HIS VERY BEST: Jimmy Carter, A Life, by Jonathan Alter | Book Review

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HIS VERY BESTJimmy Carter, A Lifeby Jonathan Alter

Described by the author as “perhaps the most misunderstood president in American history,” this biography reaches wide to reframe the reader’s understanding of Jimmy Carter.  This important book, arguing to substantiate the conclusion that Carter’s presidency was exceptionally consequential, strives to offer an informed, revisionist view of the Carter presidency, sandwiched between thoughtful accountings of the formative and post-presidency years. This is a big book, nearly 800 pages.  Critics and fans of Jimmy Carter shall relish Alter’s thoroughness, and future Carter biographers shall accept this book as their formidable standard.

A specialist in the American presidency, Alter has interviewed Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, both Bushes, Clinton, and Obama, and written three New York Times bestsellers (two on President Obama and one FDR).  He has been honored for his accomplishments in film, television, radio, and literary criticism.  This Carter project took five years to complete, involving unprecedented access to Mr. Carter himself, his family, and more than 250 of his life- and -professional associates, Americans and foreigners, including White House & Georgia government staff, generously listed in the book (Notes: Author Interviews). 

The book’s title is a takeoff on Carter’s U.S. Navy experience with legendary Admiral Rickover, father of the nuclear navy, “the smartest man I ever met,” and Carter’s disciplinarian supervisor whose demanding work ethic and relentless, “drilldown” curiosity even surpassed his own.  Upon reviewing Carter for possible assignment to his command, Rickover asked him had he always done his best.  After first answering “Yes,” then “No,” and when Rickover barked “Why not?” Carter did not answer, and the interview abruptly ended.  Though later hired by the admiral, whom Carter admits to having the most profound effect on his life, Carter was never able to answer to himself why he had not always done his best, and vowed privately to try to do his best for the rest of his life. 

The president’s dogged adherence to his personal vow and the “Rickover Way” of interrogation were manifest in Alter’s brilliant recap of the successful Egypt/Israel accords. Conversely, Carter’s failure to always do his best resulted in several of his most humiliating defeats (i.e., Shah residence in America; and Iranian hostage rescue attempt), examples thatillustrate shocking absence of the “Rickover Way”.  

Alter’s  book builds a strong case that the Carter presidency was, indeed, consequential in many dimensions—human rights; foreign policy; natural resource conservation; household and commercial energy consumption prudence; restoration of ethics and integrity of the White House and federal government; deregulation of the transportation industry; changing the rules across the board of regulatory rulemaking methodology to include compliance cost; fortifying defense and intelligence posture and military strategy (including modifying the inherited irresponsible strategy of “mutual assured destruction” with the more credible “countervailing strategy” which the Soviets unequivocally understood would render senseless their initiating a first strike); increasing domestic natural gas production; arresting rampant inflation and many other achievements, which have been erroneously attributed to his successors.

Alter fortifies his case by telling convincingly Carter’s ascendency from silence against the dominant racial intolerance of his rural-Georgia upbringing to a bold leadership role in the quest for racial justice in America.  He details Carter’s unsurpassed domestic record of infusing minority (and women, including “RBG”) appointments into the federal judiciary. 

While Alter’s description of President Carter’s painstaking leadership in crafting the Egypt/Israel accords argues well for his application of the “Rickover Way”, he omits important analysis of how this relentless technique was used in other complex situations, with enormously successful & consequential results, such as comprehensive regulatory reform (against the fierce headwind of the bureaucratic Washington environment) and fortification of U.S. national intelligence/defense posture (into the teeth of Congressional, post-Vietnam-Nixon-Ford budgetary wars). 

Deregulation and regulatory restructuring were passionate adventures for this president, but the stories, the adventure-players, and the enduring results were omitted by Alter. President Carter inherited annual expansion of regulations and associated paperwork of the Johnson-Nixon-Ford years, which produced 34% per year growth in the Code of Federal Regulations (doubling every 2½ years).  He reduced it to 2.5% per year by the end of his presidency, a rate nearly sustained for the next 30 years. Inheriting Carter’s extraordinary regulatory team (colorfully nicknamed Stealth, Ayatollah, and other unspeakables ) President Reagan received lasting, largely unearned and misplaced credit for President Carter’s obviously consequential work.

