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.
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.”
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.”
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.