst” figures in American history, placed Carter first on the list, just ahead of Obama. How has it come to this? How has Obama’s fragile moment become a reminder of the extent to which Jimmy Carter lost control of his legacy? And who really is Carter anyway?

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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.

Bourne knew he didn’t have to convince Carter of the virtues of curing disease. The former president had grown up in rural South Georgia, one of the most backward regions of the United States, where it was routine to see sores on the skin of pellagra-stricken sharecroppers; Carter understood the relationship between stigma and sickness, the circular way one keeps leading to the other. But there are a lot of illnesses in the world that bedevil poor people, and unlike Guinea worm, some of them afflict Americans. So Bourne sold Carter on fighting the Guinea worm by pointing out that only one disease in history has ever been completely eradicated: smallpox. That coup had been less a matter of science than a massive engineering enterprise, a medical Manhattan Project. Guinea worm, Bourne said, could be the world’s second eradicated disease. All that would be required for Carter to achieve such a rare and glorious victory was a sustained organizational effort — the kind of undertaking certain to appeal to an engineering graduate, U.S. Naval Academy, Class of ’47. With that, Bourne had his man.

The first personal trait most people would think to describe in Carter is motivation, how much stamina he can summon of himself to defeat a problem over a sustained period. His college sport at the Naval Academy was cross-country, and until his knees failed him in his seventies, he continued to run long distances. “I was a fanatic runner,” he tells me. “Forty miles a week for a long time.” What made Carter well suited to the sport also explains his aptitude for long-term projects, the way patience and impatience play at useful tension in him. He is always thinking about the distant finish. As a politician, Carter seemed to thrive on being underestimated. He was inevitably the long-shot candidate who campaigned so tenaciously that he simply wore down his better-known opponents. (In his 1970 run for Georgia governor, he shook 600,000 hands and visited, he claimed, every factory gate in Georgia.) During his presidency, his greatest achievement was the Camp David Accords, the historic framework for peaceful relations between Israel and Egypt that was negotiated over 12 days in September 1978, and which succeeded only because Carter shuttled back and forth between the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and the Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, staying up deep into the night, refusing to allow them to quit, singing Israeli folk songs with Begin’s delegation, refereeing moments of stalemate and outrage, inexorably coaxing them toward an agreement. In the end, when Sadat and Begin raised their arms in joint accomplishment, it was Carter’s unexpected victory.

It has been the same way with Guinea worm. Today, a quarter-century after Carter took up the cause and began deploying platoons of volunteers across the world, only 1,700 cases of Guinea worm are thought to still exist, most of them somewhere out in the vast Southern Sudan bush. “Village by village, like chewing on a rock, we make progress,” is how Carter describes the process. Once I hear him use this phrase, it seems so perfectly to express Carter himself that for a long time afterward, whenever I think of him, I imagine a man with a chunk of shale in his mouth, biting