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Biography of Jimmy Carter a fresh, valuable piece of history

By Bob D'Angelo


I first saw Jimmy Carter when I was a freshman at the University of Florida. It was the fall of 1975, and Carter, who was running for president, spoke at the university’s school of agriculture.

It was not a plum speaking venue, but Carter made the best of it, shaking hands with everyone in the auditorium before making a quiet, intelligent speech that was honestly not very memorable. My roommate and I were more fascinated with the Secret Service agents assigned to Carter and peppered them with questions at a post-speech reception until they politely told us to get lost.

None of us in the audience that night figured Carter had a shot at the presidency.

We were wrong. Carter had the grit, determination and passion to reach the White House. In the post-Watergate era, Carter benefited from the perfect storm.

Author Jonathan Alter takes a fresh look at Carter in a long-overdue biography about the 39th president. In His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life (Simon & Schuster, hardback, $37.50, 783 pages), Alter offers a balanced, insightful and critical look at Carter’s life. While Alter’s work has a positive tone, he does not shy away from pointing out Carter’s faults and mistakes.

Carter, 96, has lived longer than any U.S. president. Alter describes him as “patient and impatient, humble and proud.”

Memories of Carter in the Oval Office border on mediocre, in part because of the 444-day Iranian hostage crisis, his infamous “malaise” speech — he never used the word during his cardigan sweater, fireside-like chat — and the boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980 in response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

As Alter writes, Carter’s steely reserve and self-belief sent mixed messages. He was blunt and could be prickly toward his critics — and sometimes, even with his staff.

“The lazy shorthand on Carter is that he was an inept president and a great former president, Alter wrote in a September opinion piece for The Washington Post. “In fact, Carter’s White House performance is underrated and his post-presidency — while path-breaking and inspirational — is slightly overrated, in part because after leaving office he has controlled many fewer levers of power.”

His Very Best is an appropriate book title. It comes from a question posed to Carter by Adm. Hyman Rickover, a big influence in his life. During an extensive two-hour interview, Rickover asked the 27-year-old Navy officer where he stood in his class (59th out of 820).

“Did you always do your best?” Rickover asked.

When Carter confessed, he had not, Rickover snapped, “Why not?”

“I’ve never been able to answer that question,” Carter told Alter.

These are the kind of anecdotes that make this book an absorbing read. Carter sat for more than a dozen interviews, and 18 members of his family are quoted in His Very Best. Rosalynn Carter allowed Alter to read the former president’s love letters during his time in the Navy and gave him access to her unpublished diary entries from the Camp David Accords.

Alter also interviewed more than 250 people for the book, and research at the Carter Center in Atlanta was invaluable.

It seems unusual that Carter has never been the subject of a definitive biography. “I have no answer,” Alter writes, “except to note that the misimpression of him ran so deep that it discouraged such efforts.”

But Carter made an impression during his political career. Alter quotes gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who called Carter one of the “three meanest men I ever met,” adding, admiringly, that the politician would “eat your shoulder right off.”

“He is a very tough fellow,” National Observer writer James Perry wrote.

Or, as Andrew Young told Alter, Carter “can tell you to go to hell, and you think you’ll enjoy the trip.”

In His Very Best, Alter examines Carter’s successes, including his introduction of the first fuel-economy standards for cars, supporting alternative energy by installing solar panels on the roof of the White House, and being a champion for the environment by protecting 100 million acres of Alaska’s wilderness. Carter also worked to clean up toxic waste.

In foreign policy, Carter’s nearly two-week balancing act with Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat to achieve the Camp David Accords in 1978 was a clinic in negotiation and endurance. He also normalized relations with Communist China in 1979, authorized the construction of the B-2 bomber and stationed intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe.

Carter concentrated on human rights as he formulated his foreign policy, and appointed women and minority judges to the federal bench.

Alter, who has covered 10 presidential campaigns, has written three books about presidents — two about Barack Obama (The Promise: President Obama, Year One, in 2010; The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies, in 2013) and one about Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and The Triumph of Hope (2006). The Chicago native earned a bachelors’ degree with honors from Harvard in 1979.

