Four decades after Jimmy Carter’s presidency, two talented biographers have reached identical conclusions in deeply researched biographies issued within a few months of each other. In both foreign and domestic policy, they agree, the years of Carter’s single term were far more accomplished than they seemed at the time or have seemed since.
The generally accepted view—that Carter was a weak or failed president and a much better ex-president—is simply wrong. He avoided war in Latin America with the fiercely contested Panama Canal treaties and initiated a human rights policy that played a role in the later fall of the Soviet Union and the dramatic global rise in democracies. He achieved full diplomatic relations with China, concluded the SALT II arms control agreement, and, through his extraordinary personal engagement, brought Israel and Egypt together in the Camp David accords, arguably the most successful peace treaty since the end of World War II. His administration (in which I served) produced the nation’s first full-scale energy policy, pushed through significant legislation on the environment and government ethics, carried out the first civil service reform in a century, created cabinet departments of energy and education, pursued sweeping economic deregulation, and transformed the federal bench by appointing more women (including Ruth Bader Ginsburg) and Black jurists than all of his predecessors combined. His appointment of Paul Volcker to chair the Federal Reserve broke the back of inflation—but with sky-high interest rates, which played a major part in Carter’s defeat at the polls. There were failures: on health care and tax reform and especially in the administration’s bungled response to the Iranian Revolution and Carter’s fateful decision (made against his own inclination under intense pressure from his advisers) to allow the deposed shah into the United States for medical treatment, which triggered the hostage crisis at the American embassy in Tehran.
The books differ in two respects. Alter offers insightful judgments far more often than Bird, who lets the story tell itself and treats far more extensively Carter’s life before his election in 1976, which profoundly shaped his presidency, especially as regards race relations and civil rights. Both volumes probe the contradictory aspects of Carter’s personality. Notwithstanding his patented grin and down-home style, he was often cold and hard to know. The intensely focused, hard-working engineer and the deeply faithful born-again Christian coexisted, sometimes uneasily. Although devoted to doing right in the job of president, he lacked the warmth and ease in communicating that would have made him a successful leader. He was, writes Alter, an “all-business president who seemed sometimes to prefer humanity to human beings.”