The outlier The unfinished presidency of Jimmy Carter

Kai Bird

Book - 2021

"Four decades after Ronald Reagan's landslide win in 1980, Jimmy Carter's one-term presidency is often labeled a failure; indeed, many Americans view Carter as the only ex-president to have used the White House as a stepping-stone to greater achievements. But in retrospect the Carter political odyssey is a rich and human story, marked by both formidable accomplishments and painful political adversity. In this deeply researched, brilliantly written account, Kai Bird expertly unfolds the Carter saga as a tragic tipping point in American history. As president, Carter was not merely an outsider, but an outlier. He was the only president in a century to grow up in the heart of the Deep South, and his born-again Christianity made the most openly religious president in memory. This outlier brought to the White House a rare mix of humility, candor-and unnerving self-confidence that neither Washington nor America was ready to embrace. Decades before today's public reckoning with the vast gulf between America's ethos and its actions, Carter looked out on a nation torn by race and demoralized by Watergate and Vietnam and prescribed a radical self-examination from which voters recoiled. The cost of his unshakable belief in doing the right thing would be a second term-and the ascendance of Reagan. In these remarkable pages, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Bird traces the arc of Carter's administration, from his aggressive domestic agenda to his controversial foreign policy record, taking readers inside the Oval Office and through Carter's battles with both a political establishment and a Washington press corps that proved as adversarial as any foreign power. Bird shows how issues still hotly debated today-from national health care to growing inequality and racism to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict-burned at the heart of Carter's America, and consumed a president who found a moral duty in solving them. Drawing on interviews with Carter and members of his administration and recently declassified documents, Bird delivers a profound, clear-eyed evaluation of a leader whose legacy has been deeply misunderstood. The Outlier is the definitive account of an enigmatic presidency-both as it really happened and as it is remembered in the American consciousness"--

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Location Call Number   Status
2nd Floor 973.926/Bird Checked In
New York : Crown [2021]
Main Author
Kai Bird (author)
First edition
Physical Description
x, 772 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (some color) ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • The Past Is Never Dead
  • A Peculiar Heritage
  • The Populist from Plains
  • Jimmy Who?
  • Mr. Carter Goes to Washington
  • White House Life
  • Life Is Unfair
  • Lancegate
  • Depatures in Foreign Policy
  • "Israel Trusts No One"
  • Washington Distractions
  • Troubles with Liberals
  • Troubles with a Speechwriter
  • Triumph at Camp David
  • "A Weird Period for Liberals"
  • An Ayatollah's Revolution
  • Tilting Against American Exceptionalism
  • "You Should Fire People"
  • Foreign Policy Imbroglios
  • Much Ado About Nothing
  • Fateful Decisions
  • An Unhappy Spring
  • Whipping Kennedy's Ass
  • The October Surprise
  • The Defeat
  • White House Twilight
  • Keeping Faith
  • Epilogue.
Review by Booklist Review

Jimmy Carter sprang from Georgia's red soils and embodied all the contradictions of that upbringing. He was often the only white boy among his playmates. Although his father was an avowed racist, Carter's mother determinately practiced racial equality. His father was a quietly successful farmer and businessman, but the son buried himself in books from an early age. According to Pulitzer laureate Bird (The Good Spy, 2015), Jimmy Carter was an atypical Southerner yet never accepted by Northerners. After a successful stint in the U.S. Navy submarine service, he returned to Georgia and slowly gathered around himself a cadre of smart, ambitious politicos who gave him the foundation to propel him from the governor's mansion to the White House. Carter's Presidency started out with high ideals, but was assaulted on all sides by crises foreign (Israel, Iran's revolution) and domestic (oil prices, stagflation). Carter's religiosity and sense of fair play didn't always serve him well, and he was often dismissively perceived as naïve by older Washington hands. Offering a readable, masterful biography of a complex leader, Bird does a magnificent job characterizing the many strong and fiery personalities in the Carter administration, making them all individuals with virtues and flaws.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

