From peanut farmer to US president, Jimmy Carter fights for human rights

Even at 87, the most highly respected former US leader is not toning down his rhetoric when it comes to the battle for human rights.

Jimmy Carter by Kagan McLeod for The National
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For generations, the sleepy settlement of Plains (population 680), set "among the pine trees, peanut fields, magnolias and gnats" of Southwest Georgia in the US, as the city itself puts it, had only one thing going for it - peanuts.

That all changed in 1976 when local boy and peanut farmer Jimmy Carter, who had been elected governor of the State of Georgia in 1970, won the Democratic Party's presidential nomination and, to the surprise of many, Plains became the hometown of the 39th President of the United States.

Carter has continued to make the town of Plains proud well after his four-year term in the White House, with his continuing efforts on human rights around the world. So his attack this week on America's "cruel and unusual" human-rights record, published on Sunday in The New York Times - a scathing comment on the US administration's drone warfare and terror laws - was entirely in keeping not only with his beliefs, but also with his record as president and his tireless work since as founder of the Atlanta-based Carter Center, dedicated since 1982 to "Waging peace. Fighting disease. Building hope".

His personal path to power, however, began at Plains High School, where he was heavily influenced by a teacher, Julia Coleman, whom he mentioned in his inaugural presidential speech and always credited with having developed his sense of social responsibility.

Community was always important to Carter, who began serving as a Sunday School teacher as a young man, but his first taste of public office came in 1955, when he ran for and won a seat on the Sumter County Board of Education.

Research carried out in 1977 by Debrett's, the authority on English lineage, revealed that Carter was genetically cut out for high office - he was related to George Washington, three other early American presidents and Queen Elizabeth I. But it was the issue of racial segregation that led Carter on the march towards the highest office.

Carter had joined the US Navy in 1943 and planned to make it a career. In 1954, however, the death of his father from cancer obliged him to resign his commission and return to Plains with his wife, Rosalynn, whom he had married in 1946, to run the family peanut farm.

Immediately, they ran into trouble - natural, and man-made. First, a bad drought hit the farm's profits; then a White Citizens' Council was formed to maintain white supremacy in the South. Carter refused to join and, for a while, his business was boycotted.

Segregation in the southern US would be a deciding factor in Carter's decision to run for office. In fact, he announced his candidacy for the state Senate in 1961 on the same day James Meredith attempted to enrol as the first black student at the University of Mississippi.

Later, as governor and president, Carter was "continually reminded by national and world events of these earliest days of my political life and the similar challenges that still confront people everywhere who search for justice, truth, human rights and governments in which they can have confidence".

Carter's presidency was unpretentious. On his inauguration day, Carter walked to the White House and, once there, he and Rosalynn kept things simple. Three of their four children were adults by that time and the last, Amy, was sent to a public school in Washington.

The deeply religious Carter brought a level of moral clarity to the presidency, rooted in Old Testament values - his fierce critique in TheNew York Times of US policy under Barack Obama was in keeping with his political and religious beliefs. He attacked the current administration's official sanctioning of overseas assassinations, the "hundreds of innocent civilians" killed by the use of drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, "unthinkable in previous times", the introduction of legislation to legalise the president's right to detain terror suspects indefinitely and the use of torture at Guantanamo Bay.

But for Carter, these concerns were nothing new, and echoed a commitment to human rights he first expressed in his inaugural speech as a Democratic president.

"Our commitment to human rights must be absolute, our laws fair," he said on January 20, 1977. "The powerful must not persecute the weak and human dignity must be enhanced." It was a doctrine to which he adhered faithfully throughout his presidency.

At the time, Carter's presidency may have seemed a little dull, but that, say his supporters, was the beauty of it. After his defeat by Ronald Reagan in 1980, one presidential historian wrote that Carter would be remembered "for the things that didn't happen in his term. It was four years without war or social unrest" - and that, concluded James David Barber, "considering our record ... is no small achievement".

