When Jimmy Carter left the White House in 1981 and handed the presidency over to Ronald Reagan, he was widely viewed as a failure. Carter, and the nation, had been humiliated by the long ordeal of the Iranian hostage crisis, as well as the botched rescue attempt that left Americans dead in the desert. The Soviets had brazenly invaded Afghanistan, and Carter's response (including boycotting the 1980 Moscow Olympics) was seen as ineffectual. Carter's tenure also witnessed an energy crisis, soaring inflation, and skyrocketing interest rates. The smiling, confident, fresh-faced Carter of 1976 seemed long gone, replaced by a growing national malaise.
That was then. Today, although Carter remains a controversial figure, many agree that no American ex-president has done more good, or so tirelessly devoted himself to promoting human rights, eradicating diseases, and spreading democracy, than Jimmy Carter. As veteran journalist Frye Gaillard shows in Prophet From Plains, his "extended profile" of Carter in the White House and after, Carter had long been a champion of human rights. (Although, Gaillard notes, Carter's approach has been contradictory at times. He simultaneously supported the corrupt, autocratic Shah of Iran – and his infamous secret police – and yet championed human rights, "determined to avoid the necessity of a choice," writes Gaillard.)
But mostly Gaillard describes President Carter at his best, negotiating the Camp David Accords signed by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. On one occasion, Carter literally blocked the door to keep Sadat from walking out on negotiations.
As an agreement neared and Begin wavered, Carter spoke eloquently to the Israeli leader about his grandchildren, about the need for future peace. The signing of the Camp David Accords would be the greatest moment of Carter's White House years.
In Beyond the White House, Jimmy Carter's own account of the years since his presidency, he begins by describing the dark days of 1981, when he found himself contemplating his future.
That future would start with the founding of The Carter Center, a non-profit organization in Atlanta that would advance the ex-president's humanitarian goals. Carter began by monitoring elections all across the globe.
He oversaw elections in Panama in 1989 and witnessed widespread fraud committed on behalf of military strongman Manuel Noriega. Carter tells how he pushed past Noriega's soldiers who surrounded the auditorium where election results were being tabulated.
"I was very angry," writes Carter, "and climbed onto the stage. In Spanish, I shouted 'Are you honest officials or thieves? You are stealing the election from the people of Panama.' " Noriega's soldiers forced Carter off the stage, but Carter continued denouncing the election.
While many have questioned the appropriateness of Carter's brand of private diplomacy, it often proved to be effective, if sometimes uncomfortable for the White House. In 1994, Carter negotiated with Haiti's military leader, who had ousted democratically elected President Aristide, and demanded that he give up power or face an imminent American invasion.
While Carter telephoned Clinton to hold off the invasion, he successfully negotiated a peaceful transfer of power. President Aristide returned. Also in 1994, Carter journeyed to North Korea and convinced President Kim Il Sung to freeze his nuclear program in exchange for US aid. President Clinton adopted the agreement, which was in effect until George W. Bush became president.
Carter's book describes in detail his diplomatic work and his committed efforts to eradicate disease in Africa. He's a passionate advocate who knows the issues thoroughly and has the courage of his convictions. While working in Sudan to eradicate guinea worm, a parasitic disease, Carter's efforts were hampered by a brutal civil war. Typically, Carter communicated with all the relevant factions and organized a cease-fire that allowed him to treat disease victims.
Carter also describes his many efforts to promote human rights and peace in the Middle East. His use of the word "apartheid" to describe the Israeli government's treatment of Palestinians has created controversy here and abroad.
Carter opposes the present US war in Iraq, and President Bush's overall approach to human rights. He writes, "Since 2001, the US government has abandoned its role as a champion of human rights and has perpetrated terrible and illegal abuses in prisons in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, sent prisoners secretly to other nations to be tortured, denied the applicability of Geneva Convention restraints," and restricted civil liberties for American citizens.
Gaillard's concise book gives a better overview of Carter's early career in politics and in the White House, while Carter's own book has more detail on the last quarter century. At times, unfortunately, Carter's narrative reads like a dry report issued by The Carter Center itself.
But what comes across clearly in both books is the burning conviction and endless energy of Jimmy Carter. Carter's post-presidential years prove that F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong when he said "there are no second acts in American lives." Jimmy Carter's second act continues to be one for the ages.
• Chuck Leddy is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, and writes frequently about American history.