Although these contradictions make Carter a potentially fascinating figure, he is a surprisingly boring subject for biography. In Kai Bird’s detailed book “The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter,” the 39th president is sometimes laudable, sometimes frustrating and always intelligent, but he is, above all, a straight man. He wakes at 5:30 each morning, he studies every issue in detail, he agonizes over decisions, and he earnestly implores others to follow. When he faces inevitable resistance, even from his friends, he repeats the cycle: Rise early, work hard, and implore people to listen.
Bird shares Carter’s frustration that the media was not interested in covering his diligent efforts. The White House beat was a plum assignment for reporters in other administrations, but this president “was not fun to cover,” press critic Wendy Swanberg observed. House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill echoed this sentiment. After a number of morning meetings with Carter, at which the White House economized on the customary cuisine, the paunchy Boston politician blurted out: “I didn’t get this way eating sweet rolls,” and complained to Vice President Walter Mondale, “I want a breakfast and I’m not coming back unless I get a meal!”
Carter was consistently ethical, abstemious, frugal and ascetic in the White House. He turned the thermostats down so low in winter that his staff often had to type with gloves on. Carter’s simple “Mr. Clean” persona motivated millions of voters to love him after the excesses of Watergate, hate him after years of economic suffering and then love him again when he assumed the role of post-presidential prophet for peace. He is the American Saint Francis. Those benevolent qualities made Carter, like the saint, a very good man — but not a great president.
He did not connect well with people — foreign leaders, other Democratic Party figures or citizens. This theme runs through Bird’s book. Carter was often rigid and distant, as when he defended Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker’s rapid increase in interest rates, which crushed Americans seeking to finance a house or a car. The president also had a tendency to talk down to listeners, as in his infamous “crisis of confidence” speech that scolded Americans for their selfishness: “In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.”
Instead of Franklin Roosevelt’s charm and hope, Carter offered tough medicine. His diagnosis might have been accurate, but as Bird recounts, it was not well-received. Carter paid a high price at the ballot box in 1980, losing reelection in a landslide to a more colorful if less-informed Ronald Reagan.
Bird joins other impressive authors who have returned to Carter, despite his low popularity, because his life offers an antidote to the ethical degeneracy of our current moment. In 2020 Jonathan Alter published a moving study of Carter’s life, “His Very Best,” which extolled the president’s personal commitment to the public welfare. Vanessa Walker focused on Carter’s defense of international human rights in her 2020 book, “Principles in Power: Latin America and the Politics of U.S. Human Rights Diplomacy.” For Bird, Alter, Walker and others, Carter’s straight-man qualities are refreshing and instructive. An “outlier” among politicians, Carter shows what democratic politics could be, if the power-hungry, dishonest figures would just get out of the way. Bird’s book offers a rich and compelling account of Carter’s sincere efforts to make American policies match the nation’s ideals.
The author blames the flawed men around Carter for the shortcomings of his presidency. The “Georgia boys” he brought to Washington, particularly Hamilton Jordan and Jody Powell, were loyal to Carter but not always to his legislative goals. Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy, who considered himself the soul-keeper of the Democratic Party, undermined the president whenever he could, including in a bloody challenge for the presidential nomination in 1980.
Bird is most poisonous in his assessment of national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. He writes that Carter should have fired Brzezinski after he used his position to advocate militaristic policies in Latin America, the Soviet Union, Afghanistan and especially Iran. Carter wanted to end the Cold War, in Bird’s analysis, but Brzezinski held tight to habits of anti-communism and interventionism.
Bird explains how these inherited behaviors doomed U.S. policy toward Tehran. When street protests forced the shah of Iran into retreat, Brzezinski implored Carter to stick with the unpopular U.S. ally, even after he was overthrown. The president was inclined to seek a working relationship with the new Iranian government, and he initially denied the shah asylum in the United States. With help from Henry Kissinger and David Rockefeller, both of whom had close personal ties to the shah, Brzezinski pushed Carter to reverse position.
The president gave in to the hard-liners, admitting the shah to the United States. Iranian students then overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, seizing 52 American diplomats as hostages. Brzezinski advocated for Operation Eagle Claw, the quixotic military rescue plan that led to nine deaths, the continued captivity of the hostages and deep embarrassment for the president. He looked weak and incompetent. Bird provides evidence that Reagan’s campaign manager and future CIA director, William Casey, encouraged the Iranians to hold the hostages until after the election, maximizing the harm to Carter’s campaign.
After the rescue disaster, the president worked tirelessly to secure the return of the captive Americans. He left office doing whatever he could to help the country and the transition to the next president, whose inauguration he dutifully attended. Carter’s record was indeed mixed, but his integrity remained unshaken. The problem was that he had lost the confidence of the people he served, especially White middle-class voters in the South — Carter’s home region. They “gave up on this president,” Bird explains.
Why did they give up? Presidential leadership requires the hard work, intelligence and moral purpose embodied by Carter, but also much more. Presidents must connect with diverse constituencies, appeal to public emotion and nurture hope in times of difficulty. These charismatic qualities were lacking in Carter. His presidency reminds us that the antidote to Trumpian degeneracy is not the devout straight man but the figure of integrity who can also inspire diverse people.
Carter’s steady moral compass did not translate into effective uses of power; sometimes it had the opposite effect. A successful presidency requires clairvoyance about what the public needs and cleverness in moving the resistant instruments of government. Deviousness for a good cause, not self-indulgence, might be the essential ingredient of modern democracy.
The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter
By Kai Bird
772 pp. $38