A deeply divided America is grappling with issues that have vexed the nation for decades: environmental degradation, national healthcare, the racial divide, income inequality, Middle East wars, and unchecked presidential powers. While most politicians have sidestepped the hard choices required for meaningful change, one often overlooked president actively worked to seriously address these challenges on a daily basis.
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Not everyone felt Jimmy Carter had the intellect, world view, and social status to rise to meet the need. When asked during the 1976 campaign about his personal eccentricities and love of beer, his brother famously responded, “I’ve got one sister who spends all her time on a motorcycle, another who is a Holy-Rolly preacher, a mother who was in the Peace Corps when she was seventy years old, and my brother thinks he’s going to be President of the United States. Which one of our family do you think is normal? Hell” he declared, “I’m the only sane one in the bunch.”
Billy may not have seen his brother as sane, but Jimmy Carter nonetheless attempted to take on those vexing national issues and more. And the attempt made his presidency highly consequential — and unfinished — writes Kai Bird in his important new presidential biography The Outlier.
Bird states upfront that Carter’s “distinctive southern sensibilities and his Southern Baptist religiosity” made possible the “revelation that America was hobbled by its myths.” He saw an America that was in need of serious healing. But as Ronald Reagan’s overwhelming victory in 1980 demonstrated, Americans like to portray themselves as “drenched” with a sense of destiny and exceptionalism. We don’t like tough love any more that we enjoy being told there are limits or that historical forces are sometimes beyond our control. We hang on to the myths to avoid the truth.
Bird’s book is part of the reevaluation of the Carter presidency coming as conservativism in America devolves into authoritarianism. It is wide-ranging, thoughtful, and does not shy away from difficult assessments. Carter’s rigidity, for instance, comes in for serious criticism. But Bird also looks with some sympathy through the lens of two of Carter’s intellectual influences — southern novelist William Faulkner and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr — to examine his presidency and its attempts to approach a world that desperately needed fixing.
I spent two years of the Carter presidency living ten miles from Plains. Bird’s descriptions of South Georgia’s racial inequality, the poverty, the patriarchy, the over-the-top religious piety that was part of the atmosphere but that could also serve up deep hatred towards the interracial Christian Koinonia community all rang true. Jimmy Carter was shaped by those forces and also reacted against them.
We often forget the many and varied accomplishments of the Carter administration. On the domestic side Carter began the deregulation of American business that brought everything from lower airline prices to the emergence of craft beer. His energy policies saw a decline in foreign oil imports and led to investments in solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources. Consumer regulations from automobiles to pharmaceuticals led to the saving of thousands of American lives each year. We ended his administration with cleaner water and air along with the protection of valuable parts of the country’s wilderness. Inflation was whipped at a steep political cost and the judiciary saw its first large influx of women and minorities. Foreign policy achievements included the ratification of the Panama Canal and SALT II treaties, normalization of relations with China, and the Camp David agreement between Israel and Egypt.
Too often, however, Carter could not get out of his own way. He would believe he was right and the consequences be damned. “To the consternation of many liberals,” Bird writes, “Carter seemed to be governing more as a Teddy Roosevelt Progressive Republican than a Franklin Roosevelt New Deal Democrat.” And therein lies a big part of the political problem with Carter’s presidency.
Bird does not shy away from the challenges and defeats of the Carter years, the Iranian revolution being at the top of the list. He was unable to work with the liberals in his own party to bring about health care reform, which led to thirty additional years of disfunction. Bird clearly believes that Carter’s inability to control and ultimately fire his hawkish National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, resulted in numerous crises that were avoidable. Bird is also harsh on the Washington media, including Washington Post columnist Sally Quinn, for the seeming inability to focus on issues that mattered and the unceasing insistence on pointing out that the Georgians in Carter’s world were “just plain tacky.” Republican dirty tricksters — from Roy Cohn, to Roger Stone, to William Casey — were very present and overwhelmed an administration unprepared to deal with day-to-day political warfare. Bird also understands the difficulty of the challenges, and how the issues Carter faced still resonate today.
The 1970s were a tipping point in America, the first time the people would have a voice after the upheavals of Watergate. Change was in the air. In casting my first vote for president for Jimmy Carter, I would soon be a part of what Abraham Lincoln noted was the ongoing fight to see if a nation dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal” can long endure.
Democracy is a never-ending battle and, as a southern liberal, Carter was pragmatic in that fight. He called us to our better natures, but in a way that recognized limits to American power, limits to what we could inflict on the environment, and — most importantly — limits to our unilateralism. Carter’s presidency, writes Bird, was ahead of its time with its hopes for reconciliation and healing. As we navigate through the harsh partisanship, political division, and extremism that began with Reagan’s ascension and came crashing down on the country on January 6th amidst Donald Trump’s authoritarian lies, it is that pragmatic yet hopeful belief in the ideal of America that we must seek to regain.
More to come…
Image: Jimmy Carter official presidential portrait
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