To write a biography, you must live with your subject for a long time. I’ve been lucky enough to take up residence for the last five years with Jimmy Carter. In a sense, we vacation together—my study of him has transported me to the land of 1970s “malaise,” a difficult time in America but one where the president was trying to promote democracy, not assault it. Carter is an intense, steely man with plenty of faults but our time together (both in person and in my mind) has been a pleasure and an inspiration. His decency kept me sane in the time of Trump.
Carter is the UnTrump. If you went into Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory and tried to create the opposite of the current president, you would come up with this former president.
It’s true that Trump is now in the same position as Carter when he ran for reelection in 1980 against Ronald Reagan—trailing an aging challenger. But that’s where the analogy ends. I once asked Carter by email if he had anything in common with Trump. He had a one-word answer:
The two men have met only once, in the early 1980s, when Carter took his tin cup to Trump Tower. Trump was impressed that Carter had “the nerve and the guts” to ask him for $5 million but of course gave not a penny to the cause of peacemaking, global health, human rights and the other missions of The Carter Center.
After Trump was elected, they talked a couple of times on the phone, and Carter—in his mid-nineties—tried to wrangle an assignment as an emissary to North Korea. When Trump went himself, Carter felt more free to blast his lying and his Mexico border policy. Last year, Carter called Trump an “illegitimate” president, and this year he and Rosalynn enthusiastically endorsed Joe Biden.
My book is about Carter, not Trump, who is barely mentioned. But the contrast comes through on every page.
Trump is a liar; Carter promised in his 1976 campaign that he wouldn’t lie to the American people and—notwithstanding a few exaggerations—he never told any whoppers.
Trump is an autocrat; Carter’s human rights policy established a new global standard for freedom, helped advance democracy in scores of countries, and—as some conservatives of the time now acknowledge—hastened the end of the Cold War.
Trump takes no responsibility and gives himself A-plus grades; Carter told the military before the failed Iran hostage rescue mission: “Any success is due to you, but any failure is mine alone.” Sometimes he was almost comically accountable: When Dan Rather asked him on “60 Minutes” on the eve of the 1980 Democratic Convention to grade himself, Carter gave himself a B-minus, a C-plus, and a C.
Trump has no empathy; Carter, not Bill Clinton, was the first president to say, “I feel your pain”—and he meant it. This usually took the form of compassion for the poor and marginalized, but it could also get him in trouble. Carter’s concern for the ailing Shah of Iran led him to allow the Iranian ruler entry to the U.S. for medical treatment, which led to the seizure of hostages at the American embassy in Tehran, a major factor in his defeat for reelection.
Trump still refuses to release his tax returns, even after they were leaked; Carter was the first presidential candidate to do so, a tradition followed by all candidates and presidents until Trump. When Carter learned that he owed no federal taxes on his income from the peanut warehouse, he told his accountant to delete several deductions so that he would pay a respectable amount.
Trump is unsavory—eight of his closest associates have been charged or convicted of crimes, and he has used the presidency to enrich himself; Carter’s brother Billy embarrassed him, but an investigation proved no wrongdoing and the Carter Administration was squeaky clean. His financial holdings were in an airtight blind trust.
Trump trashes the EPA and calls climate change “a hoax”; Carter was the greatest environmental president since Theodore Roosevelt. He strengthened the EPA, pioneered clean energy, was the first president to clean up toxic waste, and planned to confront global warming had he won a second term.
Trump is lazy in his presidential duties, incurious, and doesn’t read; In the nearly 70 years since Carter admitted to Admiral Hyman Rickover, his commander and founder of the nuclear Navy, that he hadn’t done his best at the Naval Academy, he has been a model of ceaseless effort. His often-ridiculed attention to detail led to the Camp David Accords, Alaska Lands bill, and eventual release of the American hostages in Tehran.
Trump cares solely about being reelected; Carter frustrated his aides and his wife Rosalynn by making more than 20 major decisions that hurt his bid for a second term, including his decisions to give back the Panama Canal, kill the B-1 bomber, spare Iran a military response for taking hostages in Iran, and appoint Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, who jacked up interest rates astronomically just before the 1980 election. When Volcker’s policy finally ended double-digit inflation, Ronald Reagan got the credit.
Trump is trying to wreck American democracy by sowing distrust of absentee ballots, seeking postponement of the election, and refusing to endorse a peaceful transfer of power; Carter, who conceded early (too early for some Democrats) on Election Night 1980, has opposed voter suppression and championed democracy since he was a Georgia state senator in the 1960s. As a former president, he co-chaired two commissions after the 2000 election that led to statutory reform. The Carter Center has monitored 115 elections around the world.
Trump speaks to the American people with what language experts calculate to be at a fifth-grade level; Carter, sometimes to his detriment, spoke during his presidency at an eleventh-grade level.
I remember exactly where I was when I began embracing the contrast—the Carter Library in Atlanta. It was June 16, 2015, the day Trump came down the gilded escalator to announce his candidacy with a blast of hate. After analyzing the demagoguery, I returned with relief to the voluminous Carter papers, which wiped away the tocsins. That evening, the Carters invited me to a casual family dinner, full of good cheer. Afterwards, they showed me where they slept when they weren’t traveling or at home in Plains—on a Murphy bed.
The epic life of Jimmy Carter is nourishment we badly need right now— comfort food for the body politic.