The President Takes a Chance on Failure

Jimmy Carter was forcibly retired at 56, in debt and embarrassed. He could've played golf.
March 7, 2011

Jimmy Carter is visiting a poor village in tropical Ghana when he notices a beautiful woman in her 20s standing near the edge of a crowd. She’s holding her arms as though clutching a baby. He approaches her to ask the baby’s name “just to be friendly,” as he recalls later. But what he sees leaves the former president fighting back tears.

There is no baby. The woman is clutching the grotesque disfigurement of her body caused by Guinea worm, a parasite that Carter is trying to eradicate. If successful, it would be the first disease stomped out entirely since the world’s only other eradication, of smallpox in the 1970s, and Carter is getting close to his goal.

“Guinea worm is a horrible disease,” Carter says. The former leader of the Free World has mastered the graphic details about how the parasite invades a human host who unknowingly consumes the eggs in tainted drinking water. “It’s horribly painful and it incapacitates people. It destroys muscles and so forth,” Carter says, “so that it leaves people crippled afterwards.”

At least half of the 500 Ghana villagers on this visit struggle with worms. So Carter gathers with men seated on goatskin mats to talk about ways to banish the disease. Though untreatable, Guinea worm is totally preventable. Yet unknowing villagers had blamed the disease on the conjunction of the planets or the blood of goats or punishment by the gods.

“Have you ever heard that the worms come from the water that you drink?” Carter asks the village chief. No, comes the reply. “We will give your people a fine cloth, through which they must pour every drop of the water before it is consumed. Everyone in the village must do this for an entire year,” Carter begins to explain after a few more exchanges. A year later, “we went back into that village—nobody had Guinea worm. And nobody,” Carter says, “will ever have it again in that village.”

Inventing the Rest of His Life

Some people retire and play golf, but Carter, today 86, has famously reinvented himself in the three decades since he left the White House. Following his disastrous defeat by Ronald Reagan in his bid for re-election, the nation’s 39th president found himself surprisingly in debt (due to drought and some mismanagement of his farm-supply business while it was in blind trust during his presidency). He was uncertain of what to do next.

At 56, he was about to become the youngest ex-president since William Howard Taft. What would the man from rural Plains, Ga., and first lady Rosalynn do with the rest of their lives? After selling off the money-losing farm-supply business, they resolved to write memoirs, but what else? “We didn’t have jobs, we had made a commitment to live in Plains, neither of us had an advanced degree,” Carter recalls in his book, The Virtues of Aging (Ballantine Publishing). “We did not yet understand that there were potential advantages ahead of us if we could only put to use the good advice we received, along with our personal assets, the support of our friends and family, and some courage and planning.”

He sat up in bed one night, startling Rosalynn, who asked if he was having a nightmare. No, he replied, he just had a thought: Instead of building only a presidential library, they could start an adjacent institution, something like Camp David, where wartime adversaries could meet in efforts to restore peace. “I can offer to serve as a mediator, in Atlanta or perhaps their countries. We might also study and teach how to resolve or prevent conflict,” he said, as relayed in his book Beyond the White House (Simon & Schuster). So the concept of The Carter Center was born.

On behalf of The Carter Center, which he launched in 1982 in Atlanta, Carter has fl own millions of miles to the most remote and disenfranchised places for tasks as varied as watching citizens cast their first votes, mediating conflicts and teaching villagers how to banish Guinea worm. About 75 percent of the center’s budget is spent improving people’s health in the poorest villages on Earth and trying to eliminate horrible diseases that are not known anymore in the rich world—maladies such as blinding trachoma, an eye disease Carter and his mother, Lillian, a nurse, used to see long ago when he was growing up in poor southern Georgia. An author reliant on income from his 26 books and counting (White House Diary is his latest), Carter is on a mission—actually many missions.