The baggage of  “weak president” was a false narrative about President Carter, which Alter deflates but could have dismantled more completely. Carter preserved the U.S.A. strategic, military superiority over the U.S.S.R. (amid much ballyhooed domestic and international enthusiasm for the S.A.L.T. process), by keeping cruise missile technology and Trident Submarine MIRVed capabilities off the negotiating table. Finally, he squelched the S.A.L.T.process, protesting Soviet aggression into Afghanistan (talks were later revived by President Reagan, who benefitted from Carter’s having husbanded our formidable strategic assets). Carter also reversed the inherited lack of readiness of U.S. conventional forces, through the successful,internecine leadership of a publically obscure Defense Department brigadier general, smashing through the near merciless congressional truculence on defense spending.  That Carter “foot-soldier” would later gain national and international identity as Chairman of the JCS and Secretary of State for Carter’s Republican successors, who, of course, would take credit for rebuilding our military’s strategic and conventional posture.  Future biographers will more completely analyze and report the effective execution of the Carter defense playbook. 

In addition, future biographers might elucidate more thoroughly the “nuts and bolts” of the general legislative methodology and its success under President Carter. Currently, his gradesfor legislative success range from a “failing F” to much more favorable characterizations like Alter’s.   And, other analysts surprisingly claim that Carter’s was the 3rd most productive legislative record in the history of the office (behind Johnson and Wilson).  Whatever, it needs documenting.  Alter correctly alludes to the remarkable success of Carter’s Congressional Liaison leadership, but the powerful, catalytic influence on “process” by the “Wexler Factor‘’, was mentioned but not detailed nor given its due.  Carter’s addition of Anne Wexler to the White House Senior Staff (coupled with her intellectual and personal compatibility with his #1 advisor, Rosalynn) midway into what had been publically characterized as his truly failing presidencyshall be detailed by the next biographer and shown to have been extraordinarily effective, with substance as a blueprint for his successors.

Alter’s descriptions of low points are vivid and reveal the president at his worst. Had Carter launched his normal fusillade of questions at his staff concerning the Shah’s medical condition and treatment options, the Shah would likely not have come to U.S. soil.

And, lack of Carter’s legendary grilling, prior to signoff authorization of the hostage rescue attempt, coupled with grossly inadequate operational drilldown, was fatal. Had questions been asked and answered about the complex system plans in the critical areas of simulated/practice in desert terrain in advance; qualifications of pilots including actual familiarity with the chosen helicopters; proper battle designed helicopters selected and pre-tested to at least minimum flight hours required and airtime readiness guidelines followed; and standard high risk, comprehensive, on-site, “go-no go” command & control instructions, prepared and followed (incredulously, none of the above occurred, as the subsequent, scathingly controversial Holloway Commission Report stated), the negative consequences could have been avoided. Alter’s book, to his credit, is not silent on some of these omissions, and although the president has never denied responsibility for the mission’s failure, as Alter points out, Carter bravely authorized the mission, and many others failed in its execution.  This distinction shall be left to future biographers.

I enjoyed and strongly recommend Alter’s book for delivering an unmistakably more positive assessment of Jimmy Carter’s presidency than had been generally proffered.  Alter’s assessment has bookended the presidential years with some richly informative descriptions of Jimmy Carter’s “before” and “after” growth.  As a result, his book has portrayed the life as one of extreme consequentiality, more effectively than any Carter book before it.   Yet, Alter has left room for future biographers to add to our understanding of Carter’s presidency.  Several knowledgeable figures are missing from the listed interviewees, (i.e., key persons had deceased prior to the project’s window).  Nevertheless, Alter’s formidable case leaves little doubt that future historical research shall support his favorable, biographical characterization of President Jimmy Carter.

—Jim Scott

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