Book review: Carter biography reconsiders misunderstood president

Kai Bird’s ‘The Outlier’ paints detailed portrait of the man and his legacy.

“The Outlier” by Kai Bird is the second major biography within a year to champion the presidency of Jimmy Carter. Weighing in at 784 pages, it is immense with historical detail buoyed by Washington intrigue. A distinguished political biographer, the author tracks Carter from his Georgia roots to his stellar post-Presidency, for which Bird registers awe.

Bird carefully examines Carter’s ambitious “domestic legislative record and his radical foreign policy initiatives,” acknowledging his often bold, visionary achievements.

Carter, who believed in Christian love and forgiveness, knew that the Vietnam war had badly damaged America’s psyche. During his first week in the White House, he declared a “blanket pardon” for 210,000 “draft evaders.”

He supported the Equal Rights Amendment. His focus on human rights, Bird maintains, “contributed more to the disintegration of the Soviet system than did Ronald Reagan’s reckless spending on Star Wars.”

Carter was a “premature environmentalist” who “(placed) solar panels on the roof of the White House” and “talked about climate change before it was fashionable.”

Chummy with Ralph Nader, Carter became an advocate of consumer protection. We now have mandatory airbags and shoulder seat belts, thanks to him.

There was no American war during the Carter presidency. He successfully negotiated two Panama Canal treaties. He normalized relations with China and signed the Salt II nuclear arms limitation treaty with the Soviets. Against the odds, he brokered the Camp David Accords and secured the subsequent Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Together, the author calls them a “spectacular and historic triumph.”

Bird confronts Carter’s mistakes, as he sees them. He was reluctant to join Washington’s social whirl. He was slow to recognize the importance of his party’s liberal coalition of northern Democrats, labor unions and the Jewish American community.

Above all, he faults Carter for not trusting his geopolitical instincts, which were superior to those of his advisers, who lured the him, against his better judgment, into allowing the exiled Shah of Iran to enter the United States.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Born into his state’s racially charged agrarian universe in 1924, he transformed himself into a “Southern liberal” who believed in Great Society options, despite his strong “fiscal conservative” impulse.

“A bright and emotionally intelligent child” whose “only neighbors were Black tenants,” Bird emphasizes, “he experienced from the ground the great chasm between America’s beliefs about itself and the reality of inequality, poverty and racism.”

In his 1971 gubernatorial inaugural address, Carter astounded Georgia’s longtime political observers — and outgoing Governor Lester Maddox — by declaring, “I say to you frankly that the time for racial discrimination is over.”

He appointed “more African-Americans and women to the federal bench than all previous presidents combined,” and he made congressman Andrew Young, a civil rights pioneer, the United Nations ambassador.

Bird, a Pulitzer Prize-winner who’s written biographies of cold war figures such as John McCloy and Robert Ames, documents all the backstabbing and backchannels during the Carter administration: There was no shortage of knaves and villains. Of note are special appearances by former President Donald Trump’s beloved fixers, Roy Cohn and Roger Stone, who tried to undermine the administration and the reelection campaign with their tricks and capers.

Team Carter was hick-baited all the way. The Georgia clan was “tacky,” said one Beltway insider; “not our kind of people,” said another. There’s only one way to put it: Readers of “The Outlier” will come to loathe the era’s posh cult of “Georgetown society” — and its media apostles like Sally Quinn, for whom Bird can barely restrain his contempt

Dogged by a teetering economy throughout his four-year term, Carter was caught between the Left and Right. Bird, who sits on The Nation’s editorial board, draws an exceedingly ugly portrait of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, with whom Carter had a personality conflict. The Massachusetts legislator’s drive to replace Carter as the 1980 Democratic nominee against Ronald Reagan was highly destructive.

Nevertheless, when Reagan won, Carter was a gracious loser. He repaired to Georgia, where he established his presidential museum, library and the Carter Center, with its soft touch of hard Zen and commitment to worldwide “conflict resolution.” He launched a years-long, successful battle to conquer Guinea Worm Disease, “river blindness” and elephantiasis in Asia and Africa.

He’s helped monitor more than a hundred elections around the globe, sometimes in dangerous circumstances, and he’s participated in Habitat for Humanity projects everywhere. The author of more than 30 books, he says whatever he wants, whether he’s defending the Palestinians’ right to exist or labeling New York City’s former mayor, Ed Koch, a “jerk.” He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.

Bird’s powerful summary is as fine a paragraph as any historian can write about a former president: Carter “was the rare Southern white man who saw what African Americans saw — that America was not that ‘city on a hill.’ Carter understood that the myths were myths and that America, both North and South, was in fact a country in need of serious healing. This was his strength as a politician and ultimately the source of his unpopularity in the 1980s … His efforts to persuade the country to confront its original sins were somehow both heroic and ill-fated…”


The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter’

by Kai Bird

Penguin Random House

784 pages, $38