‘I Don’t Give Up Easily’

A willingness to take a chance that he might fail is a secret to his and his center’s success. “I’ve been ambitious. Once I set my mind on a project, I don’t give up easily,” Carter tells SUCCESS. “I’m pretty tenacious about it. If it’s deciding that I want to be the governor of Georgia, the president of the United States or if I want to eradicate Guinea worm or if I want to teach farmers all over Africa to grow more food—you know, I don’t give up easily. I’m an engineer, so I plan very carefully, and I get as many partners as I possibly can recruit to join in with me on a common project because I have to be persuasive to get them to invest in something that might have an uncertain outcome.”

Thinking back to how he picked himself up to start over from his one-term presidency, he notes: “Once you’re faced with a decision that’s made in your life that might cause you to change your career or change your goals in life, you have to be resilient and patient and then try to seek advice on what avenue to follow next and make a careful decision and then carry it out. But I’ve changed from a student to a submarine officer to a farmer to a businessman to a state senator to a governor to a president, and now I’m running The Carter Center.” So change isn’t new. “Each one of those has required a total change in my career.”

The last year of Carter’s presidency was the worst of his life. He was determined to carry on and make something of the aftermath. He had to start all over again—after reaching the pinnacle. “By God, he did it,” says John Stremlau, vice president for peace programs at The Carter Center. “That’s the lesson that I think everyone can relate to, if they think about it. That is maybe his greatest contribution: That as long as you have a heartbeat, don’t give up. That’s what keeps me going, is to be inspired by: If he can do it, why can’t I? That’s success. Success is an attitude. He’s got an attitude.”

“I like to joke to him: He’s had a great second term—it’s gone on for 30 years,” Stremlau says.

Around the World and Back

To reinvent himself, Carter drew on his strengths, access and faith and in the process became a mentor to others, including African leaders who’d go on to fight Guinea worm. While being a former president has opened doors—Carter can meet with anybody he wants in the world and ask for help or advice—not being in public office affords him the time to do so, which includes travel to some of the most remote places on Earth.

He calls his post-presidency years the most gratifying and enjoyable. His hectic schedule may send Carter to North Korea one week, China the next, then to deliver a speech in Spain before raising money in the United Arab Emirates for his center and returning to Atlanta for a board meeting and teaching Sunday school class at his hometown church in Plains. He and Rosalynn volunteer one week a year for Habitat for Humanity. He and The Carter Center have mediated conflicts in places as diverse as Ethiopia and Eritrea (1989), Haiti (1994), Sudan and Uganda (1999), and Ecuador and Colombia (2008), and the center has gone out on more than 80 election-monitoring missions, most recently in Sudan.

“Physiologically, I admire someone so energetic,” Stremlau says. “He’s indefatigable.” What motivates Carter to keep an exhausting schedule? Rosalynn told an Associated Press reporter: “He’s miserable if he’s not doing anything.”

In 2002, Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize for what the award committee called “his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development.” Carter’s acceptance speech was about what he sees as the greatest challenge the world faces: the growing chasm between the richest and poorest people, as citizens in the 10 wealthiest countries are 75 times richer than those in the 10 poorest. In remote villages in Africa, “I have witnessed the capacity of destitute people to persevere under heartbreaking conditions. I have come to admire their judgment and wisdom, their courage and faith, and their awesome accomplishments when given a chance to use their innate abilities.”

As Rosalynn put it later: “We work with the poorest, most isolated people in the world. And I think often if we weren’t there, there’d be nobody to help them.”

‘A Stubborn Sense of Fairness

“At his core, the man has a stubborn sense of fairness,” Stremlau says of Carter. “He’s got this sort of almost genetic sense of the plight of the underdog.” Every human being has inherent value. Some people are put on the planet with a stacked deck. “His job in life,” Stremlau says, “is to try to change that.”

Having grown up on a farm, Carter seems to easily empathize with impoverished farmers in rural Africa, says Donald R. Hopkins, who played a role in eradicating smallpox and now serves as vice president of health programs for The Carter Center. “He knows what it’s like to be relatively isolated, poor and all of that from growing up,” Hopkins says.

