Jimmy Carter: A Comprehensive Biography From Plains to Post Presidency
By Peter C. Bourne
Jimmy Carter has been out of office for more than 30 years, yet there are few scholarly biographies of this president. That is remarkable considering he presided over one of the most bizarre periods of American history. Deindustrialization of the United States was just getting started, everything William Phillips and John Maynard Keynes taught us about the economy was proved wrong, The Soviets achieved military superiority to the United States, and OPEC learned they could bully us.
Vernon Jordan, Bert Lance, and others in convincing the little known governor of Georgia to run for the presidency in 1976.
Bourne describes Carter’s childhood in great detail. He was the first American president born in a hospital. His father was a benign bigot – more a product of his time and place than a hard core bigot. His mother was a Florence Nightingale to the black community in Plains and Americus, Georgia. It was Earl Carter who built the family peanut and warehouse business for which Carter would become so famous.
In describing Carter’s military career, it becomes clear that Rosalynn was every bit ambitious – perhaps more ambitious – than her husband. She didn’t enjoy the life of a military wife, with Jimmy being gone for long stretches as one of the first nuclear engineers in military history. But she saw it as a ticket out of Plains which was too small to contain her unrelenting drive.
She was devastated when Jimmy left the Navy and returned to Plains to run the family business. Earl Carter was known for his business acumen and Jimmy inherited that trait. Rosalynn was also adept at business, managing the business’s books. It was during this time that Carter was bitten by the political bug.
Carter entered southern politics at a time of transition in the South. The hardline segregationists were losing their grip on power, yet still controlled a large portion of the vote in rural Georgia. Carter ran for the Georgia state senate as man who was all things to all people. In his heart, he was a reformer, but made concessions to the reality of southern politics in the 1960s.
Despite his big grin, Carter showed he could be tough. He battled the entrenched segregationists within the Georgia Democratic Party and corrupt county officials in his first run for office. He challenged the sheriff of Quitman County who controlled voting there and won his first political race in 1961. He successfully ran for reelection in 1964 and served on the education committee within the Georgia senate.
He decided not to run for reelection in 1966 and seek a higher office. He considered a run for the U.S. House seat which is what Rosalynn wanted. Instead, he opted for governor. He ended up losing that race to Lester Maddox, an old school segregationist. But with Maddox term limited in 1970, Carter came back and won the governership. Maddox was elected lieutenant governor and the two did not get along with Maddox working to thwart every reform measure Carter pursued.
Bourne doesn’t spend too much time discussing Carter’s years as governor. The narrative really takes off when Carter’s advisors start to contemplate a run for the presidency.
Carter was the most unlikely candidate of the modern era of presidents. He had zero name recognition nationally and was not even well known among his governors. But politics is about time and place, and Bourne accurately portrays that Jimmy Carter was a man of his times.
Bourne doesn’t overplay his role, but apparently had an axe to grind with Vernon Jordan, who got his start as a kingmaker under Carter. Bourne is unrelenting in his criticism of Jordan’s disorganization and unwillingness to return phone calls. Bourne makes it clear they won that campaign despite Jordan.
Presidential primaries were much different in 1976 than they are today, with the individual states holding primaries from early in the year through the summer. Today, it is a sprint to the nomination once the primaries start. Back then, it was a marathon and Carter was durable. He won primaries and lost primaries. With Kennedy out, liberals kept hoping that Hubert Humphrey would enter the race and the Carter camp feared this. But as time wore in, also-rans like George Wallace, Frank Church, Jerry Brown, and Morris Udall eventually fell by the wayside and Carter won the nomination.
Bourne points out that it was Carter’s tireless grassroots campaigning – standing at shopping centers and factory entrances that won him the nomination. Carter and his campaign were not media savvy and his mass media campaign was lackluster. But Carter’s ability to engage voters one on one was unsurpassed by any president before or since.
Carter emerged from the Democratic National Convention with running mate Walter Mondale with a 30 point lead over Gerald Ford and Bob Dole. Ford was suffering from backlash from the Nixon pardon and an ailing economy. The election should have been a cakewalk for Carter. But it was not.
