Lessons from the Last Living One-Term President

The triumphs, failures, and might-have-beens of Jimmy Carter.

The opening anecdote in Jonathan Alter’s enthralling biography of Jimmy Carter, His Very Best, describes an eerily prescient White House ceremony in late June 1979. At a time when half the nation’s gas stations were running out of fuel and rationing was common, Carter embraced alternative energy by installing 32 solar panels on the roof of the White House. “A generation from now,” Carter said, “this solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken—or it can be a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever taken by the American people: harnessing the power of the sun.” 

His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life
by Jonathan Alter
Simon & Schuster, 800 pp.

Alter gets it right when he concludes that the panels, dismantled under Ronald Reagan, were “both museum pieces and inspiration.” 

But there is another wrinkle to the story, one that points to the dysfunction of the Carter presidency and demonstrates that when it comes to governing, good intentions are not enough. 

The installation of the solar panels was considered a routine occasion, so I, as a second-tier speechwriter, got to write Carter’s remarks. Grasping for historical resonance, I likened the moment to the day in 1891 when Benjamin Harrison brought electric lighting to the White House. But, in a mental glitch that still embarrasses me 41 years later, I typed “William Henry Harrison” instead of his grandson Benjamin. 

Alter implies that the transposition of Harrisons was a slip of the tongue by Carter. In reality, William Henry Harrison was always in the speech text, which was approved at about four different levels before it got to the president. More telling, even after the error was highlighted in the next day’s New York Times, I never heard a word of criticism about it. At the time, I remember thinking that if I had made a mistake like that working for Lyndon Johnson, I probably would have been transferred the next day to the HUD satellite office in Sioux City, Iowa.

This is the moment when I should mention that I have more conflicts of interest in writing this review than White House staffer and self-made entrepreneur Ivanka Trump has in flagging her brand. Jon Alter has been a dear friend for more than three decades—and I have looked forward to his Carter biography for years. In addition, having been a White House speechwriter and an aide to former Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall (whom Alter interviewed for the book), I have long nurtured my own theories on the triumphs and tragedies of the Carter years. 

Much of what I knew about Carter’s makeup could be divined from my only trip on Air Force One to a town meeting in Kentucky for which I had written the speech. Midflight, Carter came back to greet the other aides sitting at the staff table, including Press Secretary Jody Powell and domestic adviser David Rubenstein. Not having any idea who I was, Carter gave me the coldest look imaginable as his blue eyes conveyed an unmistakable message: “Who the hell are you? And what the hell are you doing on my airplane?” There is a reason why I assume that my autographed handshake photograph from Carter was actually signed by the presidential secretary, Susan Clough. 

In anticipating writing this review, I assumed that I would gloss over the chapters that Alter devotes to Carter’s formative years. As someone who started working for the Carter campaign in 1976 and ran “Peanut Brigade” bus trips through Delaware during the general election, I thought I knew the life story. What could a biography—even a richly researched and artfully written one like His Very Best—tell me about Carter’s hometown of Plains, his years in the Navy, or his single term as governor of Georgia?

Carter was victimized by a pinball sequence of events of his own making that led him to run for reelection in the midst of a recession.

Much to my surprise, I was mesmerized by Alter’s reconstruction of Carter’s pre-presidential years. What I didn’t know is that before Plains (population: 406), the Carters lived in a tiny nearby hamlet called Archery where they were virtually the only white family. As Alter puts it, “During the Depression, Archery looked like something out of Tobacco Road.” It wasn’t until 1935, when Jimmy Carter was 11 years old, that the family entered the 20th century with the installation of electricity. 

The Carter family—even Earl, the stern patriarch—had relatively tolerant racial views for rural Georgia in that era. Against this backdrop, it was fitting that Carter, as the newly elected Georgia governor, declared in his 1971 inaugural address, “The time for racial discrimination is over.” But until I read His Very Best, I did not realize the extent to which Carter had been totally silent during the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and ’60s. When Carter was a state senator in 1965, the city of Americus, which was in his district, was the site of the beatings of Black men and boys, as well as the largest Ku Klux Klan march in the South in years. Alter is unstinting in addressing the future president’s moral cowardice. “Jimmy Carter was . . . scared of being connected to the civil rights movement,” he writes. “He felt he had no other choice unless he wanted to see his political career—and quite possibly his business—torched.”