What inspires Hopkins is that Carter could choose to use his time in other ways, but “here you have a former U.S. president using his access, influence and prestige to help reduce these terrible diseases. He’s so deeply committed, and he’s always asking us to ask him to do more things. His attention to detail is very impressive, intimidating even sometimes. He’s deeply interested in this, very knowledgeable about it. I mean, his passion—I think he’s about 16 years older than me. I get the heebie-jeebies when I get an inkling of his travel schedule.” Eliminating Guinea worm from the world could happen as early as two years from now. The quest helps exemplify Carter’s tenacity, his perseverance. “This is such a horrible disease and in such remote villages that no one else ever wanted to tackle it,” he says. Yet now, we’re “just on verge of complete eradication.” The number of afflicted people has been slashed by about 99.9 percent—from about 3.5 million cases of Guinea worm in 23,600 villages when The Carter Center took on the cause in 1986 to fewer than 2,000 cases today. “Very exciting,” Carter calls it.

Showing their appreciation in 1994, schoolchildren in southeastern Nigeria lined the more than 20-mile-long route of Carter’s motorcade, waving tree branches as if they were fl ags as the government vehicles drove past. One child’s sign read: “Watch out Guinea worm, Jimmy Carter’s around.” “It was just fantastic,” Hopkins says. “I am not exaggerating: At least two-thirds, maybe three-quarters of that route was lined with schoolchildren.” Carter almost broke into tears at a ceremony that day at which he and Rosalynn presented awards to four people who’d been outstanding in Nigeria’s Guinea worm eradication fight—one of the afflicted kids reminded him of one his grandchildren.

Mentoring has been vital in the battle against the worm. Carter recruited two African current or former heads of state to expand upon his efforts, Gen. Amadou T. Toure’ of Mali in West Africa and Gen. Yakubu Gowon, former head of state of Nigeria. Toure’, who was Mali’s president, in turn met with leaders in all nine other Francophone African countries battling Guinea worm. In Nigeria, which had more cases than any other country and a failing eradication program, Gowon visited more than 80 communities, enlisting local people in the fight. The country went from more than 653,000 people afflicted with Guinea worm in 1989 to no reported cases in 2009. “So President Carter has sort of engendered two African versions of himself— African former heads of state focused on health problems,” Hopkins says.

The Fight Continues, No Matter the Victory

Eliminating Guinea worm from the face of the Earth is so close—yet so far, as most of the world’s remaining patients live in southern Sudan and the global eradication campaign can’t end if civil war there reignites. Carter, being who he is, did negotiate a four-month “Guinea Worm Cease-Fire” in 1995, which gave health workers access to almost 2,000 villages to give away more than 200,000 cloth filters to effectively start an eradication program in the country. He and colleagues monitored elections earlier this year as citizens voted on whether southern Sudan should secede.

So to banish Guinea worm isn’t just a health fi ght; it also requires Carter to work on fostering peace.

Should total eradication finally happen, “we’ll celebrate for a little while, and then we’ll adopt another disease that we’ll start working on to maybe eradicate from the face of the Earth,” Carter says. “We already are working on fi ve other diseases, but we’ll probably adopt another one to replace Guinea worm. Just start on a new adventure.”

“You know,” Hopkins muses, “I’ve often wondered what it would’ve been like if President Carter had not gotten interested in Guinea worm.” Hopkins had been at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention working for six years in obscurity on banishing Guinea worm before Carter took up the cause. “My colleagues and I thought about getting some celebrity involved. You can imagine somebody like George Clooney or Angelina Jolie. But you cannot imagine either of them probably raising money the way President Carter has and certainly not negotiating a four month- long cease-fire in the civil war in Sudan. He has been very special in that regard.”

And it all happened because of decisions the Carters made when they were involuntarily retired from the White House in a highly publicized election in which millions of people knew of their embarrassment. They didn’t give up.

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