The 39th president stood apart for "challeng the myths of American innocence and American exceptionalism," according to this admiring biography. Pulitzer-winning historian Bird (The Good Spy) discerns much positive achievement in Carter's one-term presidency, including airline deregulation that made flying cheap; prescient energy policies that boosted domestic energy supplies and solar power; human rights initiatives that "played a role" in Latin America's trend toward "popularly elected regimes" in the decade after he left office; and the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement. (The book's centerpiece is a gripping recap of Carter's wranglings with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin--whom Carter privately called "a psycho"--at Camp David.) Among the factors that contributed to Carter's downfall, Bird examines his fixation on taking the morally and intellectually correct stance, despite political realities; his insistence, especially in his infamous "malaise" speech, that Americans recognize limits to prosperity and global power; and the contradictions between his Southern populism and his racial progressivism, as well as between his liberal socioeconomic commitments and his deficit hawkery. Bird skillfully paints Carter as a mix of genuine idealism and "clear-eyed ruthlessness" behind a folksy facade, and shrewdly analyzes the forces of stagflation, deindustrialization, and U.S. imperial decline--capped by the Iran hostage crisis--that hobbled him. The result is a lucid, penetrating portrait that should spur reconsideration of Carter's much-maligned presidency. Agent: Gail Ross, Ross Yoon. (May)

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

In this latest book, Bird (American Prometheus) draws heavily from personal accounts to present a thorough understanding of Jimmy Carter (b. 1924) and his presidency. Carter's term as governor of Georgia gained him a national profile as a neoliberal Southern populist; when he ran for president in 1976, the political establishment was skeptical. Bird chronicles Carter's legislative successes (the National Energy Act; Panama Canal treaties) and failures (tax reform; health care), plus the 1978 Camp David Accords. The final year of Carter's presidency was marked by the energy crisis and, most significantly, the Iran hostage crisis. Carter was consumed by his inability to free the hostages, and Bird has written a compelling account of the administration's planning for its failed rescue mission. Carter's re-election campaign against Ronald Reagan makes for painful reading, but his visit with the Iran hostages upon their release is an emotional highlight of the book. Bird concludes with an overview of Carter's post-presidential years. His wife, Rosalynn Carter, has been a strong influence, and their close relationship resonates throughout the book. VERDICT This engaging political biography, similar in scope to Jonathan Alter's His Very Best, will introduce Carter to a new generation, and will remind other readers of a truly transitional time in U.S. politics.--Thomas Karel, Franklin & Marshall Coll. Lib., Lancaster, PA

