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December 9, 2002

A fitting Prize

Elizabeth Kurylo is communications director for the Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life.

Some people join the military to see the world. Others study abroad in college, maybe going on to join the Peace Corps or the foreign service to satisfy their curiosity about how people live thousands of miles away. For most people, an overseas trip is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, meticulously planned weeks in advance.

I traveled the world in the shadow of Jimmy Carter, sometimes rushing to the airport on a couple hours’ notice, notebook and camera in hand. Before coming to work at Emory, I was a journalist. For more than a decade, I followed the former president across the globe, documenting his tireless efforts to end wars in Sudan, Ethiopia and Bosnia, and to prevent potential wars in Haiti and Korea.

As a reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I watched him build Habitat for Humanity houses on barren, desolate fields in Mexico that had no water or electricity. I watched him monitor elections in Nicaragua, where he persuaded Daniel Ortega in the middle of the night to do the right thing and concede defeat.

“I told him that I understood how he felt,” Carter said, recalling his own humbling defeat in 1980.

In every case, Carter was a relentless advocate for democracy, peace and human rights. Stubborn, tenacious, at times impatient. His work took him to godforsaken lands whose people were victims of intractable wars. Sometimes a cease-fire would be brief, and critics would wonder whether it had been worth the price.

There was no shortage of people who belittled Carter’s efforts. In the time I covered him, I took notes as critics took potshots. He’s meddling, they said. He’s irresponsible. He’s trying to reinvent himself and make us forget his failed presidency. Some branded him a traitor, citing his letter to world leaders asking them not to support the U.S. coalition on the eve of the Gulf War.

He didn’t care what they said. He was willing to risk his own reputation and, more important, risk failing. In his mind, the real failure would be if he didn’t even try to find a peaceful resolution to conflict.

“Carter is never afraid to venture into areas that others find too risky,” said the history department’s Ken Stein, a Carter aide and Middle East expert who helped me understand how Carter works.

Moral strength, determination to succeed and a passion to make a difference have shaped Carter’s actions since leaving the White House. For the past 20 years through the Carter Center, he has worked to promote peace, freedom, human rights, democracy and the alleviation of suffering with programs in 65 nations.

As a reporter, I was intrigued by Carter’s close ties to Emory. Stein, who has worked with Carter since 1982, was one of many Emory professors who served as Carter Center fellows, helping to guide, shape and direct the center’s programs. Others include Latin America expert Bob Pastor, Africa expert Richard Joseph and Ellen Mickiewicz, who knew all there was to know about television in Russia.

Each had a unique opportunity to work with Carter on international issues that often made headlines. Then they would walk into a lecture hall and tell their students what had transpired. How often does a university professor give a firsthand account of breaking news?

Carter himself often comes to campus, lecturing to students in his role as University Distin-guished Professor. It wasn’t always a lovefest; during the 1991 Gulf War, a student accused Carter of “appeasement and capitulation” because Carter had urged negotiations to avoid war with Saddam Hussein. I took notes.

He also headlines Emory’s annual Jimmy Carter town hall meeting, which I remember covering. As I watched the students, mostly undergrads, take their seats, I wondered if they realized how lucky they were to spend an hour with a former president as active and as interesting as this one. Even if they didn’t agree with him, he always made them laugh.
And often he made them think.

Sometimes, he even made news at these gatherings, letting slip who he had just talked to, usually a dictator or some other unsavory character who couldn’t get through to the White House or State Department: people like Fidel Castro of Cuba, Mohammed Farah Aideed of Somalia, Manuel Noriega of Panama, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Hafez Assad of Syria, Kim Il Sung of North Korea, Mengistu of Ethiopia.

Those stories often made the front page—not so with Carter’s efforts to increase crop yields in Africa, or to rid the world of horrible diseases like Guinea worm and river blindness. Despite the lack of international headlines, he approached those good works with the same resolve.

And it was hard to get him to stop talking about them. Most of my interviews with him were brief, 10 minutes on a good day. He didn’t really like talking to journalists; they
hadn’t been kind to him in Washington. Besides, it took time away from more important things.

But when he spoke of coaxing more grain out of the ground in Africa, he grew animated. When he talked of the devastating effects of Guinea worm disease, he might even be tearful. Those conversations would go on for an hour.

There were a couple times in the mid-’90s when it looked like Carter would get the Nobel Peace Prize that had eluded him for so long. On one such occasion, I drove to Plains the night before the announcement, found a hotel and set the alarm for 5 a.m., when the news would come.

It didn’t happen, that year or the next, and at some point I decided it never would. He said it didn’t matter, but I think it did.

When he was named this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, I was shocked. But it was
a wonderful surprise. And I was reminded that you should never count Jimmy Carter out. Say what you will about him, but he is serious about his work and would keep doing it even if the secret club in Oslo had never seen fit to honor him.

The lives of many people in this world are better because of Carter. In The Unfinished Presidency, biographer Douglas Brinkley writes that Carter was responsible for freeing 50,000 political prisoners worldwide. A personal letter, a phone call, a few private words during a meeting with a leader—Carter would quietly intercede, and someone would be freed.

Congratulations on your prize, Mr. President. You certainly earned it. And Emory is fortunate to have you—in the classroom, in the lecture halls and in the company of scholars who share your vision for a better world.