President, peacemaker, peanut farmer
ATLANTA, Georgia, (CNN) -- He became governor of Georgia in the wake of the civil rights upheavals of the '60s, he arrived at the White House amid the aftershocks of Watergate, and now he travels the world "waging peace."
His greatest triumph as president came in the Middle East when he brought Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat together at Camp David and his presidency faltered and ultimately failed under the weight of the Iran hostage crisis.
Born James Earl Carter Jr., he was universally "Jimmy," a politician with the common touch right down to his blue jeans in the Oval Office on weekends and a fondness for the music of Bob Dylan.
After winning the 1976 race for the White House, the nation's 39th president and born-again Christian promised Americans in his inaugural address he would remain "close to" them, quoting a passage from the Bible:
"But to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God."
Then, he shunned the bulletproof limo and walked the 1.5 miles from the Capitol to the White House.
"We got out of the car, it was so cold ... but I was numb from the excitement anyway. I don't think I even realized it was cold while I was walking down Pennsylvania Avenue. It was great!" remembered former first lady Rosalynn Carter.
When Jimmy Carter entered the world October 1, 1924, his lineage may have hinted at future greatness but not much else did.
Researchers have traced Carter's ancestry back to British nobility, but in 1924 his father ran a farm supply store in Plains, Georgia, and was a peanut farmer and a state legislator. His mother was a nurse at the local hospital.
Carter did his chores on the family farm, got good grades in school, attended Georgia Tech, and was appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy.
After he graduated in 1946, he married his sister Ruth's best friend, Rosalynn Smith. They had three boys and a girl.
Carter went into the submarine service and eventually entered the fledgling nuclear submarine program.
He studied nuclear physics at Union College. But after two years aboard nuclear subs, Carter's father died in 1953, and he left the navy to take over the family peanut farming businesses.
He served in the Georgia Senate from 1963 until 1967 and as governor from 1971 to 1975.
In 1976, Carter won the Democratic nomination and defeated President Gerald R. Ford.
Running as an outsider, untainted by the Watergate scandal, Carter became the first president from the Deep South since before the Civil War.
On his first full day in office, Carter pardoned all Vietnam draft evaders.
Among the accomplishments of his administration were the SALT II treaty, deregulation of the airline and banking industries, lifting price controls on oil and the Panama Canal Treaty.
Many of them were stamped with a particular Carter trademark.
"All of these issues were tough, they were controversial, very few of them had any political upside to them. But he did 'em, because they were right," said former White House Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan.
The crowning achievement of the administration was the signing of the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt.
With unilateral talks in deadlock, Sadat and Begin were invited to a summit meeting at Camp David with Carter as mediator.
Twelve days of negotiations produced two agreements: one a framework for the conclusion of a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, which technically had been at war since 1948, and the other a broader framework for achieving peace in the Middle East.
The first provided for a phased withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Sinai and the region's full return to Egypt within three years, and it guaranteed the right of passage for Israeli ships through the Suez Canal.
The second, more general framework called for Israel to gradually grant self-government to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from those areas in preparation for negotiations on their final status.
The accords became the basis for peace talks in the Middle East until the present day. Sadat and Begin won the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize.
But on other fronts the Carter administration was besieged. It was bedeviled by unemployment, high inflation and the energy crisis. It had difficulty getting programs through Congress.
The harshest blow came in 1979 when Iranian militants took 52 American embassy personnel hostage in Tehran and held them for 444 days. The crisis plagued the last year of the Carter presidency. Eight U.S. Marines died in a failed rescue attempt.
Ronald Reagan easily defeated Carter's bid for a second term in 1980. On January 20, 1981, the hostages were freed even as Reagan was being inaugurated and Carter was leaving the White House.
When he left office, Carter spoke about human rights and what he saw as the modern interpretation of Jefferson's words in the Declaration of Independence.
"We know that democracy is always an unfinished creation," Carter said. "Each generation must rediscover the meaning of this hallowed vision in the light of its own modern challenges. For this generation, ours, life is nuclear survival; liberty is human rights; the pursuit of happiness is a planet whose resources are devoted to the physical and spiritual nourishment of its inhabitants."
The rest of Jimmy Carter's life began that day. For all the mixed reviews of his presidency, Carter's post-presidential years were a whirlwind of activity and productivity.
Time Magazine wrote that while other former presidents played golf or made speeches, "Carter, like some jazzed superhero, circles the globe at 30,000 feet, seeking opportunities to do good."
Planning for all that global humanitarian work came from the Carter Center in Atlanta. From there the most active former president in memory monitored elections in third-world countries and tried to broker peace in others. Since 1989, the Carter Center has observed 36 elections in 22 countries.
He and his staff worked -- often successfully -- to improve agriculture and reduce diseases such as the debilitating guinea worm in Africa.
Carter and wife, Rosalynn, also lent their credibility -- and their sweat -- to the "Habitat for Humanity" program to build low-income housing.
Carter wrote books: books on government and on politics, a tome on the lessons of the great outdoors, and a book of his own poetry.
And he kept right on teaching Sunday school at the Plains Baptist Church.
A Forbes magazine writer wrote that in a sermon one Sunday in Plains dealing with the raising of Lazarus, Carter made his point that even devout people don't know God's will, and cited his 1966 gubernatorial loss to segregationist Lester Maddox.
Defeat, he learned, was an opportunity to strengthen his faith.
After the service he told the Forbes writer, "You think you have a successful and happy life, but if you lead a Christian life, it surpasses all understanding.
"I found that out in my own life -- that apparent failures can actually lead to true happiness, a different kind of happiness."
One former Carter White House aide, Jack Watson, offered this thought:
"Someone once said, and I agree with them, that he is the only man in American history ... who used the United States presidency ... as a stepping stone to greatness."