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

Searching biography of a president whose contributions, the author argues, are undervalued. Though Jimmy Carter (b. 1924) has been "perceived as a 'weak' or hapless executive," that view, writes Pulitzer winner Bird, is "a simplistic caricature." Carter's single term in office was "consequential." Bracketed between the Nixon/Ford and Reagan/Bush eras, it marked such matters as the beginnings of corporate deregulation and the beginning of the end of the Cold War. Carter is also remembered as a scolding moralist. He earns the rubric "outlier" for being a Washington outsider, a former governor swept into higher office largely because he wasn't a Republican--but also, by Bird's sharp account, for taking his own path, often against the counsel of his advisers. For example, he was urged not to hire economist Paul Volcker to lead the fight against inflation, knowing that Volcker "intended to make the economy scream as he faced reelection." Carter's failures, Bird suggests, were often not of his doing: A deeply split Democratic legislature made up then of Southern conservatives (who would soon defect to the GOP) and Northern liberals hampered him, and he had the likes of Edward Kennedy dogging him constantly. The author's sprawling study is sometimes repetitious--e.g., he repeats the observation that Carter made more minority appointments to the federal judiciary than any other president before him. Nonetheless, Bird is a keen biographer of political figures, and he offers a welcome reminder that Carter's liberal impulses were correct while his missteps were often the result of events he could not fully control, as when the Reagan campaign, in a "treasonous caper," putatively met with the Iranian regime to delay release of the Tehran hostages and "scuttle Carter's second-term presidency." Shelve this alongside Jonathan Alter's equally incisive biography, His Very Best. The best study to date of the Carter era and a substantial contribution to the history of the 1970s. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Chapter 1 The Past Is Never Dead We had too much money to be ostracized. --Miss Lillian James Earl Carter, Jr., was always an outlier--as a president and as a boy decades earlier in rural South Georgia. Born on October 1, 1924, in a small hospital in Plains, Georgia, Jimmy grew up on his father's 360-acre farm two and a half miles down the road in the tiny hamlet of Archery. The Carter family home was a three-bedroom single-story house assembled from a Sears, Roebuck kit. The structure lacked electricity and insulation and had no running water until 1935, when Carter's father bought a small windmill to pump water from the backyard well into a water tank. Until then, the family used an outdoor privy with four holes. The family's shower was made by punching nail holes in the bottom of a bucket suspended from a water pipe in the wood ceiling. The village of Plains, population 479, had electricity "most of the hours of the day," provided by a large one-cylinder engine. Every time it hit a stroke, the engine blew a smoke ring up in the air. Everyone in town could hear the engine pounding away--until, periodically, it would break down and there would be no electricity at all. Although electricity came to Atlanta in 1884, it took more than a half century to reach Archery in 1938. Carter later recalled wryly, "The greatest day in my life was not being inaugurated president, [and] it wasn't even marrying Rosalynn--it was when they turned the electricity on because that totally transformed our lifestyle." Most of the streets of Plains were not paved until 1954. But if Jimmy's boyhood home was spartan and surrounded by abject poverty, his childhood was nevertheless comfortable and relatively privileged. Archery was a throwback to the nineteenth century. Jimmy's father, James Earl Carter, Sr., had a tenth-grade education before dropping out to join the army. In 1903, when Earl was only ten years old, his father, William Archibald Carter, was shot dead during a violent brawl with a business rival. They had been arguing over who was the rightful owner of a desk. Earl was certainly not country "white trash"--but neither was he part of the southern plantation aristocracy. By the late 1920s, he made more than a comfortable living growing peanuts, corn, and cotton and drawing "rents" from his Black tenants. He managed to expand his farm acreage even during the boll weevil blight of the 1920s, which wiped out many cotton farmers. "Daddy was a very aggressive, competent farmer," Jimmy recalled. He was always trying to turn any harvest into cash. One year he planted ten acres of tomatoes, and they turned out beautifully. But so did everyone else's tomato patches all over Georgia that year. "I remember a man named Mr. Rycroth and I loaded his truck with tomatoes," Jimmy said, "and we rode all over Georgia, trying to sell the tomatoes. We couldn't sell them at all. So, we came back home and told Daddy and he decided to make ketchup out of those tomatoes." Earl was unusually entrepreneurial. "We had sheep," Jimmy said, "and Daddy would send the wool off to some central manufacturing place, I never knew where, and get blankets back, and we would sell blankets in our local store. We grew beef cattle. We milked twelve cows at most. . . . Daddy would process the milk, either making vanilla or chocolate milk to sell in little 5-cent bottles that he would haul around and put in different grocery stores." They grew sugarcane that Earl turned into a syrup and bottled under the label "Plains Maid," with a picture of a pretty girl on the label. They plucked the