October 03, 1994 12:00 PM

WHEN A WEARY BUT EXHILARATED Jimmy Carter returned from his diplomatic breakthrough in Haiti last week, he was greeted after arriving at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington by a young military officer. It was 3:30 Monday morning, and the officer told the former President he was there to escort him to the Lincoln bedroom at the White House and provide him with anything he might need. But Carter is nothing if not an expert in hostage situations: “I was thinking, ‘They’re going to keep me away from CNN!” he recalled later. Reluctant to let others do his talking, even the President, “I got up at 6:30 and called CNN myself,” says Carter with a chuckle. For an hour he eagerly outlined—in his own words—the agreement he had negotiated for Haiti’s military leaders to step down from power.

With his last-minute Haiti mediation averting an American invasion, the former President proved once again that there are second acts in American politics. Fourteen years after he was routed from office—scorned as an ineffectual and often naive leader even by many fellow Democrats—he has returned to public life with a bang. The bang of a loose cannon, his critics might claim, but one that cannot be ignored.

In June, Carter undertook another controversial mission—to North Korea, where he persuaded dictator Kim II Sung to freeze the country’s nuclear program while talks between Washington and Pyongyang got under way. Then came Haiti, not to mention several dozen domestic and international trips this year with his wife, Rosalynn, heading goodwill projects for the eponymous Carter Center in Atlanta, a kind of mini-United Nations he cofounded with Rosalynn in 1982. It is all a far cry from the fate that seemed to await the Carters a decade ago. “I thought we were going home to Plains and I was just going to be bored to death,” says Rosalynn, 67.

So crammed is their schedule that the Carters spend much of their time in a modest three-room apartment at the center. The pied-à-terre, equipped with a pull-down Murphy bed and a small kitchen, has all the charm of a motel room. Yet it is all that Carter needs as he devotes himself to his new mission as a freelance peace broker. “What we do is communicate with people considered so unsavory by our government that [our people] won’t talk to them,” says Carter.

As it was, Secretary of State Warren Christopher and other Administration officials originally opposed deputizing Carter to go to Haiti. He has maintained ties there since 1990, when he led an international delegation to observe the country’s first democratic presidential balloting, which resulted in the election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Clinton’s foreign-policy team was wary of tapping the former President, who had seemed to ad lib some concessions during his visit to North Korea. Then two weeks ago, Carter received a letter from Haitian Foreign Minister Charles David hinting that a deal might be worked out. Finally, on Sept. 15, Clinton agreed to let Carter make one last attempt to negotiate with Lt. Gen. Raoul Cédras, commander of the military that overthrew Aristide in 1991. Carter, though, had his own concerns. When he discovered that his initial instructions left little room for negotiation with Cédras, he threatened to back out of the mission. “I called the White House and said, I’ve got to have some flexibility,’ ” says Carter. In the end, Clinton granted Carter some limited room for maneuvering—as long as he cleared any deals personally.

Once Carter arrived in Haiti, accompanied by former Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell and Georgia senator Sam Nunn, he got right to work wooing Cédras and his cohorts. On Sept. 17, two days after Clinton’s first televised address on the crisis to the American public, Carter met with Cédras. Thanks to a U.S. airdrop of portable radios into Haiti the night of the speech, which heightened tensions among the military, Cédras complained that he had been forced to miss his son’s 10th-birthday celebration.

Carter said he would like to meet the boy, Yannick. The next morning, Rosalynn, who had remained behind in Atlanta, suggested that her husband ask to see Cédras at home. After an exchange of messages, Cédras invited him over, and Carter helped break the ice by presenting Yannick with a souvenir pocketknife from the Carter Center. From then on, the negotiations continued almost nonstop.

After the Haiti agreement, there was some familiar criticism of Carter’s performance. Skeptics questioned why the agreement he had signed granted a blanket amnesty for the Haitian military, whose gruesome human-rights record had ostensibly been the rationale for American intervention in the first place, and why the agreement allowed the leaders of the Haitian junta, including Cédras, to remain in the country rather than be sent into exile. California congresswoman Maxine Waters denounced what she called Carter’s “outrageous rewriting of history,” which had left her “stunned and speechless.”

Deliberately or not, Carter also created a furor with comments about the U.S. government’s overall handling of Haiti. During his talks with Cédras, for instance, he did not hide his opposition to the trade embargo imposed on Haiti in 1991 and the suffering it had caused the population. “I told them I was grieved and embarrassed at the actions of my own country,” he says. And he pointedly contradicted Clinton concerning the junta’s responsibility for the violence that has engulfed Haiti. Though Clinton had called Cédras “a stubborn and cruel” dictator, Carter took a more benign view, saying it was “plain wrong” to refer to him as such.

Still, even White House aides expressed relief that Carter had helped defuse the situation. “Other Presidents have tried to do this after they leave office,” says presidential historian Michael Beschloss, “but no one has done it more successfully than Carter.”

Nor does he plan to stop now. Carter’s dream is to make his center into a force for world peace. Among other things, the center and its 250 employees help facilitate negotiations between countries and monitor elections when asked. Carter says there is no magic to his method, just a willingness to be a sympathetic shoulder for outcast regimes—a kind of celebrity shrink for the dysfunctional global family. “There is a pent-up yearning among these people to be treated fairly,” says Carter, who turns 70 on Oct. 1. “I’m kind of a relief valve. They can talk to me.”

In addition, the center has launched an ambitious public-health program. Thanks to its efforts, the Guinea worm, a horrific parasite that burrows into its victims, infecting 2 million people a year in India and Africa, has been drastically reduced. The center is also spearheading an effort to distribute free medicine that can prevent river blindness, a fly-borne disease that currently afflicts 18 million people in Africa and Asia.

Given the pace of the Carters’ travel and work, there is little time for either rest or regrets. When Carter got involved in the Haiti crisis, he and Rosalynn had only been home for a few days from a two-week tour of Africa and Russia. “I never get to stay in my house with my things,” says Rosalynn, whose third book, Helping Yourself Help Others, a manual for caregivers, will be published in November.

The Carters still live part-time in their first home, a four-bedroom ranch in Plains. For vacations they often head off to a one-bedroom log cabin they built themselves in the north Georgia mountains. Carter still jogs about three miles several times a week, teaches Sunday school, bird-watches and does the dishes. Almost as an afterthought, the former President will be publishing a volume of poetry, Always a Reckoning, early next year. (The three Carter sons, Jack, 47, Chip, 44, and Jeff, 42, are all married with children. Daughter Amy, 26, now pursuing a master’s degree in fine arts at Georgia State University, recently put her wedding plans with steady Michael Antonucci on indefinite hold.)

After the dramatic, if flawed, agreement in Haiti, some admirers began touting Carter for the Nobel Peace Prize. He scoffs at the notion, arguing that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat deserve it far more for their diplomatic breakthrough last year. “Their effort is the culmination of many, many years, and they both made personal sacrifices to achieve it,” he says. “I didn’t make any sacrifices.” Perhaps not. But he has succeeded in making a difference. And even when he recalls his humiliating loss to Ronald Reagan 14 years ago, his smile flashes—a tiny but unmistakable sign that he is happier not being President. “I can do things now that are even more beneficial than I could in the White House,” he says. “I’m free to act, and I can choose the issues I want to address.”


MEG GRANT in Atlanta

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