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Friday, 17 May, 2002, 15:01 GMT 16:01 UK
Jimmy Carter: Born again statesman
Jimmy Carter

Visiting Cuba, Jimmy Carter called for US sanctions to end if Castro improved civil liberties. The former president has won more respect for his recent statesmanship than he ever did during his White House years.
When, in 1977, James Earl Carter Jr blew into Washington DC "like a Southern breeze", the 39th President of the United States symbolised a bright, new future.

Jimmy Carter and Fidel Castro
It wasn't all smiles during his presidency
He'd emerged from the obscurity of a peanut farm in his native Georgia as a man of honesty, armed with the slogan "Trust Me".

With the country still reeling from the Watergate scandal, this platform had much appeal. With unprecedented informality, he insisted on being called Jimmy, and he and his wife Rosalynn walked hand-in-hand from Capitol Hill to the White House on inauguration day.

Yet, Jimmy Carter was dumped from the presidency after serving just one four-year term, the first elected president to be defeated in office since 1932.

Shah of trouble

That was but the last in a series of indignities he suffered as president. At home, the oil crisis had produced high inflation and unemployment, and he struggled to persuade Americans to accept the required austerity measures.

Abroad, his attempts at following an ethical foreign policy became bogged down despite a promising start. The high-point of the Carter years was the signing of the Camp David Accords in 1978 in which Egypt formally recognised the state of Israel.

Sadat, Carter and Begin celebrate the Camp David Accord
The Camp David agreement was his presidency's high point
But subsequent events conspired against him. First, the Shah of Iran was overthrown and 66 Americans were taken hostage in Tehran. Then the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.

The resulting US boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow failed to gain enough support to get them cancelled. He cut off diplomatic relations with Iran and introduced a trade embargo.

But the public did not believe he was being tough enough and his popularity slumped. When an attempt to rescue the hostages was botched, Carter appeared even weaker.

To compound his plight, Iran delayed the release of the hostages until after the new president, Ronald Reagan, was sworn in. It was left to Reagan to make America feel good about itself once more.

Retiring kind

But rather than sulk on a golf course, or resort to the lucrative lecture tour, Jimmy Carter used the prestige of his former office to set about applying his virtues of honesty and application to mediate in world crises under the auspices of his newly-founded Carter Centre, based in Atlanta.

He has worked tirelessly behind the scenes to keep the Middle East peace process on track. He persuaded the former North Korean dictator, Kim Il Sung, to open discussions with South Korea.

Fidel Castro and Jimmy Carter play ball
The ex-president still plays on the global stage
He led a delegation that persuaded leaders in Haiti to surrender power and he brokered a ceasefire in Bosnia that helped pave the way for the future peace treaty there.

He very quickly added election monitoring to the Carter Centre brief, to help further the cause of democracy in areas unaccustomed to it.

He famously denounced the 1989 election in General Noriega's Panama. He advised Daniel Ortega on organising fair elections in Nicaragua which, ironically, resulted in Ortega's defeat.

Honoured guest

Such is his worldwide standing now, that Fidel Castro allowed him to broadcast live to the Cuban people in Spanish, despite knowing that he would criticise the Cuban leader's civil rights record.

The Carter Centre has also established health programmes which have all but eradicated guinea-worm disease, and is successfully tackling river blindness.

Jimmy Carter on Cuban TV
Carter was allowed to speak live to Cubans
What drives Jimmy Carter is a mixture of born-again Christian spirit and a liberal tradition. The latter was inherited, not from his father, who was a white segregationist, but from his mother, Lillian, who joined the Peace Corps at the age of 68, and spent two years working as a nurse in India.

As a child, Jimmy was expected to work long hours on the farm, and home life was austere. His nearest neighbours were his black staff who became his closest friends.

When his father died of cancer, Jimmy Carter abandoned a seven-year career in the navy to take control of the family farm. He turned its fortunes around and became wealthy in the process.

Religious leader

This helped him to attain the Governorship of Georgia which he used as a springboard to the White House.

His sister, a faith healer, had by then convinced him to commit himself totally to God. As president, he continued to preach at Sunday School and always said grace before meals, even at state dinners with foreign leaders.

"God has been evoked loudly from the White House", says Rosemary Hollis of the Royal Institute for International Affairs. "But Carter is trying to do good in the world as opposed to fighting the good fight."

Former presidents Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and George Bush
Carter stands out among former presidents
Jimmy Carter is not without his critics. Some non-governmental organisations working in the field have accused him of often acting unilaterally and have questioned his commitment to longer-term projects. On a personal level, he has been described as remote and hard to get to know.

But, in general, Jimmy Carter has achieved much to be proud of, and the man once derided in Washington, is now universally admired as the best ex-president the United States has ever had.

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