His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life
by Jonathan Alter
(Simon & Schuster, 800 pp., $37.50)
Among others of his unintended accomplishments, Donald Trump has forced us to re-evaluate what we have considered to be the country’s failed presidencies. With the office of the presidency now sinking to hitherto unimaginable depths, we must entertain the possibility that some of those failed presidencies were not as bad as they once seemed. High on the list of presidents inviting reappraisal is Jimmy Carter.
Carter, our 39th president, is remembered for his haplessness in the face of great events combined with his insufferable sanctimony. But with Trump showing us what a truly terrible presidency entails, it is time for another look. A new biography by Jonathan Alter—His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life—is the first volume to tell Carter’s entire story, from cradle to his present sharp-witted 96 years of age. The book offers a new look at the man Alter calls “perhaps the most misunderstood president in American history.”
As in any standard presidential biography, Alter begins at the beginning, tracing Carter’s path from boyhood to America’s political summit and beyond, taking us back to Plains, Georgia in the 1930s; the U.S. Naval Academy in the 1940s; and the nuclear submarine service of the U.S. Navy in the 1950s. We encounter the various figures, especially his domineering father, Earl and, later, the even-more-domineering Admiral Hyman Rickover, who shaped Carter into the ultra-fastidious, engineering-minded moralizer he became.
Though sympathetic to Carter, at times to the straining point, Alter, a former senior editor at Newsweek and the author of three previous books, is by no means hagiographic. His willingness to call balls and strikes is readily apparent throughout, especially in his treatment of the tortuous evolution of Carter’s handling of race relations during his rise through Georgia politics.
The composition of the Georgia electorate in the late 1960s dictated a walk along a narrow political ledge. To win the 1970 Democratic gubernatorial primary, Alter explains, Carter had to woo white working-class voters who had voted the openly racist Lester Maddox into the Georgia governor’s office in 1966 and supported the arch-segregationist George Wallace for president in 1968. In virtually every speech on the campaign trail, Carter associated himself with Wallace and spoke racially charged code words that, in Alter’s telling, “sounded innocuous on the surface but signaled to white voters that he was with them on racial issues.” Alter calls Carter an “early master” of the discreditable art known today as dog-whistling. Even if as governor of Georgia, then as president, Carter ended up as a respectable liberal on racial issues, his record across the era of civil rights was far from heroic.
Though Carter’s one-term presidency is remembered as a string of fiascos—inflation, energy shortages, unceasing diplomatic contretemps, strategic retreat, and national humiliation—Alter aims to present a more balanced view. He notes that because Carter enjoyed a Democratic-controlled Congress for all four years of his term, he achieved more of his legislative agenda than any postwar American president except Lyndon Johnson. Carter’s achievements included, in Alter’s summation, “strong new pollution controls, the first toxic waste cleanup, and doubling the size of the national park system.” More, Carter “set the bar on consumer protection; signed two major pieces of ethics legislation; carried out the first civil service reform in a century; established two new Cabinet-level departments (Energy and Education); deregulated airlines, trucking, and utilities in ways that served the public interest;” and “took federal judgeships out of the era of tokenism by selecting more women and blacks for the federal bench than all of his predecessors combined, times five.”
One may agree or disagree with any or all of these steps, but they do amount to something substantial. If Carter’s accomplishments were not recognized, then or later, explains Alter, the major source of this discounting was the “aggressive post-Watergate press,” which “tended to assume the worst about him.”
It was, of course, the realm of foreign policy in which Carter ultimately ran aground, although runaway inflation—15 percent at its peak—and nationwide energy shortages also contributed mightily to his downfall. Yet Alter makes a case for at least partial rehabilitation. Carter, he emphasizes, can justly boast of both the Panama Canal Treaties and the 1978 Camp David Accords. The first of these was accomplished in the face of Republican demagoguery, with Ronald Reagan insisting that the Canal was “ours” and attacking Carter for allegedly accelerating America’s global retreat. (After Reagan assumed office in 1981, he allowed the ginned-up controversy over the “giveaway” to fade without a trace.)
There is no question that brokering a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt remains the most shining facet of Carter’s legacy. His intense personal diplomacy over 13 days, which Alter reconstructs in close detail, paid off in bringing the two warring countries into a lasting if chilly peace.
Far more checkered, as Alter acknowledges, was Carter’s elevation of human rights as the centerpiece of American foreign policy. On the 1976 campaign trail, Carter had already found that the theme was a political winner, “uniting liberals critical of Henry Kissinger’s support for dictators, ethnic voters upset with Soviet control of nations behind the Iron Curtain, Christians worried about religious persecution, and Jews concerned about dissidents unable to leave the USSR.” In his 1977 inaugural address, Carter declared that “our commitment to human rights must be absolute.” But this extreme postulation ran headlong into the necessities of geopolitics. As Alter writes, “[t]he president’s new policy would be selective and inconsistent from the start, especially as applied to strategically important allies.”
