In 2002, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter flew to Oslo City Hall so he could accept the Nobel Peace Prize. After he was handed the gold medal and certificate on stage, he handed both to Rosalynn, who was at his side. The simplest gestures can contain so much.
“You can’t really understand Jimmy Carter unless you know Rosalynn,” E. Stanly Godbold Jr. quotes a friend of theirs in his introduction to 2010′s “Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter: The Georgia Years, 1924-1974,” the first volume in his comprehensive two-part biography of the couple. Their partnership is so profound through 76 years of marriage that telling both of their stories is the only way to understand the story and psyche of either.
In “Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter: Power and Human Rights, 1975-2020,” Godbold, professor emeritus of history at Mississippi State University, offers an exhaustively researched account of the Carters from the 1976 presidential campaign, when he seemingly came from nowhere to win the White House, through his tumultuous, drama-packed single term and defeat by Ronald Reagan, and on to their acclaimed post-Washington lives: building homes with Habitat for Humanity International, fighting disease and advocating for human rights through the Carter Center, and of course, that Nobel Peace Prize.
Godbold is clear-eyed and objective but basically sympathetic to the couple. His historic account is another important entry in a growing canon of scholarly contributions to the understanding and appreciation of the Carter Administration in a more nuanced context than the media offered at the time, or that some detractors still maintain.
Of the two, Rosalynn, now 95, appears to be Godbold’s favorite. He describes her as “a pretty, petite woman,” “extraordinarily unpretentious,” “vigorous and fearless” with “amazing charm, energy and confidence.”
He describes Jimmy, who just turned 98, however, as stubborn, “intellectual, driven, sometimes arrogant,” “a taskmaster who demanded perfection but rarely complimented or rewarded excellent work,” as well as “practical, honest, courageous.”
He asked her advice on nearly everything (but didn’t always take it), and their inner circles knew that winning her over in a dispute was always the best move. “Rosalynn had achieved something no other First Lady had ever done: She was an equal partner with the president,” Godbold writes.
The “We Didn’t Start the Fire” version of events and crises packed into the four years of the Carter Administration would read in part: Three Mile Island, brother Billy, Camp David, Panama Canal, “killer rabbit,” ERA, Mariel boatlift, Olympic boycott, SALT Treaty.
The defining event, of course, was when Iranian revolutionaries held 52 American diplomats hostage, as TV news shows counted off each day of “America Held Hostage.” Carter tried valiantly to free them and authorized a bold, detailed plan by the U.S. Army’s Delta Force to send in commandos to rescue them. It would have been a joyous ending, but a freak desert dust storm blinded the helicopter pilots, and three of the eight helicopters suffered accidents, leaving no choice but to abort the mission. And with it, end Carter’s presidency.
Godbold also goes back into the murky, hotly contested allegations of an “October Surprise,” charges that Republican operatives met secretly with representatives of Iran in Paris and allegedly offered money and arms to Iran in the future if Iran would keep the hostages prisoner until after the election. Without laying out much detail, Godbold concludes: “The mounting evidence, scholarship and journalistic investigations proved that the Republicans’ October Surprise did take place.” A 1992 House of Representatives investigation, however, found no credible evidence of the deal, so his summation is debatable.
When the Carters left Washington, no one could imagine what lay ahead in the coming four decades. Godbold devotes eight of his 45 dense chapters to their post-presidential lives and accomplishments.
They established the Carter Center in Atlanta, which they envisioned to be similar to the United Nations in its peacekeeping and humanitarian aspects. For 40 years it has been an action-oriented agency rather than a think tank.
Godbold does note the times when Carter’s globe-trotting missions worked counter to official American diplomacy efforts of various administrations and the questions that were raised over whether he had crossed a line as a private citizen in international negotiations.
But the Carter Center has also been incredibly effective in its world health initiatives, nearly eliminating Guinea worm disease and greatly decreasing river blindness.
In 1984, the Carters started volunteering for Habitat for Humanity International, which at the time was a tiny, virtually unknown non-profit in Americus with a transformative plan giving struggling families a pathway to buy and build their own homes with the help of volunteers and donors. The Carters’ basic carpentry work and simple human connections grew into the annual Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project and made Habitat a household name and one of the most successful non-profits in the country.
Although Godbold checks in on a few of the many Habitat builds with the Carters, their involvement gets shorter shrift than it should, given how important that work has been in cementing their public image as humble Christian humanitarians.
In PBS’s 2002 “American Experience” biography of Carter, speechwriter Hendrik Hertzberg summed him up: “Jimmy Carter was exactly what the American people always say they want: above politics, determined to do the right thing regardless of political consequences, a simple person who doesn’t lie, a modest man, not somebody with a lot of imperial pretenses. That’s what people say they want, and that’s what they got with Jimmy Carter.” And Rosalynn Carter as well.
“Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter: Power and Human Rights, 1975-2020″
By E. Stanly Godbold Jr.
Oxford University Press
$39.95, 889 pages.