He is 98 years old and has voluntarily forgone all medical treatment and returned home to spend his last days on this earth with his 95-year-old wife of 75 years and family. The 39th and the longest living former president of the United States, Jimmy Carter, has entered the final phase of his life, estimated to be less than six months. He is at peace and characteristically has accepted the coming end of his life with equanimity. The news, however, has set off in this country an outpouring of affection and expressions of best wishes for him.
Mr. Carter has led a remarkable life with a list of incredible achievements, not as a president but in his post presidency period. He is known as a champion of human rights, exponent of democracy and a powerful voice raised in support of the poor and disadvantaged. While his presidency was beset with numerous problems, four decades into retirement he has grown into an iconic figure, much admired around the world.
Trained as a nuclear engineer, Carter was an unknown figure from a small town, Plains, Georgia (population 778), from a family of peanut farmers, until he was elected Governor of his state in 1971. When he announced his candidacy for the presidency, the country was still reeling from the trauma of the Watergate scandal, and Gerald Ford, an affable and decent man, had succeeded Richard Nixon, who was forced to resign. Unexpectedly, Carter defeated the incumbent President Ford and served as president (1977-1981).
The Carter presidency was beset with problems over which he had little control. The country was suffering from an economic downturn, high inflation (12.6 %) and punishing unemployment. The US, dependent on foreign oil, had been experiencing higher energy costs since 1973, when Arab countries, led by Saudi Arabia, embargoed oil shipment to all countries that had sided with Israel. During Carter’s presidency, the crisis was exacerbated when Iran and other countries reduced their production and the price of crude oil more than doubled to what today looks like a ridiculously low price of $39.50 per barrel, causing severe gasoline shortages and long lines at gas stations. The public blamed the president for all the troubles.
Perhaps the most notable and enduring achievement of the Carter presidency was the Camp David Accord brokered between Egypt and Israel in September 1978, that led to Egypt recovering the Sinai Peninsula. Intense, often frustrating, negotiations went on for about 11 days at the weekend retreat of US presidents in Maryland’s mountains. Carter, who refused to give up, played a critical role in shepherding and midwifing the agreement since the two adversaries, Anwar Sadat and Menachem Began, intensely disliked each other and would not negotiate directly.
Unfortunately, the part of the agreement that related to Palestinian autonomy was never implemented since Israel made no good faith effort to do so. The Accord, for this reason, was intensely unpopular amongst the Arab public and it eventually cost President Sadat his life. Yet, it was a singular achievement, as no Arab leader since has succeeded in getting Israel to lift its occupation from any part of the territory captured in the 1967 war. Ironically, while both Sadat and Began received the Nobel Peace Prize for reaching the historic accord, Carter, its choreographer, and architect, was not so honored. Since leaving office, he has supported the Palestinian cause, drawing attention to their plight under brutal Israeli occupation.
Unbeknown to Carter, a momentous event was unfolding on the other side of the globe where in 1978-79 a movement of great fervor was brewing in Iran against the Shah and his secular regime. These titanic forces, rooted in Shia religious centers, finally toppled the monarchy on 11 February 1979, forcing the Shah to leave the country, and establishing a theocracy of Mullahs led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Raza Shah Pahlavi, sick with cancer, and his wife were initially given refuge in Egypt. They were in a dire situation. Worried about evoking the wrath of the new Iranian Government, no country was willing to welcome them. The Shah had been a great friend of Pakistan and had supported this country in 1965 war with India but received no welcome invitation. The new Iranian Government was demanding his arrest and extradition, so he could be tried in the Sharia court and potentially executed as had been the case with many others associated with his regime.
It was a spectacular reversal of fortune. Presidents and prime ministers who used to line up hoping to have an audience with the Shah, now could not run away from him fast enough. But the Shah had a larger problem than homelessness. He was terminally ill and needed specialised medical care. He found temporary shelter in the autocratic countries of Central America, with no appropriate care. President Carter was reluctant to offer him admission and medical treatment in New York, concerned about the safety of American diplomats in Iran.
Ultimately, the president relented, moved by his innate compassion, buttressed by impassioned pleas by Dr. Henry Kissinger and Nelson Rockefeller. Kissinger argued, alluding to a legend, that it was morally wrong to treat the shah as “flying Dutchman looking for a port of call.” In October 1979, the Shah was finally admitted to a New York hospital for life-saving treatment amid a growing controversy about the wisdom of the decision. Shortly, on 4 November 1979, the US embassy in Tehran was stormed, and 52 diplomats were taken hostage by a group of so-called students, in violation of UN treaties. The president ruled out any use of force, and all other efforts to get the diplomats released were futile. They were ultimately released, but not until President Carter’s term ended on 20 January 1981. The hostage crisis, showcasing the impotence of America, is considered an important factor in Carter’s defeat in the elections.
At the end of his presidency, Carter gracefully retired to his modest, unpretentious ranch home in Plains, which he and his wife Roselynn had built many years before. Unlike most former presidents, he chose not to go on lecture tours or to serve on corporation boards, thereby earning millions of dollars. Instead, he embarked on a career of public service, promoting human rights that defined his post presidency and brought him international admiration. In 2002, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the honour that had eluded him some quarter century before. The Nobel Committee cited “decades of untiring efforts to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights.”
Carter, a deeply religious man, draws inspiration from his Baptist faith that motivated him to love humanity, help the poor and downtrodden, and strive for peace in the darkest places in the world. He and Rosalynn Carter have helped build hundreds of low-cost houses for the poor, working physically alongside other volunteers under a charity organisation, Habitat for Humanity. The former president, an ardent environmentalist, has traveled to many countries to help resolve conflicts, promote democracy and monitor elections.
Perhaps the most appropriate tribute to the former president was paid by a member of the Nobel Committee: “Jimmy Carter will probably not go down in history as the most effective president. But he is certainly the best ex-president the country ever had.”
Long after most presidents have been forgotten, he will still be remembered.