How Jimmy Carter became the best ex-president

Depressed and isolated after his loss to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election, Carter found a new mission and changed the world

Prior to Carter, modern American ex-presidents didn’t tend to be paragons of generosity and do-gooding, says 'Humanity' author Jordan Michael Smith.

Nobody expected Jimmy Carter to have much influence after his presidency, perhaps least of all Jimmy Carter himself.

The first single-term president to be sacked by voters since Herbert Hoover, Carter left the White House in 1981 as a disgraced and isolated figure. It didn’t take long for The Christian Science Monitor to report the doubts that he’d find a worthwhile role: “When, they say, has a former president been forgotten so fast?”

But then he found a mission. Carter created a powerful and generous life beyond the presidency, transforming the world and remaking the expectations of our retired chief executives.

“He is widely recognized as the most successful ex-president in history,” writes Jordan Michael Smith in his new Kindle single Humanity: How Jimmy Carter Lost an Election and Transformed the Post-Presidency. (A Kindle single – also known as an e-single – is a story that’s too short to be a book but often too long to be a magazine article. Non-fiction Kindle singles, available via Amazon, typically sell for $1.99 or $2.99.)

Smith, who’s been a Monitor contributor, digs into memoirs, histories and newspaper archives to tell the remarkable story of the months and years after Carter’s fall. Here are 5 facts about the ex-president and his ex-presidency.

1. Carter didn’t have great role models

Prior to Carter, modern American ex-presidents didn’t tend to be paragons of generosity and do-gooding. In fact, some were the exact opposite, setting a tone of shameless self-interest.

Herbert Hoover was “seen as a partisan bruiser seeking political rehabilitation,” and Richard Nixon’s attempt at "elder statesman" status seemed too much like an effort to overturn his rock-bottom reputation.

Most notably, Gerald Ford devoted himself to raking in money through paid speeches, drawing criticism from Nixon himself, who accused him of “selling the office.” Ford even hawked “great presidential moments” medals.

2. Post-White House, Carter hit bottom

The 1980 presidential election was closer than many of us remember, at least up until the final days when Ronald Reagan pulled away and walloped Carter. In the aftermath, his wife Rosalynn wandered the White House in silence, breaking it to pepper her husband with the same questions: "Why didn’t the people understand our goals and accomplishments?” “How could God have let this happen?"

As for Carter, the infamous micromanager was left with nothing to oversee except a collapsing, debt-ridden farm business. As he wrote, he “awoke to an altogether new, unwanted, and potentially empty life.”

He would drift for two years.

3. Peace Center was a bolt in bed

In 1982, Rosalynn woke up one night to find her husband bolt upright in bed. He’d figured out what to do with his presidential library: He’d make it a center for conflict resolution instead of a monument to himself.

But the Democrats had largely thrown him into the wilderness, and he wasn’t exactly a warm and fuzzy personality. The center dream remained just that. A columnist wondered: “What if Carter could indulge his messianic streak, utilize his many talents, and exploit his unique position as an ex-president, all without having to be a politician?”

4. A stunning venture captivates Carter

Carter didn’tactually create Habitat or Humanity, nor was he a fan at first. In fact, “he was annoyed by the organization and ignored it for a year after leaving office.” The problem: His people hadn’t replied to an invite from the group’s founder, who promptly made a public stink about the ex-president’s supposed lack of care of the poor.

Stung by the criticism, Carter spoke to the group. Soon, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter began eagerly repairing homes in slum-like conditions. Their energy and willingness to work and sweat captivated the press and the public; Carter called his work “the most practical, tangible way I’ve ever seen to put Christian principles into action.”

5. Carter’s devout dedication continues

As Smith notes, Carter hasn’t lost his stubbornness, blunt outspokenness or lack of interest in charming those in power. But decades after his post-presidency rebirth, he remains a force for peace, global health, and democracy.

He’s something else: An inspiration. We’ll soon have another ex-president, and there’s talk that he may try to bring peace to war-torn parts of the world.

“Before Carter, ex-presidents didn’t work to help stop wars,” Smith writes. “They didn’t establish foundations to help stop epidemics. Post-presidencies didn’t involve a man working tirelessly for more than three decades to finish what was left unfinished from his time in office.”

Now, anything less than extraordinary generosity would be a disappointment.

Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is a board member and immediate past president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

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