Ford responded with a brilliant Rose Garden strategy. He knew that Carter’s greatest weakness was his inexperience and Ford needed to look presidential to best Carter, who was running as a reformer after Vietnam and Watergate had shaken America’s faith in its politicians. Ford executed his plan well and the lead narrowed. Carter had a disastrous interview with Playboy magazine where he admitted to having “lusted” in his heart. He would go on to perform poorly in the first of two debates with Ford where he admitted being in awe of the president and his office.
Ford, who was doing so well with his Rose Garden strategy then committed a major gaffe at the second blunder. In defending the Helsinki Accords which he’d help broker, he claimed that there was, “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, nor will there ever be under a Ford administration.” Conservatives were aghast. Not particularly fond of Ford for besting their man, Ronald Reagan, in the primaries, they were now alienated. Bob Dole made things worse by describing all of the wars of the 20th century as “Democrat wars.”
The election was close, but Carter managed to defeat Ford. One of the great traditions of which Americans are most proud is the transition of power from a defeated president to the man who defeated him. Yet, Bourne neglects to discuss the transfer of power from Ford to Carter with any great detail. He does discuss in detail Carter’s process of selecting members of his cabinet and administration and the process is as ugly and disorganized as any in American history.
In the wake of the scorn and blame for Watergate heaped on Nixon chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, Carter elected not to have a chief of staff. He wanted multiple people within his administration to have direct access to him. This would prove a stupid maneuver. The people in charge of vetting potential advisors and cabinet members had no experience in Washington and were determined to appoint people who were not Washington insiders. They did not consult Democratic congressional leaders, alienating important men like House Speaker Tip O’Neill, senators Robert Byrd and Scoop Jackson, and the DNC. This was all part of the Carter strategy of portraying the man from Plains as an outsider who was going to change Washington.
Rather than tell a chronological story of the Carter presidency, Bourne compartmentalizes it into various aspects of presidential leadership.
He first describes the effort to bring peace to the Middle East where Israel and Egypt had been engaged in a long and brutal war. Bourne describes in detail (but without drama) the process of bringing Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat to Washington to begin negotiations for peace. The divisions were ancient and bitter.
Sadat seemed to want peace more than Begin and immediately invested his hopes in Carter’s ability to wrangle the necessary concessions from Begin. Begin, facing pressure from conservatives in Israel who saw building settlements in disputed territories as their only buffer with hostile Arab nations, were tough negotiators. Begin finally relented enough for Sadat to be able. They reached an agreement in principle, but it would be two more years before the Camp David Accords were finally signed and Carter joined Begin and Sadat on the South Lawn for the three way handshake that would become the most famous image from the Carter presidency as the three celebrated.
In domestic policy, Bourne acknowledges the administration’s plan was a disaster from the start. Carter made myriad promises in many areas during the campaign and he seemed determined to bring them all to fruition in the first year. Proposals for energy legislation, tax legislation, education legislation, environmental legislation, and government reform legislation flew from the White House to Capitol Hill on an almost daily basis. Yet, in developing the legislation, nobody from the administration had consulted anyone on Capitol Hill.
It is this conduct that would make the Carter presidency a total disaster. The boys from Georgia Carter brought with him did not understand how to move legislation through Congress by working with their allies there. Carter himself was incredibly aloof and standoffish with congressional leaders. Much of what he proposed was opposed in principle by many of the old New Dealers that still populated Congress. Members of Congress will sometimes vote against their principles if offered other incentives, but Carter went out of his way to remove those incentives by vetoing bills that included important pork projects for Democratic members.
As the economy slowly faltered and the energy crisis became a real phenomenon, Carter was paralyzed. Part of the problem was the situation was unprecedented in American history. As unemployment rose, economists expected inflation to drop. This was how it had always been. Not under Carter. Unemployment reached double digits and so did inflation. The misery of the Carter economy left no one unhurt. Yet, with no goodwill in Congress, Carter could do nothing about it. He did appoint conservative monetarist Paul Volker to run the Federal Reserve. But it was too little, too late.
