"He remains such a controversial figure," said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history at Princeton University and a Carter biographer. "But like it or not, he re-invented the post-presidency."
Carter, who left the White House in 1981 with a 34 percent approval rating in a Gallup survey, has enjoyed greater public approval in his post-presidency years. Gallup surveys gave him a 45 percent approval rating in 1994, 69 percent in 1999, and 52 percent in 2011. In 1990, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found him to be as popular as Ronald Reagan, the man who trounced him in 1980. A 2009 C-SPAN survey of historians placed Carter 25th of 42 former presidents (counting Grover Cleveland only once) in terms of leadership qualities -- not exactly FDR and Lincoln territory, but not Buchanan and Harding, either.
Shaking off the 1980 Reagan knockout, Carter immersed himself in human-rights efforts across the globe, monitoring more than 90 elections and seeking solutions to conflicts. He and his wife Rosalynn spend a week each year building homes with Habitat for Humanity. His efforts through the Carter Center have helped bring about the near-eradication of Guinea worm disease, an infection that has afflicted Africa for centuries. He has authored books on the Bible, diplomacy, the Middle East, poetry, and even a novel set in the Revolutionary War.
Carter also turned himself into something of a diplomatic Mr. Fix-It. Sometimes he has worked at the behest of the U.S. government, sometimes independently -- and sometimes both on the same trip. When President Clinton sent him to North Korea in 1994 to deliver a message to Kim Il Sung, Carter announced that he had brokered a deal, leaving the Clinton Administration slack-jawed. For his efforts, he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, the only ex-President so honored.
Along the way, he's managed to occasionally rankle the public -- and his successors. After pleasing the first Bush Administration by declaring Manuel Noriega a "tyrant" -- and opening the door for the U.S. to oust him -- Carter loudly opposed the Gulf War and urged the U.N. Security Council to oppose a resolution authorizing force to remove the Iraqis from Kuwait. What truly irked the White House was that Bush, in sending troops to Kuwait, was enforcing the Carter Doctrine, which stated that the U.S. would use force to defend its interests in the Persian Gulf. "For some of his opponents his post-presidency was a picture of everything wrong with his presidency," said Zelizer.
Carter won no friends among his successors when he told NBC News in 2010 that "my role as a former president is probably superior to that of other presidents." In their new book The Presidents Club: Inside the World's Most Exclusive Fraternity, Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy describe in detail Carter's often-frosty relationship with others who have held the nation's highest office. Reagan hardly communicated with him. Bill Clinton never quite forgave him for having sent Cuban boat people to Arkansas and leaving Clinton, then the governor, to deal with the mess. (Clinton blamed Carter for losing his gubernatorial re-election bid in the aftermath.) And when he said he was the best ex-president, they wrote, "Carter gave the club a great gift -- something for all the others to complain about."