Since the heart of this 800-page book is the tumultuous White House years, I can understand Alter’s writerly efficiency in getting there. But maybe because I still consider the Carter of the 1976 primaries the most inspiring presidential candidate of my lifetime, I wish Alter had slightly slowed the narrative pace to fully revel in the miracle of the nomination of a little-known one-term former governor of Georgia. 

Don’t misunderstand—all the facts are there, including an appreciation of the role that the acid-dropping journalist Hunter Thompson played in giving Carter gonzo credibility. And there are many wonderful anecdotes, like Carter’s mother, Miss Lillian, saying, when her son announced his political plans, “President of what?” But I would like to have seen Alter deploy his sense of narrative drama (his recounting of the Camp David Accords, for example, is riveting) to fully develop the tension of the primaries, which featured such colorful characters as Mo Udall, probably the funniest man to ever seek the presidency, and Jerry Brown in his initial “Governor Moonbeam” phase. 

The last third of the 20th century was probably the high-water mark of the ability of the leading newspapers, newsmagazines, and TV networks to set the political agenda for the nation. Reporters were freed from the constraints of stenography that had hamstrung the press before Vietnam, and there were not yet economic challenges to the dominance of the traditional media. As a result, no president suffered more from overhyped press criticism than Jimmy Carter.

If there was one incident that symbolized how star-crossed the Carter presidency became, it was the saga of the Killer Rabbit. In April 1979, while fishing on a pond during a visit to Plains, Carter encountered a swamp rabbit that angrily hissed at the Leader of the Free World. Four months later, the Associated Press reporter Brooks Jackson heard the story and wrote a lighthearted piece about it. The bunny tale proved irresistible and quickly became a metaphor for Carter’s seemingly feckless presidency. “Good-natured laughter turned into ridicule,” Alter notes, “with Carter’s ordinary flaws stretched into character defects and an innocuous fishing anecdote transformed into a symbol of incompetence.” 

Despite the way that Carter drove himself as president and in life, there was an underlying sloppiness to his administration. Part of it may have stemmed from the overconfident sense that Democrats, who had dominated Congress for decades, were America’s natural governing party. But some of the problems stemmed from Carter himself. He refused, as Alter points out, to have a White House chief of staff. The obvious choice for the job had been Charlie Kirbo, who had served in that role when Carter was governor. But Kirbo—one of Carter’s rare close friends who was a contemporary rather than a surrogate son—refused to move to Washington, preferring to consult from Georgia. As a result, Carter became taken with a spokes-on-a-wheel organizational model for the White House, in which young Georgians like Powell, Hamilton Jordan, and domestic adviser Stu Eizenstat reported to him. Finally, Jordan was given the chief of staff title in 1979, even though the political strategist was ill-suited to such a nuts-and-bolts administrative job. 

Carter nonetheless had triumphs. The 1979 Camp David Accords, creating a lasting peace between Israel and Egypt, were a tribute to Carter’s perseverance, vision, and meticulous attention to detail. Which is why, in hindsight, it is stunning that the president failed to grasp the enduring importance of the Iranian revolution. Talking with Alter in one of the more than dozen interviews he granted for this book, Carter ruefully admits, “I didn’t see [it] as the major burning issue on which I needed to focus all my attention.” 

Even after the beleaguered shah of Iran was preparing to flee to Egypt in January 1979, the major issue that dominated Carter’s Cabinet meeting was the firing of Bella Abzug as the unpaid chair of the National Advisory Committee on Women. (The Abzug incident was the centerpiece of an episode of Mrs. America, the critically lauded TV series about Phyllis Schlafly and the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment.) Summarizing the president’s belated response to everything that was occurring in Iran even before the hostages were taken, Alter concludes, “Even granting how few options he had at this pivotal moment, Carter’s lack of diplomatic and clandestine imagination is striking.”

