"Jimmy Carter" and "White House Diary"

Article excerpt

Jimmy Carter ran for president as a maverick. It's also how he's lived his life.

Two outstanding new books - Jimmy Carter, an accessible, insightful

examination of the Carter presidency by journalist and Princeton

history professor Julian E. Zelizer and White House Diary, a

day-to-day, surprisingly blunt account of his White House years

written by Jimmy Carter himself - work together to offer not only a

lucid overview of Carter's troubled presidency but also an almost

photorealistic portrait of the former president.

Neither book offers much in the way of surprises. Rather, both

confirm public perceptions of Carter as highly principled, often

uncompromising, sometimes difficult in his relations with Congress

and the press, and, on occasion, excessively detail-oriented. Taken

together, however, they fill in the details and - in the case of

Carter's diary - flesh out our impressions of Carter with

compelling, day-by-day details.

The 1976 election - the first post-Watergate presidential race -

was set up perfectly for an outsider running against the corrupt

Washington establishment. As Zelizer notes, Carter "had built an

entire career around positioning himself as a political outsider ...

[and 1976] was a year for the maverick."

Carter writes in his diary: "I chose to focus my campaign on three

themes: truthfulness, management competence, and distance from the

unattractive aspects of Washington politics." But running as an

outsider and governing as one were different things, as the newly

elected Carter would discover.

By all accounts, Carter's faith-based integrity was, and is, quite

authentic. He notes in his diary: "The last thing Rosalynn and I do

every day is read a chapter in the Bible in Spanish, and we'll have

prayer at all our meals and attend regular church services."

Carter's personal values were at the core of his strengths,

illustrated best by his dogged determination to find a peaceful

solution in the Middle East. Yet his values could also lead him to be

uncompromising. As Zelizer explains (and Carter's diary abundantly

confirms), "he simply did not like" the horse-trading ways of

legislative politics.

One of Carter's first presidential acts was to kill public-works

projects that he considered wasteful "pork." Carter accurately

predicted in his diary, "I know this is going to create a political

furor."

Carter's difficulties with Congress were many. As Congress dragged

its feet on Carter's unpopular Panama Canal Treaty, for example,

Carter notes "[t]he House has been ridiculously irresponsible this

week ... just a bunch of disorganized juvenile delinquents."

Carter's hugely complex energy bill also bogged down amid

Congressional lobbying and horse-trading. Carter's diary entries

expose his frustration: "This last week in Congress has been like a

madhouse with everybody threatening filibusters and constant

squabbles." Looking back, an older, more reflective Carter writes

(in the diary's "afterword") that "I was sometimes accused of

'micromanaging' the affairs of government and being excessively

autocratic, and I must admit that my critics probably had a valid

point. …