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Carter's Actions Speak More Eloquently Than His Words


There are no rounds of golf for the Father of Latrines. That's what they call Jimmy Carter in Ethiopia, after he taught privy-building to provide sanitation to control trachoma, the world's leading cause of preventable blindness. Most 84-year-olds are retired and taking it easy. Carter's retirement has included winning the Nobel Peace Prize. And the most neglected region of the world  is his country club.

His latest book, Beyond the White House, details the work that the Carter Center, founded in 1982 by Jimmy and wife Rosalynn, has brought to the world. Instead of building a presidential library housing documents from his time in office, Carter created a think tank with the novel idea of putting resources into actions with specific goals. The Carter Center's mission is, as the subtitle of the book states, to wage peace, fight disease and build hope.

And they do. Whether negotiating peace and monitoring elections in the Sudan, Palestine, North Korea or Haiti, eradicating diseases like river blindness brought on by parasitic worms, or casting a watchful eye over the world for human-rights violations, Carter and the Carter Center have helped bring about amazing change with people called "forgotten" and situations labeled "insurmountable."

Unfortunately, the telling doesn't evoke the phenomenal nature of holding peace negotiations while surrounded by insurgents or the logistics involved in monitoring elections in the 650,000 villages not included under the Communist structure in China. Often reading like a report, the dry delivery and necessary background information asks the reader to hang in there for a thrilling conclusion written in a less-than-thrilling way.

But this dry recitation perhaps hides the rage of a just man working hard in an unjust world. Carter tells of the failed attempts to negotiate a permanent peace agreement in Bosnia, after the international community refused to meet with Bosnian Serbs. He ends the chapter with this comment: "It is interesting to conjecture about how many human rights atrocities, refugees and deaths might have been avoided if our agreements and suggestions had been honored."

The sidebar stories popped into the middle of a section are awkward too. While they ache with compassion for humanity (like the story of Ababora Abajobar, an Ethiopian man who sold the roof of his house in order to buy food for his children), their placement is distracting. Nevertheless, moments like the lawyer joke with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and the resolution of where to put slots in a ballot box (the Israelis wanted them on the side; the Palestinians on the top) bring humor. Carter is most compelling in the section on health care, both in the vastness of the need and in the manner of getting this overwhelming job done. Working to eradicate river blindness in Africa, Latin America and Yemen involved the CEO of Merck Pharmaceuticals, more than 530 million donated treatments and a distribution chain that reached more than 60 million people each year. This holiday season, as we bounce from news about the next round of layoffs to commercials equating stuff with love, keep Jimmy and his inspiring retirement in mind. His dedication is worth quoting in full: "Peace is more than just the absence of war. People everywhere seek an inner peace that comes from the right to voice their views, choose their leaders, feed their families and raise healthy children." Peace out.

Beyond the White House: Waging Peace, Fighting Disease, Building Hope By Jimmy Carter Simon & Schuster Paperback, 272 pages, 2008

More by Jo Steigerwald


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