Bourne recounts Carter’s moment of personal crisis with dramatic flair. He describes Carter’s retreat to Camp David in great detail where Carter invited advisers, economists, common citizens, politicians, poets, business leaders, and labor leaders to offer him advice. The meeting was supposed to demonstrate Carter getting back in touch with Americans. What it did was reveal to the nation a man in over his head, grasping at any straw to save himself and the nation.
It was here that the woeful, “Malaise Speech” was conceived. It was pollster Pat Cadell’s idea. Cadell’s information revealed that Americans had lost faith in themselves and their country. He thought it important for Carter to acknowledge this and to encourage Americans to reach deep within themselves for sacrifice and determination to improve their lot.
The first to recognize this approach as a total disaster was vice president Walter Mondale. Mondale was a veteran politician who understood voters and understood politics. He recognized it for how it would be received: the president was blaming the American people for their own ills.
Carter delivered the ill-advised speech, speaking from fireside inside the White House in a cardigan sweater. He told Americans what he'd heard during his sojourn at Camp David and described America's Crisis of Confidence in itself.
Early polls seemed to prove Mondale wrong as Carter got an immediate bump in the polls. But as the speech was dissected by the media and by the opposition, the bump disappeared and Carter actually plumbed new depths in presidential approval, falling to just 22 percent – five points lower than Richard Nixon when he resigned. The nation’s economy was unraveling at an alarming rate. Gas shortages plagued the nation. Coal miners went on strike, crippling industry and the president stood helpless.
Bourne provides a bit of a history lesson in Iranian-American relations as he starts into his analysis of the Iranian hostage crisis. When the militants seized power and took the American embassy, Carter did not respond. Carter supported Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlav, but publicly chided him for his abysmal record on human rights. When the Shah fell, Carter refused to allow him sanctuary in the United States, forcing him to flee to Mexico. Just as he was paralyzed by the mess in the economy, he was paralyzed by the hostage crisis. The militants were demanding the return of the Shah, his wealth, an admission from the U.S. that it had meddled in Iranian politics and an apology, and a promise to stay out of Iranian domestic politics.
Carter finally decided to act and signed off on a rescue mission. This led to the resignation of Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance who had tired of the constant battles for power within the Carter White House which had no chief of staff, and therefore, no leader. Vance had battled NSA director, Zbigniew Brzezinski and de facto chief of staff, Vernon Jordan for access and power for years. This was a convenient time for him to exit.
The effort to rescue the hostages was a disaster. Helicopters failed to operate properly. Republicans had criticized the president for the lack of funding for spare parts for military equipment and this seemed to bear out their criticism. The rescue effort was further hampered by a horrible dust storm which made landing in the designated area nearly impossible. The disaster culminated in the collision of two of the helicopters, leading to the death and injury of several American military personnel.
As the hostage crisis wore on, the energy crisis wore on, and the economy remained in total shambles, Carter had no political capital with which to operate. Democrat Ted Kennedy, with whom Carter had never enjoyed a particularly warm relationship, decided to run for president in the Democratic primary.
Carter desperately wanted a second term, but was going to have to fight the liberal wing of his party to get it. The battle between Kennedy and Carter was vicious, but its outcome preordained. Kennedy still wore the stigma of Chappaquiddick and blew a high profile interview on CBS where he could not clearly state why he wanted to be president. Carter vanquished Kennedy in the primaries, but the two could not show a united front at the Democratic National Convention. The Democratic primary was split.
Meanwhile, the rift between conservative and moderate Republicans was repaired when Ronald Reagan chose George Bush to be his running mate at the 1980 Republican Convention. Just as Carter had done four years prior, Reagan/Bush emerged from the primary with a sizeable lead over the incumbent.
The race was between the incumbent who’d promised honesty and efficiency in government and a man who promised to restore American greatness. Carter, who was so involved in government that he approved daily White House tennis court schedules, was opposing a man who seemed to know or care little about how federal government worked, but was quick to label it the source of all American problems.
Just as Carter was the right man at the right time in 1976, promising honesty and efficiency in the wake of Watergate, Ronald Reagan was the right man at the right time who promised a weary and uncertain nation that he would lead it back to greatness by restoring its military might and reducing its government’s power to influence their lives. The race wasn’t even close. Carter conceded before the polls closes in California.
