His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life by Jonathan Alter

Born in 1973, Jimmy Carter is the first president I remember. I remember a lot about those years: we got rid of our station wagon that carried the nine of us, and got two Hondas, and running those two cars was actually cheaper than running the station wagon. I remember the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets, and the hostage situation that lasted 444 days, I remember learning the word “malaise” after the famous speech by Carter where all the journalists used that word afterwards to describe it. However, I never read about the times as an adult and wanted to know more. This book was provided to me by the publisher and NetGalley for my honest review.

From the publisher:

“Jonathan Alter tells the epic story of an enigmatic man of faith and his improbable journey from barefoot boy to global icon. Alter paints an intimate and surprising portrait of the only president since Thomas Jefferson who can fairly be called a Renaissance Man, a complex figure—ridiculed and later revered—with a piercing intelligence, prickly intensity, and biting wit beneath the patented smile. Here is a moral exemplar for our times, a flawed but underrated president of decency and vision who was committed to telling the truth to the American people.

Growing up in one of the meanest counties in the Jim Crow South, Carter is the only American president who essentially lived in three centuries: his early life on the farm in the 1920s without electricity or running water might as well have been in the nineteenth; his presidency put him at the center of major events in the twentieth; and his efforts on conflict resolution and global health set him on the cutting edge of the challenges of the twenty-first.”

I love a good presidential biography, I really do. And I like a well-researched and fairly objective biography, too. His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life (Amazon) (AbeBooks) is certainly those things. However, the book just didn’t grab me the way I expected it to.

And before I get into the book itself, I have to comment on the cover. What were the publishers thinking? I don’t think this book is being taken very seriously because like it or not, sometimes a book is judged by it’s cover. This doesn’t look like a serious presidential biography. It looks like it could be a satire on Carter’s life.

I found the years before Carter entered politics to be the most interesting. I guess, like comic books, I enjoy a good origin story. Carter had an interesting upbringing in the Jim Crow south. But somehow, through his playing with black kids and being raised in part by a black woman, Carter didn’t grow up with the prejudices that come from the deep south. “From the time he first ran for president, Carter’s story was always that his father was a tough conservative and his mother, a tender-hearted liberal. While this was broadly true, and the tension therein forged his character, his mother was a progressive on race mostly in comparison to her neighbors.”

Carter’s relationship with his parents was distant. For much of his childhood, he rarely saw his mother, who was a nurse. It wasn’t until his mother died that he stated he was raised by Rachel Clark, whom he barely made mention of while his mother was alive. “I knew Rachel Clark in many ways better than my mother,” he declared at her funeral in 2006. And Carter’s dad was a tough taskmaster. Jimmy remembers all six times his father whipped him with a long, thin peach tree switch.

Jimmy Carter was a bookworm. His favorites growing up were Tom Swift books, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, and Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan books. And he continues to love reading. When a report crossed his desk, despite some of their sizes, he read through most reports that were put before him. And maybe that was part of the problem: micromanagement usually does not go well.

Carter was smart, so smart he could claim to be a nuclear physicist, even though nuclear engineer would be closer to the truth. The author says this is one of the many times that Carter inflates his accomplishments, so he’s not lying about them in a technical sense.

“Carter believed inn the rule of law and objected to outright resistance to federal court decisions, but he was in no hurry to urge compliance.” So, even though he was sympathetic to the plight of African Americans, he did nothing during the Second Reconstruction of the south, which was in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

One of the most interesting things about Carter is that he’s not too crazy about people in general. So this man, who has become a great humanitarian over the years, doesn’t always like human beings. He described it as “the difficulty comes when you try to love someone right in front of you–on the elevator, across the desk from you, whom you might be inclined to hate.” It is something he has struggled with his whole life.

The minutiae of his life as candidate and then president were hard to trudge through. I put this book down many times because it was so detailed, that I felt the book could have used some editing. Yes, the four years as president should be a major part of the book, but what about the 40 years after, when Carter has done some great things through the Carter Center? The author thinks Carter’s presidency is underrated and does his best to explain why those four years mattered so much. Even after reading through it all, I don’t think he was a great president. Sure, he did some good things, like creating the Department of Education, and his work on conservation is right up there with Teddy Roosevelt, and who can forget the Camp David accords? Carter was president during some pretty tough times for our country, and did some good, but he also made quite a few bad decisions which would reverberate for years. The author doesn’t think his post-presidency is as consequential as his time in office.

When I read a biography, I also want to know about a person’s personal life. Not too much, but stuff like whether they were good husbands/wives and fathers/mothers. Churchill, for all his greatness as a statesman, was also a very good father. So was Theodore Roosevelt. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, not so much. Carter is somewhere in-between. He and Rossalyn have a very good marriage, but they went through some rough patches, mostly caused by Jimmy’s obstinacy. Carter has a good relationship with his daughter, Amy, the youngest of his children, but has just as difficult relationship with his sons as he did with his father. To me, that speaks volumes about the man, more than any political or humanitarian accomplishments or Nobel Prize.

I do have to say I admire Carter for not going on the public speaking tour to raise millions like most presidents have done once they left office (Besides, if he wrote the speech, it wouldn’t be very interesting, and his delivery wasn’t great, either, one of the many problems during his presidency). He turned down seats on corporate boards and if he did receive speaking fees, he gave them to charity. To compare, both Presidents Clinton and Obama each amassed about $100 million in net worth in a few short years after leaving the presidency.

I’m not saying His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life (Amazon) (AbeBooks) is bad, it’s just very, very thorough, and after 40 years out of office, it’s about time someone concentrated on a fair and balanced biography of Jimmy Carter. Normally I like a very thorough biography. I’m glad I read it to learn more about Carter and his early life, governorship and presidency. I think the book tries too hard to show that his presidency was very consequential. However, I actually felt that bit of “malaise” after reading it once, I don’t think it’s one I’ll care to revisit again.

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