I have long believed—and Alter appears to agree—that it wasn’t Iran that made Carter the first elected president since Herbert Hoover to be defeated for a second term. As embarrassing as the nightly news broadcasts on Iran were for Carter (Nightline on ABC began each program at 11:30 p.m. with the ominous words “America Held Hostage,” followed by the number of days since the staff had been captured), it is the condition of the economy that decides most elections. And Carter was victimized by a pinball sequence of events of his own making that led him to run for reelection in the midst of a recession. 

To this day, it is a little-known story that Alter impeccably retells. It begins, rather than ends, with Carter’s famous July 1979 “malaise” speech (that never actually used the m-word). Never again will a president speak as honestly about the emotional drift of the American people as Carter did when he told a television audience, “We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.” 

Some of Carter’s accomplishments shimmer, like championing human rights around the globe, creating the lasting Israeli-Egyptian peace accords, and defusing tensions in Latin America by handing over the Panama Canal.

Contrary to legend, the speech was wildly popular. Alter points out, “Carter’s job approval rating surged 11 points, a huge jump, even if his old numbers were so low that this took him only up the high 30s.” I was too junior to be summoned to Camp David to work on the speech, but I did write some of Carter’s follow-up remarks. What stays with me is reading a sample of the letters to Carter from ordinary citizens who were moved by his call for collective sacrifice to deal with the energy crisis. 

If only Carter had stopped there, the political history of the 1980s and beyond might have been transformed, with a second-term victory quite possible, even against Ronald Reagan. But in an effort to dramatize his resolve, Carter asked for the resignations of his entire Cabinet and accepted five of them, including Treasury Secretary Mike Blumenthal. In Europe, this dramatic shake-up was likened to a parliamentary government falling—and the dollar went into a tailspin. Carter quickly named Federal Reserve Chairman G. William Miller, a former corporate CEO, as the new treasury secretary. 

Miller gave every signal that if he had stayed at the Fed, he would have been willing (as his predecessor Arthur Burns did for Nixon in 1972) to inflate the currency to keep the economy rolling through 1980. But circumstance and the falling dollar forced Carter instead to turn to Paul Volcker as his Fed nominee. Volcker, a great man and an exemplary public servant, deliberately drove interest rates to a stunning 20 percent in 1980. The results: a deep recession, the permanent end of the inflation problem, and the presidency of Reagan.

Alter’s reporting adds an important new twist to the story. At the last minute, nervous about putting the staunchly independent Volcker at the Fed, Carter impulsively offered the job to Tom Clausen, the CEO of Bank of America in San Francisco. The expectation was that Clausen would be an expansionary Fed chairman like Miller and Burns. Clausen was tempted, but his wife, Peggy, was militantly opposed to moving to Washington. Alter writes, “Former Carter aides like to argue that Peggy Clausen changed American history: had she let her husband become chairman of the Fed, he would have been far more cognizant of the sensitive politics at play.” 

There are many ways to sum up the sadly neglected Carter presidency. Some of his accomplishments shimmer, like championing human rights around the globe, creating the lasting Israeli-Egyptian peace accords, defusing tensions in Latin America by handing over the Panama Canal, and, of course, his road-not-taken efforts to increase America’s use of renewable energy. 

But one moment from May 1979 stays with me. In the same White House where Nixon had repeatedly watched Patton as he bombed North Vietnam, Carter screened an early cut of Apocalypse Now for an audience of mostly administration staffers who had opposed the war. This being Carter, nothing stronger than the diet soda Tab was served, and the president demanded an intermission, even though the director, Francis Ford Coppola, who was present, objected.

There was no evidence at the time that Carter, an Annapolis graduate who spent more than a decade in uniform, appreciated the movie. But presidents often take on a symbolic importance that they themselves do not fully recognize or embrace. In my private memory book, that evening at the White House emblemizes the way that Jimmy Carter, our 39th president, spoke to the better angels of the American people after the trauma of Vietnam and Watergate.

Donate Now to the Washington Monthly and your gift will be doubled

Walter Shapiro

Walter Shapiro, a former Washington Monthly editor, is covering his 11th presidential campaign for The New Republic and is a lecturer in political science at Yale.