From this point, Bourne’s book lapses into nearly incoherent bitterness. In describing the transition meeting, he says Reagan took no notes during his briefing, but asked Carter if he could have his.
Bourne tries to convey how Carter wanted to spend his remaining years as a peacemaker and details his many trips to monitor elections in dangerous countries. What he does not detail is how small and petty Carter was in criticizing Reagan, Bush, and Bill Clinton from afar – a nearly unprecedented act for a former president. At one point, responding to a reporter's question about Carter's trip to Haiti, President Clinton was forced to remind the reporter that Jimmy Carter didn't set American foreign policy. He did. Bourne makes it appear as if Reagan actually wanted Carter to die in South America by withholding security for him. The notion is preposterous.
In reality, Reagan treated Jimmy Carter with as much respect and dignity as any president could a former president despite Carter’s constant sniping and criticizing. Reagan dispatched Carter to greet the hostages, rightly acknowledging Carter’s dedication in securing their release. Knowing how close Carter was to Anwar Sadat, Reagan sent him, along with Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon to attend Sadat’s funeral. In his memoirs, Reagan complimented Carter on his dedication to securing the release of the hostages and not once did Reagan ever criticize Carter’s conduct of those negotiations even though it would have certainly made valuable political fodder.
Bourne wraps up with describing how Carter dedicated himself to Habitat for Humanity and the Carter Center. Both are laudable undertakings for the retired president and in his post-presidential years have been fulfilling for him and of benefit to the American people.
Bourne’s biography is simply not a well conceived book. On the positive side, Bourne does describe and analyze in great detail Carter’s unshakable Christian faith and how that faith shaped his personal and political conduct. When it comes to being a Christian, Jimmy Carter is the real deal. I doubt any other president has been so dedicated to his faith.
Most interesting (and unknown to me until I read Bourne’s book) was Carter’s devotion to the teachings of theologian Reinhold Niebhur. Carter embraced, in toto, Niebhur’s teachings. Niebhur preached religion and faith as something that should be incorporated into the actions of all politicians. Carter based many of his political and governmental decisions based on his Baptist faith.
What makes Bourne’s biography bad is what he ignores. The Bert Lance affair was devastating to Jimmy Carter. Not only was did it result in a tremendous loss of faith in Carter by the American people, it deprived him of the only wise political counsel he had within his administration. Also missing is any discussion of Hamilton Jordan who was a constant embarrassment to Carter and eventually found himself before a special prosecutor for allegedly using cocaine at New York’s notorious Studio 54.
Nor does Bourne acknowledge his own scandal. Bourne, a professional physician, wrote a fraudulent prescription to a member of the White House staff. Why he did this, he does not explain. He does not even mention it in the book which seriously undercuts his credibility.
What Bourne does do is take shots at people he apparently does not like. Chief among those is Vernon Jordan who is a now a major power broker in DC, and Ronald Reagan. At every opportunity, he points up Jordan’s ineptitude, arrogance, and ignorance. Yet it was Jordan, not Bourne, who emerged from the Carter presidency stronger and more influential than when he entered it. His criticisms of Reagan are too foolish to be discussed in any context. One can’t argue with results and Reagan’s results, while certainly not perfect, were better than Carter’s.
I went into Bourne’s biography knowing he was an admirer of Carter. I’ve read biographies of presidents written by admirers and found them analytical and informative. Bourne spends too much time trashing those he doesn’t like and making excuses for Carter’s missteps or simply blaming them on others.
I don’t like Jimmy Carter. I make no secret about that. I don’t like him as a person. I find him to be petty, bitter, angry, and hopelessly pious. I acknowledge that the man has made great contributions to American and global society for which he deserves to be lauded. But deep down, the man has an abrasive arrogance I don’t like.
I loathe him as a president. Not since James Buchanan has such a weak and inept man been at the helm of the nation at a time of such great crisis. So many things were going wrong in the second half of the 1970s and so much damage was done to our nation. While I’ll not compare Carter to Nero, what little effort he did make was too little and when he failed, he blamed the American people.
Bourne acknowledges none of these shortcomings. To blame them on others and memorialize them in a book does an injustice to history.