Our Greatest Ex-President
Dracunculus medinensis, otherwise known as guinea worm, is a parasite that apparently infects only humans and dogs. The host ingests the guinea worm larva by drinking water infested with tiny crustaceans called water fleas. Nothing happens immediately, except that the larva grows inside the body.
If the larva is female, it grows to more than two feet long. About a year after the larva is ingested, the adult guinea worm begins to leave the body to lay its eggs, which are in turn eaten by the water flea, perpetuating the cycle.
The female guinea worm leaves the human body through the skin – first a painful blister appears as the worm migrates to the skin, then an ulcer forms as the worm begins its slow exit. Dracunculiasis, or guinea worm disease, is rarely fatal, but it is excruciatingly painful, and the ulcer can become infected, and some people have allergic reactions.
With exquisite timing, the guinea worm typically exits the body during planting or harvest season. The victim is debilitated, unable to work for as long as three months. The loss of a single income can devastate a family, and the loss of several productive herders and farmers – say, from an infested well – can bring hunger to an entire community.
In 1986, former President Jimmy Carter decided that the guinea worm should be eradicated. That year, there were 3.5 million cases of guinea worm disease in 20 countries from Africa to Pakistan. Carter deployed his estimable diplomatic abilities, enlisting the vigorous assistance of heads of state and former heads of state.
By 1991, with cases down to 400,000, the World Health Organization decided that Carter might have a point, and joined the eradication effort. In 2008, Carter wangled a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Carter has been at this now for 29 years. Given the conditions of the countries endemic with the disease, the obstacles were considerable, but Carter rose to each of them. In 1995, for instance, he had to negotiate a cease fire in the civil war in Sudan to allow health workers a brief window to work there. As of May 31, there have been only five cases this year, down from millions of cases when Carter took up the fight. Aside from the untold human suffering Carter avoided, his effort constituted an important contribution to economic growth in the world’s poorest countries.
In addition to Carter’s guinea worm eradication effort, he has taken on river blindness, trachoma, schistosomiasis, lymphatic filariasis, and malaria.
Carter has done a wide range of other work. He helped Habitat for Humanity build housing; he has served as a respected neutral monitor for 96 elections in 38 countries; he has provided mediation and conflict resolution services in most of the world’s hot spots, including Haiti, Bosnia, Ethiopia, North Korea, and Sudan, winning him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 that had eluded him after the Camp David accords.
Carter’s presidency is remembered as feckless, and that is not entirely unfair. He won election as the Washington outsider, appealing to an electorate exhausted by the Vietnam War and a series of scandals culminating with Watergate and capped off with President Gerald Ford’s pardon of former President Richard Nixon. But as a Washington outsider, Carter was unfamiliar with its workings, and he never really mastered the job.
He was also dogged by some remarkably bad luck – from hostage-taking in Iran and the botched military effort to rescue the hostages, to the energy crisis, to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This is how unlucky President Carter was: he is to this day the only president in American history to serve a full term but get to appoint no Supreme Court justices.
But President Carter also did some great and far-sighted things. He appointed unprecedented numbers of women and minorities to federal positions, including lifetime-tenured judges; he personally brokered the Camp David accords; he negotiated the return of the Panama Canal Zone to Panama; he made human rights a cornerstone of American foreign policy, which earned him the condescending scorn of the American realpolitik right. Also, Jimmy Carter nurtured relationships with African countries, probably contributing to the wave of democracy movements across that continent a decade after Carter left office, and certainly facilitating Carter’s disease-fighting efforts ever since.
At 90 years old, Jimmy Carter has been an ex-president for more than 34 years – making Carter’s ex-presidency the longest in American history. Carter beats out Herbert Hoover (31 years), Gerald Ford (29 years) and John Adams (25 years). Most ex-presidents make productive use of their time after serving in the country’s highest office, but some more than others.
I respectfully submit that Jimmy Carter is, hands down, America’s greatest ex-president.