There were, of course, dark moments. Perhaps one of his least popular acts was the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics in protest of the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, and the consequent destruction of the dreams of a generation of young American athletes.

The most disastrous, however, occurred in April 1980. After months of fruitless diplomacy, Carter gave the go-ahead for a bold military attempt to free 52 Americans who had been held hostage for more than a year at the US Embassy in Tehran, Iran.

If they had pulled it off, it would have been the making of his presidency. But Operation Eagle Claw, launched from an aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean, fell foul of mechanical problems, sandstorms and bad planning, leaving eight US servicemen dead and the mission a humiliating failure.

As a former Navy man, Carter felt the losses deeply and publicly accepted responsibility for the failure. It was an admission that doubtlessly contributed to his landslide defeat to Reagan that November.

Yet his brother Billy also contributed to his undoing. Billy was responsible for a number of embarrassing episodes and social gaffes, including trading on the family name to promote a brand of beer. More serious, however, were allegations that he had accepted money to act as an agent of Libya, and he found himself the subject of a Senate committee investigation into the "activities of individuals representing interests of foreign governments".

"Billy has had no influence on US policy or actions concerning Libya in the past, and he will have no influence in the future," Carter wrote in August 1980. But the damage was done.

For Jimmy Carter, however, the end of the presidency was the beginning of something bigger. Unlike many former presidents, Carter has grown in stature rather than been diminished by the loss of the office - a process that began with the foundation of The Carter Center.

According to the historian Douglas Brinkley, who made Carter's legacy the subject of his Stuart Bernath Memorial Lecture in Chicago in 1996, Carter had taken his presidential capital and "invested it in the causes that were dearest to him as president, and the returns have been impressive", earning Carter respect as the best ex-president the country has ever had.

Since he had left the White House 15 years earlier, Carter, "equipped with the unusual combination of spiritual strength, high-level international experience and brilliant organisational skills", had moved between "intractable problems and volatile trouble spots, ensuring democratic elections, mediating potentially murderous conflicts, listening to nations and leaders and common people who have no other audience, bringing help to the afflicted, peace to the beleaguered, hope to the despairing".

Carter has always shown a special interest in the Middle East. Indeed, it was his success as president in bringing together Egypt's Anwar Sadat and Israel's Menachem Begin to sign the Camp David Accords in 1978 that paved the way for the Carter Center's acceptance worldwide as an honest broker for peace and laid the groundwork for the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the former president in 2002.

Over the past 30 years the Carter Center has intervened successfully in countries as diverse as North Korea, Sudan, Uganda and Liberia and launched health initiatives among some of the world's poorest communities.

In January, for example, Carter announced US$40 million (Dh147m) in donations to the center's campaign to eradicate Guinea worm disease, from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Sheikh Khalifa, President of the UAE.

In all its forms, "human rights," Carter once said, was "the soul of our foreign policy" and, in his 87th year, it remains at the heart of his work.

Members of the current US administration, smarting at the rebuke handed down by the peanut farmer who became one of their nation's most respected statesmen, would do well to revisit the cautionary words of Carter's inaugural speech.

"To be true to ourselves, we must be true to others. We will not behave in foreign places so as to violate our rules and standards here at home, for we know that the trust which our nation earns is essential to our strength."

The Biog

?October 1, 1924 born James Earl Carter, son of a businessman and a nurse, in Plains, Georgia

1943 joins US Navy

1946 marries Eleanor Rosalynn Smith

1953 resigns Navy commission as lieutenant to run family peanut farm after his father’s death

1961 elected to state senate; re-elected in 1964

1966 defeated in bid to become governor of Georgia

1970 elected governor of Georgia

1976 wins Democratic presidential nomination and defeats Gerald Ford to become 39th US President

1980 boycotts Moscow Olympics; loses presidential election to Ronald Reagan

1982 founds The Carter Center in Atlanta

2002 wins Nobel Peace Prize