As I’ve mentioned a few times over the past month, I’ve been enjoying Jonathan Alter’s biography of Jimmy Carter, “His Very Best.” It may be the best book to read in these the waning days of the Trump administration, for in many ways Carter was and remains the ultimate anti-Trump, a decent, honest and honorable man with a deep, deep love and respect for humanity and the world in which we live.
Not long ago I read former Carter aide Stuart Eizenstat’s book of his former boss. I liked that book but it is only an account of the Carter years in the White House, not a complete biography. Alter’s book offers so much more, from his childhood to his third public life as international humanitarian and peacemaker (his first was in Georgia state politics, including the governorship; the second was the presidency).
Two things struck me the most about this book. The first is that Carter was a much more successful president than he has been given credit for. Contrary to popular myth, Carter was not a weak or ineffective president. He accomplished a lot more in his four years in office than any 20th Century president other than FDR and LBJ, and he did most of it while standing strong for his beliefs in honesty, justice and morality. The list of his accomplishments is long. Here are a few:
- The Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel
- The successful transfer of the Panama Canal to Panama.
- The creation of the Department of Energy and the passage of the nation’s first national energy policy designed to promote conservation and the development of alternative resources (which eventually led to the country’s becoming energy self-sufficient).
- The appointment of more federal judges in his four years than any other modern president (including the soon-to-be ex-president).
- The creation of the Department of Education.
- The injection of human rights as an integral part of international relations.
- The introduction of the notion of global warming and the need to take action to curb it.
- With the help of First Lady Rosalyn Carter, elevating mental health as a national concern (much of what Rosalyn pushed for ended up being included in ObamaCare).
- Giving greater prominence to the Veterans Administration and pushing it to do more for the nation’s veterans.
- Elevating the role of his vice president, Walter Mondale, making him, for the first time in history, a true partner.
- After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Carter began a period of military build-up that eventually was to convince Soviet leaders to throw in the towel, leading to the breakup of the USSR.
- And yes, it was his negotiations with the Ayatollah’s men that led to the release of the hostages, unharmed, minutes after Reagan was sworn in.
There is more. A lot more. Significantly, most of these accomplishments came in the face of a very negative press, which went out of its way to portray Carter as weak, as a wimp – an ineffectual fool.
And, of course, there is his post-presidency. Again, with Rosalyn, he has racked up success after success in promoting human rights, reducing homelessness, eradicating diseases, ensuring honest elections abroad, and facing down corrupt strongmen in third-world countries.
Alter offers a thrilling account of when Bill Clinton sent Carter, former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn and Collin Powell to Haiti to negotiate with the island’s dictator, an army general. With U.S. forces on ships off the island, ready to invade if the general didn’t step down, Carter refused to abandon negotiations even as his Secret Service protectors and military leaders warned that if Carter and the others didn’t leave, they could be captured by the Haitians and held as hostages to prevent an invasion. The invasion never came because Carter was able to talk the strongman into stepping down.
Was Carter perfect? Far from it. Carter had many flaws, chief among them his pride, his certainty that his way was the right way. He was a terrible communicator, and he knew it, but he refused to do anything about it because he believed substance, not showmanship, would carry the day.
Carter was indeed, a flawed individual. Which brings me to the second thing that struck me about his book, the fact that in his early years in politics, Carter turned his back on the struggle for civil rights and on those who continued to be oppressed by Jim Crow laws.
The future human rights champion began his political career in the early 1960s, as a state senator, in a state that was a major civil rights battleground. Yet Carter never spoke publicly against the Old South mentality and its suppressive laws and mores. Carter and Martin Luther King Jr. never met; there is no record of his ever seeking a meeting with the civil rights leader.
Even worse, as a candidate for governor, Carter relied heavily on code-word campaigning to assure racist white voters that he was not their enemy. And he played footsies with both George Wallace and Lester Maddux to keep them from opposing his candidacy.
This was an ugly, ugly chapter in the life of Jimmy Carter, one that ended a few minutes after he was sworn in, when he declared in his inaugural address, that the time for racial segregation in Georgia was over. He went on to govern as an enlightened Southerner, and that served him well when he ran for president.
What amazes me is that, despite his distasteful early civil rights record, Carter managed to win the Democratic nomination in 1976 and go on to become president. Would a Democratic politician with such a record be able to do that today?
I don’t think so, not in this era of 24-hour punditry, relentless media scrutiny and unforgiving purity tests. Not in an age when redemption, forgiveness, renewal, etc., are bad words.