While the bulk of His Very Best concentrates on Carter’s presidency, it also defines the man who grew up in rural Georgia, ran for the state legislature and eventually became governor of Georgia. It also plumbs Carter’s relationship with his wife, Rosalynn, a dominant figure in his life; and his sometimes-contentious relationship with his children, particularly his son, Jack.

Carter grew up in the Jim Crow era of the South during the 1930s, and his playmates were Black. Carter’s father, Alter writes, “prided himself on treating Black people with what he, in blinkered fashion, considered respect.

And yet, Carter stayed on the sidelines during the civil rights movement and never met with Martin Luther King Jr. In 1970. Alter writes, Carter conducted a “code word campaign” for governor, playing to admirers of segregationists such as Lester Maddox and Alabama Gov. George Wallace — only to reverse course during his inaugural address by announcing that “the time for racial discrimination is over.”

As president, Carter did not communicate well and was not enamored with negotiating with Congress, Alter writes. A surprising element Alter brings out was Carter’s salty language, which was earthier than his prediction about defeating Sen. Edward Kennedy in the 1980 primaries (“I’ll kick his ass.”).

“And I did,” Carter told talk-show host Stephen Colbert years later.

The national press, tired of Watergate, touted Carter as a fresh-faced outsider during the 1976 campaign but showed him little mercy after his election.

Think today’s media is tough and one-sided? Remember that when Carter was president, the internet did not exist. Cable news only emerged at the tail end of his presidency. Still, the hostage crisis made a star out of Ted Koppel, whose ABC late-night segment, “The Iran Crisis: America Held Hostage” morphed into “Nightline.”

Carter, who took up jogging, was “wobbling, moaning and pale with exhaustion,” The New York Times reported, when he collapsed in September 1979 while running a 10K race in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains. Reporters had a field day when Carter claimed he was attacked by a “vicious-looking, oversized swamp rabbit” while fishing in April 1979. The Boston Globe accidentally published a place-holder headline “Mush From The Wimp” for a March 15, 1980, editorial about one of Carter’s speeches. It was not caught until 161,000 copies of the newspaper were printed.

Carter then had to face a fractured Democratic party during the 1980 campaign when Kennedy challenged him. Carter would win, but the division helped doom his reelection.

During his presidency, Carter’s approval ratings were as high as 75% but plummeted to 28%. In the end, the hostage crisis, rampant inflation and perceived weakness paved the way for a decisive loss to Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Carter remained active after his presidency, always noting tongue-in-cheek that he involuntarily left the presidency. He spent much of his time forming the Carter Center and then helped build homes through Habitat for Humanity. Carter also did groundbreaking work in global health, helping to nearly eradicate the Guinea worm disease in Africa. Carter’s work helped drop the number of cases from 3.5 million in 1985 to just 130 in 2014.

However, some of Carter’s efforts were not appreciated. His globetrotting forays into politics to mediate disputes and monitor elections irritated some of his successors. Alter calls one of his chapters “Freelance Secretary of State.”

Carter’s political work — and his strongly worded opinions — may have been a burr to some presidents, but he was recognized for some of his work. President Bill Clinton named a submarine for Carter and awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1999. In 2002, Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, an honor some believed should have been given to him decades earlier for his work in bringing peace to the Middle East.

“As president, Carter was often respected without being liked,” Alter writes. “Afterward, he was admired without being loved.”

Thanks to Alter’s reporting and interviewing skills, His Very Best opens a window that reveals a complex man who could dazzle with his smile but also cut down critics with a stare from his icy blue eyes. It brings clarity to a life that has been rich and full, and yet unfulfilled on the political stage.

Despite my lukewarm assessment of Carter as a college student, I still voted for him in 1976, the first time I could vote in a presidential election. I thought he was the very best then, and while future events may have proven me wrong, I have no regrets.

Alter’s book is a necessary and valuable piece of history that will set the bar higher for future Carter biographers.


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