Without doubt Carter deserves credit for actions such as writing a letter of support to the Soviet physicist dissident Andrei Sakharov in which he proclaimed that “human rights” were the “central concern of my administration.” This action shocked Soviet leaders, who were accustomed to unilateral American ideological disarmament as part of Nixon-Ford-Kissinger era détente. Never mind that Carter simultaneously attempted to conciliate Leonid Brezhnev with an ingratiating and even ridiculous personal letter: “As a child,” Carter wrote to the Soviet leader, “I developed a literary taste by reading your classics.”
More centrally, one can fairly ask whether the cause of human rights was advanced by breaking with Taiwan and establishing diplomatic relations with the Communist Chinese regime, as Carter did in December of 1978, thereby finishing the great-power shafting of a small country in a process begun by Nixon and Kissinger—or, even more glaringly, by backing the genocidal Khmer Rouge in their 1978 armed conflict with Soviet-backed Vietnam: “I encouraged the Chinese to support Pol Pot,” Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, acknowledged to the New York Times.
The contradictions of Carter’s human rights policy were on most vivid display in his relations with Iran. Visiting the Shah’s tottering police state only months before unrest against the regime erupted in 1978, Carter famously declared that “Iran, because of the great leadership of the Shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.”
The Iranian revolution of 1979 and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that same year drove the final nails into the coffin of Carter’s presidency. Alter tours the various decision points that confronted America’s president as events unfolded—most notably, the return of Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran from France in February of 1979—and concludes that “even granting how few options” Carter had, his “lack of diplomatic and clandestine imagination” was “striking.” After Khomeini was ensconced in power, Carter, utterly misreading the handwriting on the wall, decided to pursue normal diplomatic relations with the revolutionary regime, which, as Carter later explained, “we thought would be friendly to us and work with us.” Staggering blindness.
Even worse was to come. Alter walks through the ups and downs of the exiled Shah’s declining health and concludes that Carter was duped by fraudulent medical reporting into believing that the Iranian leader could receive proper care only in the United States. As Carter had been warned, however, the decision to admit the Shah for treatment precipitated the November 1979 storming of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and the seizure of 67 hostages.
No event had greater consequences for Carter’s political fate. His catastrophic attempt at a military rescue took the lives of eight servicemen. Alter’s verdict is a curious blend of harsh criticism and backhanded defense: The “Carter administration’s reaction to events in Iran,” Alter says, “was everything Carter himself was not: undisciplined, disorganized, and poorly informed.”
It is easy to sneer at Jimmy Carter, and there is much about the man to dislike. Although Alter blames the aggressive post-Watergate press for our general failure to recognize Carter’s accomplishments, this argument is not convincing. The more persuasive explanation almost certainly lies in Carter’s weakness as a public speaker and his distaste, even contempt, for go-along-get-along politics of the kind that might have helped to build him a base of support inside the Democratic Party. Alter’s biography leaves little doubt that the supercilious Carter, who campaigned, then governed as an outsider, failed miserably at these necessary components of leadership.
Also, for all of Carter’s intelligence, he could sometimes be remarkably obtuse. Consider several episodes from his dealings with Communist dictators. As Carter tells it in his memoir, Living Faith, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, in discussions with Carter about human rights, once turned the tables and boasted of the Soviet Union’s free medical care, zero unemployment and absence of homelessness. “I couldn't argue,” Carter recollects. “We each had a convenient definition” of human rights, and “differences like this must be recognized and understood.”
Similarly, after visiting North Korea’s Kim Il-Sung, a tyrant who ruled by means of thoroughgoing terror, Carter argued against America’s imposing sanctions to halt the North’s nuclear program, on grounds that it was “likely” to provoke a war. The North Korean people, wrote Carter, “could not accept the branding . . . of their revered, almost worshipped, president as a criminal.” This is cluelessness on a grand scale, and weirdly out of line with Carter’s commitment to human rights. Indeed, especially in later life, Carter has seemed more inclined to lambast the United States, and the state of Israel, than their authoritarian opponents.
But for all his faults and limitations, we need to give Carter his due. He readily accepted responsibility when things went wrong. He did not lie to the American people, nor did he rave and rant. He was a devout Christian, and his appetites and behavior were never depraved. The human being who emerges from Alter’s fine biography is honest, a man with sincere convictions who always strove to put the interests of the country first, in short, a patriot. (The remarkably enchanting documentary out this year, “Jimmy Carter: Rock and Roll President”, also reveals a man of genuine warmth and culture.)
Until recently, human decency in a president was taken for granted. Now it is something to be cherished. As we look back at Carter’s presidency in light of the current occupant of the White House, our 39th president deserves a grade that is at least a notch better than the judgment of failure that has been widely accorded him.
Gabriel Schoenfeld is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center and an opinion columnist for USA Today.
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