Simon & Schuster, 782 pages, $37.50
Donald Trump plays only a bit part in Jonathan Alter’s splendid new biography of Jimmy Carter. His name is mentioned on just 17 of the book’s nearly 800 pages, slightly more exposure than Trump got in Home Alone 2. But it is hard to read this volume without the mind’s eye turning constantly to the president who was in office as Alter was writing.
Why? Because no two presidents in the history of the republic are more unalike in character and temperament than this pair. Thus, Trump shows up in His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life less as Alter’s invited guest than as a hovering intruder, a blustering omnipresence who practically compels adverse comparison.
Carter, for example, rose to the presidency in the aftermath of Watergate, pledging to the American people that “I’ll never tell a lie.” Alter says Carter largely kept his promise. Conversely, by The Washington Post’s latest tally, President Trump has issued more than 23,000 false or misleading claims during his term — and counting.
Carter brought an engineer’s mentality to solving problems. When the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor experienced a partial meltdown in March 1979, Carter, once a nuclear submarine officer, “activated thousands of emergency personnel under plans that — with characteristic foresight — he had ordered upgraded in 1977.” Panic quickly subsided. The coronavirus is precisely the kind of problem Carter was geared to handle — unlike his current successor, for whom science is a foreign language.
Carter also came to the presidency as a devout Christian, but one whose Southern Baptist orthodoxy made him a fierce advocate for the separation of church and state. Alter’s Carter is no more likely to score political points by hoisting a borrowed Bible like a trophy bass than Trump is to be found at a Habitat for Humanity construction site.
But it is a disservice to Alter’s work to allow these contrasts with Trump to dominate this review. For his larger purpose in writing this book is nothing short of inverting the conventional narrative about Carter: His was a failed presidency, then a life redeemed by exemplary service in the long years thereafter. In part, Alter does this by maintaining that Carter’s post-presidential labors have been somewhat overrated. But the main argument is that Carter “was a surprisingly consequential president.”
His biggest successes came in foreign policy, including the historic Camp David Accords, which dramatically changed life in the Middle East by neutralizing the Egyptian military as an existential threat to Israel. Carter spent 13 exhausting days holed up at the presidential retreat with Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, wrenching an agreement from them, and then found himself having to salvage the effort months later by flying personally to the region with no guarantees of success. He exerted similar energies to win from a reluctant Congress the Panama Canal treaties, which Alter says avoided a major war in Central America. In an uncharacteristic deficiency, he offers the reader insufficient evidence to back this assertion.
Carter’s other accomplishments include major environmental reforms, such as creating the Superfund, which requires polluters to pay for hazardous-waste cleanup; a vast expansion of the national parks system; a highly consequential deregulation of the airline and trucking industries; and significant efforts to enhance racial and gender diversity in the federal judiciary, including an appellate court judgeship for Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Presciently, “Jimmy Carter was the first leader anywhere in the world to recognize the problem of climate change.” And his designation of Paul Volcker to head the Federal Reserve set the stage for an era of low inflation, but not before inflicting brutally high interest rates during Carter’s term.
The major failures of Carter’s presidency are amply covered here, too, most prominently the Iranian hostage crisis. Alter writes that “the Carter administration’s reaction to events in Iran was everything Carter himself was not: undisciplined, disorganized, and poorly informed.” Carter observed in retrospect that he had sounded alarms early about allowing an exiled shah of Iran into the United States, to the point of asking what his advisers would recommend if the embassy in Tehran were overrun and hostages taken by the revolutionaries. Instructed that the United States had a moral obligation to accept the high-living but cancer-stricken leader, Carter admitted that he uncharacteristically yelled, “F— the Shah!”
Once the shah was admitted for medical treatment, however, Carter’s fears were realized. When a desperate attempt to rescue the hostages after months of captivity failed spectacularly in April 1980, an ashen Carter quickly went on television and told the American people: “The responsibility is fully my own.” His defeat six months later was virtually assured in that moment. He became the first elected president tossed after a single term since Herbert Hoover.
Alter’s account is ably sourced and fluidly written, one of the best in a celebrated genre of presidential biography. The ornaments of his research include the fact that Carter and the Black founder of Motown Records, Berry Gordy Jr., share a great-grandfather. (Yes, you read that right.) And Alter quotes extensively from Jimmy’s love letters to his wife, Rosalynn, during his Navy years — including intimacies seldom entrusted to a biographer while the subjects are still alive.
The most interesting passages of this book trace Carter’s personal journey on race. Alter finds little evidence of open bigotry in his past, but Carter usually managed to navigate the perilous shoals of racial politics in the Deep South by portage — avoiding them as best he could. During his 1970 gubernatorial campaign, he publicly embraced his neighbor to the west, Alabama’s George Wallace, emphasizing his populism and belief in states’ rights. Thus, it was a stunning moment in Georgia history when, his victory secured, Carter unexpectedly proclaimed in his inaugural address that “the time for racial discrimination is over” — and then proved he meant it.
For Carter, politics was one thing, governing another. The downside of this conception was that he often rejected the oily give-and-take that lubricates a system of opposite and rival interests. In this, he could be self-righteous and stubborn, for which he often paid a price. But as Alter convincingly demonstrates, the upside was an elected official who pursued the public good relentlessly, disregarding the political consequences. Carter believed that there were some things more important than reelection.