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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.

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As Zelizer notes, liberal Democrats objected to Carter’s commitment to budgetary restraint. As the economy worsened, with high inflation and high unemployment, liberals called for aggressive federal stimulus to create jobs, much like today. But Carter remained conservative about federal stimulus. Carter also clashed with Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy on Kennedy’s health-care plan, which Carter deemed too costly. A peeved Carter, watching as Kennedy jockeyed to run against him in 1980, writes: “Every day [Kennedy] takes some tiny thing out of the budget and issues a press release condemning me, which is getting tiresome.”

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Bogged down domestically, Carter approached foreign affairs with tremendous energy, finding both triumph and tragedy. His nose-to-nose Camp David diplomacy with Israeli Prime Minister Begin and Egyptian President Sadat led to a breakthrough, but one that would prove difficult to build upon. The 30 or so pages that Carter’s diary devotes to these intimate negotiations show Carter at his stubborn, principled best, fighting like a lion for peace. We see Carter charming, confronting, and demanding more from both Middle East leaders.

Carter’s worst moment also involved the Middle East – the taking of American hostages in Iran. As the long hostage crisis continued, Carter’s political reputation dwindled. And when Carter’s attempt to rescue the hostages failed (and eight soldiers died), it was the lowest point of his presidency.

As Zelizer writes, “[t]he [failed] mission was a total embarrassment for the United States ... and Carter’s critics, on the left and right, said this offered more evidence of his incompetence.” Late in his term, Carter’s diary chronicles a series of negative events and growing frustration: The Soviets invaded Afghanistan, OPEC-controlled oil prices remained high, the Iranian hostage crisis dragged on, and Carter confronted massive political battles against Kennedy (from the left) and then Ronald Reagan (from the right).

Carter left the White House looking like a failed president. He himself admits in his diary: “My main problem is still the opinion of the American people that I am not a strong leader and have inadequate vision for the future.” Yet as Zelizer notes, Carter would become perhaps the most influential former president in American history. “Freed from the need to build political alliances, Carter seemed more comfortable with his post-presidential role than when he was in the White House.”

Many Americans judge the former president to be a great man, but it will be up to history to decide whether Carter’s failures outbalance his successes. Meanwhile, anyone seeking insight into the 39th president of the United States would do well to pick up these two books.

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer and member of the National Book Critics Circle.

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