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"Jimmy Carter" and "White House Diary"

Jimmy Carter ran for president as a maverick. It’s also how he’s lived his life.

By Chuck Leddy / October 11, 2010

Jimmy Carter By Julian E. Zelizer Times Books 150 pp., $23

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Two outstanding new books – Jimmy Carter, an accessible, insightful examination of the Carter presidency by journalist and Princeton history professor Julian E. Zelizer and White House Diary, a day-to-day, surprisingly blunt account of his White House years written by Jimmy Carter himself – work together to offer not only a lucid overview of Carter’s troubled presidency but also an almost photorealistic portrait of the former president.

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Neither book offers much in the way of surprises. Rather, both confirm public perceptions of Carter as highly principled, often uncompromising, sometimes difficult in his relations with Congress and the press, and, on occasion, excessively detail-oriented. Taken together, however, they fill in the details and – in the case of Carter’s diary – flesh out our impressions of Carter with compelling, day-by-day details.

The 1976 election – the first post-Watergate presidential race – was set up perfectly for an outsider running against the corrupt Washington establishment. As Zelizer notes, Carter “had built an entire career around positioning himself as a political outsider ... [and 1976] was a year for the maverick.”

Carter writes in his diary: “I chose to focus my campaign on three themes: truthfulness, management competence, and distance from the unattractive aspects of Washington politics.” But running as an outsider and governing as one were different things, as the newly elected Carter would discover.

By all accounts, Carter’s faith-based integrity was, and is, quite authentic. He notes in his diary: “The last thing Rosalynn and I do every day is read a chapter in the Bible in Spanish, and we’ll have prayer at all our meals and attend regular church services.” Carter’s personal values were at the core of his strengths, illustrated best by his dogged determination to find a peaceful solution in the Middle East. Yet his values could also lead him to be uncompromising. As Zelizer explains (and Carter’s diary abundantly confirms), “he simply did not like” the horse-trading ways of legislative politics.

One of Carter’s first presidential acts was to kill public-works projects that he considered wasteful “pork.” Carter accurately predicted in his diary, “I know this is going to create a political furor.”

Carter’s difficulties with Congress were many. As Congress dragged its feet on Carter’s unpopular Panama Canal Treaty, for example, Carter notes “[t]he House has been ridiculously irresponsible this week ... just a bunch of disorganized juvenile delinquents.” Carter’s hugely complex energy bill also bogged down amid Congressional lobbying and horse-trading. Carter’s diary entries expose his frustration: “This last week in Congress has been like a madhouse with everybody threatening filibusters and constant squabbles.” Looking back, an older, more reflective Carter writes (in the diary’s “afterword”) that “I was sometimes accused of ‘micromanaging’ the affairs of government and being excessively autocratic, and I must admit that my critics probably had a valid point.”

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