down from a flock of geese to make down comforters and pillows. "Everything Earl Carter touched turned to money," said his nephew Hugh Carter. A short, stocky man, Earl dressed in store-bought suits, wore a fedora in the winter and a straw hat in the summer, and drove a Model T Ford and later a 1937 Oldsmobile. He sometimes taught Sunday school at the Baptist church--but he refused to sit for the sermons because he thought them boring. Earl had an easygoing side to him. But over his wife's objections, he refused to give up his Friday-night poker games. He enjoyed playing tennis on a red clay court he had constructed immediately adjacent to his Sears, Roebuck home. Earl was a "very accomplished tennis player," Carter recalled--and by the time he was thirteen years old, so too was Jimmy. Earl bought Jimmy his own riding horse, a Shetland pony named Lady, a ping-pong table, and plenty of books. Some years later, Earl built a three-bedroom guesthouse on a nearby property, complete with a swimming pond. They called this family retreat the "Pond House." Earl tightly controlled the family's monthly budget, and eventually he owned five thousand acres of prime farmland, a grocery in Plains, a fire insurance agency, and a peanut warehouse and brokerage business. Upon Earl's death in 1953, his net worth was a quarter million dollars--or about $2.4 million in today's dollars. Growing up in Archery, Jimmy was barefoot from early April until the cold arrived in October: "There was always an argument which my parents always won about how early I could take my shoes off and how early I had to put them back on." Every autumn Jimmy had plenty of time to go hunting with his friends for squirrels, rabbits, and quail. When it was too wet to work in the fields, he would hike down to Chucahatcha Creek with his mostly Black playmates. They'd catch catfish and eels. Occasionally, the boys played baseball. There were only three whites on the team, Jimmy and the Watson boys, and the rest of the team was Black. Jimmy's closest boyhood friend was A. D. Davis, whose relatives were tenants on the Carter farm. "Jimmy and them [the Carter brood] were raised up with nothin' but colored people," A.D. later told a reporter. "He ain't never acted like he was more'n somebody because he was white." They played together in the fields and worked together. And sometimes Jimmy's mother, born Bessie Lillian Gordy--whom everyone called "Miss Lillian"--took them to the Rylander Theatre in Americus to watch movies, seating Jimmy with his Black friend in the "white-only" downstairs section. But as A.D. grew older, he'd insist on sitting in the segregated "black-only" balcony seats. That was the way things were. Some two hundred people lived in Archery, but aside from a railroad foreman, the Carters were the only whites in the hamlet--and most of the Blacks depended on Earl for their subsistence livelihood, working as day laborers. Aside from Earl, the leading figure in the community was an African American preacher, William Decker Johnson. Born in 1869, Johnson was ordained as a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1911, he moved to Archery and founded a vocational school, the Johnson Home Industrial College. He regularly preached at the St. Mark Church in Archery. Bishop Johnson was a singular influence, a rare Black man who owned property, drove his own car, and traveled across the country. Miss Lillian enjoyed talking to him and scandalized her husband by inviting the bishop into her home to chat. Jimmy occasionally heard the bishop preach at St. Mark's Church and listened to the Black choir. Most of young Jimmy's childhood playmates were the sons of his father's Black tenants, and they spent their days roaming the woods, hunting, and fishing. He had one white friend, Rembert Forrest, who sometimes rode his horse out from Plains to visit Jimmy. If his parents were away in Atlanta on business, young Jimmy would spend the night in the nearby wooden cabin occupied by Jack and Rachel Clark, sleeping on a pallet on the floor. Jack Clark was Earl's foreman, the only Black tenant who received monthly wages. Jimmy followed Jack around the farm "like a puppy dog and bombarding him with questions." Jack often took Jimmy into the woods to hunt raccoons and possums. Rachel sat with Jimmy, watching him fish in the creek and telling him folktales to while away the hours. Though illiterate, Rachel was a poised and dignified woman. Jimmy thought of her as an "aristocrat" and a "queen." In the evenings they often played checkers or seven-up, a two-player, trick-taking gambling card game popular in the nineteenth century. Rachel was a small woman--and the best worker on the farm. She could pick 300 to 350 pounds of cotton a day--a hundred pounds more than anyone else, including Jimmy, even when he was seventeen or eighteen years old. "Rachel was not the kind of woman that Mother would ever have asked to do housework," Carter said. "I don't know what Rachel would have done if Mother asked her. She probably would have said, 'Yes, ma'am.' But Rachel was a little too aristocratic to do that kind of work." She taught Jimmy to fish, but she usually handled seven fishing poles at once and often caught three fish to every one Jimmy caught. But it wasn't a competition. "She was nice and gentle," Carter recalled. Rachel was just very self-assured and independent. In her later years, she'd walk around with Maccoboy snuff in her lip. She always wore a long apron with a can of beer stuffed in the pocket. Excerpted from The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter by Kai Bird All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.