His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life, Jonathan Alter
In the aftermath of the 2016 election, Jonathan Alter, a journalist whose previous books examined the presidencies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Barack Obama, turned to Jimmy Carter to “help light our way back to some sense of decency, accountability, and seriousness in our politics” (p. ix). The resulting volume is the most comprehensive biography written to date of the nation’s thirty-ninth president.
His Very Best is a major work of historical scholarship cloaked in the fast-paced narrative style of political journalism. Alter has done ample homework: he drew on the rich archival collections of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and incorporated recently declassified materials; he conducted more than 250 interviews, including more than a dozen with President Carter himself; and he consulted the relevant secondary literature.
Alter devotes the first third of the book to the early years of “a real-life Huck Finn” (p. 9). We learn about Carter’s upbringing, religious views, time in the U.S. Navy, marriage to Eleanor Rosalynn Smith and growing family, and business endeavors in his hometown of Plains, Georgia. Carter’s entry into politics happened in fits and starts, but he established an early reputation as a “nonpolitician” (p. 117). A self-described “conservative progressive” (p. 159), he was elected as a “New South” governor of Georgia in 1970.
The bulk of His Very Best traces Carter’s meteoric rise to prominence as a presidential candidate and details his turbulent four years in the White House. A political dark horse, Carter’s upset victory in the 1976 Iowa caucuses launched him to front-runner status. Defeating incumbent Gerald Ford, Carter entered office as “the first president with no Washington experience since Woodrow Wilson” (p. 285).
Alter makes a strong case for Carter’s domestic policies, particularly his commitment to energy independence. The story of the ill-fated solar panels installed on the roof of the White House stand as an example of how Carter “peered over the horizon” (p. 4) before others did the same. By stressing long-term trends, such as the subsequent growth of gross domestic product and advances in energy efficiency, Alter finds the roots of later presidential accomplishments in the Carter administration.
By comparison, Alter stands on somewhat shakier ground in assessing Carter’s activities in the foreign policy arena. He devotes considerable attention to the notable success of the Torrijos-Carter treaties that ceded control of the Panama Canal in September 1977, the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel in September 1978, and Deng Xiaoping’s historic visit to the United States in January 1979.
However, Alter struggles to rationalize Carter’s misreading of the Iranian Revolution, his misguided decision to allow the shah of Iran into the United States for medical treatment, and his administration’s handling of the debilitating Iran hostage crisis. “But even if the president had given the revolution more of his attention,” Alter contends, “it’s unlikely he could have done more than buy a little time” (p. 432).
Indeed, the second half of Carter’s term was “one of the worst two-year periods in recent history” (p. 431). These years were notable for the famous “malaise speech”—the “most curious, confessional, and intensely moral television address ever delivered by an American president” (p. 456)—the “self-defeating” (p. 517) Rose Garden strategy, and electoral loss at the hands of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Yet the Carter presidency ended on a bright note with the release of the American hostages on 20 January 1981. A short, final section on Carter’s life after the presidency, including his pathbreaking work with the Carter Center, rounds out the account.
Alter depicts Jimmy Carter as a man ahead of his time. Accordingly, the book raises an unanswered question for us today: will Carter’s farsighted vision for America at last be realized?
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