Carter shines in the second act

? Did you notice an echo in the admiration? How many people described the 2002 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize as a better ex-president than president? How many praised Jimmy Carter as a man who grew not in office, but out of it?

One commentator noted wryly that the White House was just his launching pad to greatness. A historian said that Jimmy Carter had finally lost the tag of presidential “loser” by becoming a Nobel “winner.” It was as if succeeding in peace was only a consolation for failing at politics.

Mind you, the Nobel committee  a group that once awarded Henry Kissinger a peace prize  could have shown a bit more humility and nobility in its announcement. In embracing the 39th president for his humanitarian work over the last 25 years, the chairman seemed compelled to “kick the leg”  as they say in Norway  of the 43rd American president over Iraq.

Nevertheless, the award went to an elder who practices peace the way others practice piano. A man who fought the Guinea worm and dictators, who monitors elections and builds houses. A man who brokered the Camp David agreements, averted a crisis in Haiti, worked on a truce in Bosnia, negotiated between North and South Korea, and spoke truth to power in Cuba.

In short, the Nobel Prize this year went to Jimmy Carter, the president and the ex-president, the politician and peacemonger. The man from Plains, Ga., achieved something F. Scott Fitzgerald once said Americans don’t get: a second act.

Ex-presidents have always been a bit like first ladies. They have a role, a title and reflected glory  but no designated job. They have to make  or perhaps remake  life according to their time and times, their tastes and temperaments.

The men with enough single-minded dedication to get to the Oval Office eventually have to get over it. Teddy Roosevelt went on safaris and then back onto the hunting grounds for a failed Bull Moose expedition. Herbert Hoover decamped to the Waldorf Astoria, where he continued to tell the world he was right and FDR was wrong. Eisenhower retired gracefully to his farm. Nixon skulked off to resurrect his reputation. Johnson retreated in a deep funk to his ranch.

Today, we have five ex-presidents in a club that costs taxpayers roughly $26 million a year. The club has a salary and a staff, Secret Service and travel funds. But there is no one in the clubhouse saying what you should do with the rest of your life.

The oldest in this club, Ronald Reagan, had the grace to write a farewell letter before he receded into a shadow of his former self. The youngest, Bill Clinton, left office as his wife was sworn into the Senate; his second act has barely begun. But only a handful of club members have ever scripted second acts worthy of a curtain call.

“A lot of the ex-presidents,” says presidential historian Robert Dallek, “have devoted themselves to writing memoirs, making money, building libraries, becoming keepers of the flame. The mystery is why so few of them have done outstanding things.”

The best second acts, says Dallek, belong to John Quincy Adams as well as Jimmy Carter. Adams, a one-term president, returned to Congress for two decades as the sharpest voice against slavery. Carter went onto the world stage to defend human rights. Does the second act require a sense of mission to replace ambition?

Carter is a complicated man. He came on the national political stage “born again,” carrying his own luggage and promising never to lie. All the adjectives that shadowed his presidency  stubborn, righteous, an outsider, a stickler for details  made him respected and often successful as what someone called the Mother Theresa of ex-presidents.

At the same time, the president who presided over an energy crisis and a hostage crisis and a failed rescue mission nevertheless could worry about American power as well as its vulnerability. “I think it would be a mistake,” he said last winter before there was any talk of invading Iraq, “for us to become arrogant or rely too easily on our own military power, or to ignore the legitimate needs of people around the world.”

When the news came from Oslo, the ex-president said, “I have to tell you, these years are among some of the most satisfying of my life.”

No child has ever proclaimed, “When I grow up, I want to be an ex-president.” Do politicians think about ambition more than mission? Maybe the presidency isn’t always the pinnacle. But how do we get peace into the first act?

 Ellen Goodman is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.