Jimmy Carter bio recounts triumphs of an imperfect leader

President Jimmy Carter, pictured at 1980 Democratic National Convention at Madison Square Garden in New York City, is the topic of a new biography by Jonathan Alter. (John Spink / Shot for the Kansas City Times)

Credit: John Spink

Credit: John Spink

A new biography of Jimmy Carter opens with a scene that summarizes the former president’s tendency to envision the future while sometimes remaining tone-deaf to the present.

As Americans lined up for fuel during the gas shortages of the summer of 1979, Carter unveiled a new addition to the White House roof: primitive solar panels.

Critics called it a stunt, “to deflect blame from the gas crisis,” writes Jonathan Alter. “Carter understood this but didn’t care.” Carter proposed investing in clean energy, imagining a U.S. independent of Arab oil. His constituents just wanted to know when the pumps would start flowing again.

It was perhaps the right move, but it struck the wrong note, which happened more than once in Carter’s tenure. His poor timing has sometimes blinded history to the achievements of his presidency. In “His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life,” Alter aims to right that wrong.

“One of the things I’m trying to do in this book is revise the conventional wisdom about his presidency and post presidency,” said Alter. “The truth is, he was an underestimated president and a slightly over-estimated former president, not because he didn’t do some great stuff in recent years, but when you’re out of power, you have fewer levers of real change.”

A former senior editor at Newsweek, Alter has written incisive biographies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Barack Obama. He fixed on writing about Carter, “the most misunderstood president in American history,” after he discovered that Carter would certainly have addressed global warming in a second term and was the first world leader to consider the impact of carbon dioxide gases on climate change.

Alter began pursuing the project in 2015 as Donald Trump announced his candidacy with a speech calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals. Alter was providing on-air commentary for MSNBC that evening.

“I said on the air that this was scary. I don’t think he’s going to be the next president, but this poisons our politics," said Alter. "I remember thinking that Carter represents the other path in the American tradition. It sent me back with new energy to learn from a president who was honest, serious and decent.”

"His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life" by Jonathan Alter Courtesy Simon and Schuster

Credit: HANDOUT

Credit: HANDOUT

Alter’s subject has been scrutinized before, most extensively by Carter himself. Among Carter’s dozens of published books are his memoirs “An Hour Before Daylight,” “Keeping Faith” and “A Full Life.”

Yet most accounts of Carter’s life written by others had a viewpoint to support, said Alter, whether they were by members of Carter’s White House team, such as aides Stuart Eizenstat and Peter Bourne, or by opponents, such as Steven Hayward.

“I thought there was a gaping hole in the line of scrimmage,” said Alter. “I was amazed that there had never been an independent, full-length biography.”

Over the last five years Alter interviewed Carter in person six times, and six more times by email. He joined family dinners at the Carter Center, accompanied Carter at a Habitat construction project in Memphis and on a road trip to Annapolis, Maryland.

He also had access to previously unseen private journals and to letters the young Navy officer wrote to his wife while stationed aboard the submarine USS Pomfret.

“Jimmy wrote Rosalynn some of the most passionate love letters from the Navy that an American president has ever written that have been published. Nobody even knew about them before this book.”

What emerged from Alter’s research was a complex figure, a deeply moral man who, at the beginning of his public life in South Georgia, failed to speak up while his neighbors at the integrated Koinonia farm were harassed with bullets and dynamite by Sumter County racists.

Carter compensated for that failure of conscience by an extraordinary commitment to justice and human rights in the White House and beyond.

“One of the great things about Carter’s life is that he used his silence of the first half of his life to power the achievements of the second half of his life,” said Alter. “That’s something that can be a model for us all.”

Many of Carter’s most significant achievements had to do with matters of conscience, writes Alter. Carter believed relinquishing ownership of the Panama Canal to Panama was the right thing to do. (And that it would also avert war.) The move was deeply unpopular in the U.S. and several legislators who supported it were voted out of office.

Carter also made enemies by insisting that the U.S. boycott Russia’s 1980 Olympic Games in reprisal for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979. (He also secretly armed the Afghan mujahideen.)

“He consistently made decisions as governor and president that were politically unpopular but farsighted and in the interest of people of Georgia and later the people of the United States," said Alter. “His wife Rosalynn was constantly saying to him, ‘Can’t you wait until the second term?’ She was the more politically shrewd of the two.”

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, left, U.S. President Jimmy Carter, center and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin clasp hands after signing the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel in 1979. AP Photo/ Bob Daugherty, File)

Credit: Bob Daugherty

Credit: Bob Daugherty

Carter’s crowning achievement was a peaceful one: convincing Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Menachem Begin of Israel to sign the Camp David agreements. “Israel and Egypt had fought each other four times in the previous 30 years,” said Alter. “They haven’t fired a shot in anger in the 40 years since.”

But that triumph was eclipsed by the events of 1979 and 1980. The oil crisis led to inflation of 12%, unemployment of 7% and interest rates of nearly 20%. Worst of all, when Iranian revolutionaries seized Americans in Tehran, they held Carter’s final year hostage.

Because Carter didn’t bring military might to bear on Iran, he was seen as weak and lost the 1980 election to Ronald Reagan. Reagan soon wrested those solar panels off the White House roof and cut the investment in alternative energy by two-thirds.

Reagan is credited with shrinking the federal government and precipitating the fall of the Soviet Union, but Alter begs to differ. He writes:

“Carter was a Democratic president, but he accomplished many things commonly associated with Ronald Reagan. It was Carter, not Reagan, who ended rampant inflation by appointing Paul Volcker as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board; Carter, not Reagan, who cut the deficit and the growth rate of the federal work force; Carter, not Reagan, who first broke with the Richard Nixon-Henry Kissinger policy of detente with Moscow by inviting Soviet dissidents to the White House and building the MX missile. Contrary to his reputation, Carter ended up playing a significant role in winning the Cold War with his human rights policy and by placing intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe.”

President Jimmy Carter welcomed longtime friend Willie Nelson (and guest) to the White House. Courtesy Carter Presidential Library

Credit: Courtesy of Carter Presidential Library

Credit: Courtesy of Carter Presidential Library

Alter makes another point: Though it might surprise 21st century readers, Carter, the Sunday school teacher, was embraced by the rock generation. Lynyrd Skynyrd, John Denver, Jerry Jeff Walker, Jimmy Buffett and the Allman Brothers Band raised money for Carter’s campaign at benefit concerts. When he was governor, Carter invited Bob Dylan to the mansion. Hunter S. Thompson was a big fan.

For that reason, Alter chose an Andy Warhol silkscreen portrait for the cover image. “I wanted to convey with that cover that there was a time when Jimmy Carter was very cool.”

The fact that the U.S. did not wage war during Carter’s term may seem like a pale accomplishment to modern observers, but for Carter, warfare was the final failure of the moral imagination.

A plaque given to him by former U.S. senator and Vietnam war vet Max Cleland celebrates that accomplishment with a quote from Thomas Jefferson:

“I Have the Consolation to Reflect

That During the Period of My

Administration Not a Drop

Of the Blood of a Single Citizen

Was Shed by the Sword of War.”

Writes Alter, "Carter was the first president since Jefferson who could claim that distinction.”

NONFICTION

‘His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life’

by Jonathan Alter

Simon & Schuster

800 pages, $37.50