What separated Jimmy Carter's outlook for retirement from other former presidents who were still healthy when they left office? What kept him from golf, corporate boards, and huge speaking fees? For Carter, Brinkley explains, it was simple:
each person can and should make a difference today; waiting until tomorrow will not suffice, regardless of station in life. Carter firmly believed that problems could be resolved by negotiations, not by violent actions. Naive for some, perhaps, but Carter was never deterred by what others thought of his motivations. His four years as the 39th U.S. president were insufficient to do all that he wanted to accomplish. Losing the presidency in 1980 did not deter his passion to be engaged and achieve; it merely meant finding another platform from which to operate.
His vehicle for engaging in what were primarily foreign policy issues was The Carter Center of Emory University with its handful of Emory faculty and proven stalwarts from the Centers for Disease Control. He focused on issues that mattered deeply to him: human rights, arms control, Middle East peace, enhancing democratic values in Africa and Latin America, and eradicating disease. Toward this end, Carter traveled the world, intervened personally in world trouble spots like North Korea, Haiti, the Sudan, and Nicaragua, speaking out on controversial issues, and keeping a schedule sometimes more intense and compact than a sitting president's.
The combination of an activist and knowledgeable former president who was not constrained by any official position or public opinion perturbed many, particularly his White House successors. For meeting unpalatable world leaders disdained by American policymakers (Asad, Ortega, Kim II Sung, Arafat, Cedras, etc.), the Washington bureaucracy often saw Carter as a meddling or misguided missile. Perhaps more than any other former president, Carter spoke out in opposition to the use of force in resolving international conflicts. He worked diligently to free people from incarceration; working as the Middle East Fellow of the Center, I saw his successful efforts in 1985 to win the release of Pope Shenoudah from house arrest in Egypt and in 1987 the freeing of five Syrian Jews from prison. In all, he established a unique standard for civic activism; future former presidents and other retired public servants are likely to be judged by his accomplishments.
Brinkley is to be commended for taking on a difficult task; his story of Carter's remarkable post-presidency makes for good reading and is well done. He successfully captures the indefatigable flavor of Carter's post-presidency and the man's forthright style. But the book contains shortcomings and omissions. For example, it sometimes lacks precision of dates or information about those who were around Carter. Also, Brinkley hardly deals with the impact Carter's activism had on public policy debates. He should have noted how Carter's meetings with unpalatable world leaders served as lightning rods and helped resolve stagnant diplomatic issues. Carter fully realized his meetings enhanced these untouchables' credibility; but he did so knowing that their continued isolation would not resolve problems. For example, Carter was roundly scolded by some State Department officials prior to his 1983 and 1987 meetings with Syrian president Hafiz al-Asad; nonetheless, after both meetings, key policymakers eagerly asked to hear Carter's reports to see if his findings allowed for diplomatic openings.