I have a friend who is tormented by the thought that she does not do enough to solve the problems of environmental destruction and excessive consumerism. As a deeply religious person, she is continually concerned about these issues, but feels she never does enough. My friend might learn something from the example of Jimmy Carter, who has lived by the conviction that all God expects of us is that we do the best we can with what we have.
It might appear anything but comforting to compare one's efforts to that of a former president, but the theme of Peter Bourne's book Jimmy Carter: A Comprehensive Biography from Plains to Postpresidency (Scribner) is that Carter was always starting over again, learning from his failures and moving on, trying to do his best with the means at hand. Reading Bourne's account of Carter reminded me of the story Jesus told of the widow's mite, about the woman who gave out of her poverty in contrast to the rich man who gave only a small portion of his wealth. She did her best; he did not.
Carter's brief autobiography struck a similar theme: Why Not the Best? The title derived from an encounter with Admiral Hyman Rickover, who put that question to Carter when the young naval officer applied for an assignment in Rickover's nuclear submarine program. "How did you stand in your class at the Naval Academy?" Rickover asked. "Sir, I stood 59th in my class of 820." Expecting to be congratulated, Carter was surprised to hear Rickover say, "Did you do your best?"
At first Carter was going to say yes, but then he remembered the times when he had not learned all he could have in a class. So he answered, "No, sir, I didn't always do my best." Rickover then hit him with the stinger that touched a spot in the soul of a Southern Baptist striving to serve God: "Why not?"
Serving God has driven Jimmy Carter's career through a series of defeats and victories that Bourne's book meticulously catalogs. Carter accepted his weaknesses, and determinedly drew on the strengths he did have and let them work for him. Losing the presidency to Ronald Reagan might have led him into bitterness and recrimination. Instead, he launched the Carter Center in Atlanta, a base for his efforts to reconcile warring factions abroad, eradicate diseases in developing countries, and address domestic problems of housing and poverty.
Speaking recently to the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, Carter pointed out that he has been able to connect with leaders of African nations in his effort to eradicate the deadly guinea worm disease because those leaders know him as a former president; they take his phone calls. To cynics this may sound like false humility. But Carter really does think that it's not his abilities or charm that persuades opponents in civil wars to stop fighting; he is simply a former president who has the talent to get people to listen to him.
Carter confronts each day's assignment believing that God's command is that we do our best and leave the rest to him. Bourne's candid assessment reveals that Carter lacked Reagan's talent as a performer in debates and press conferences, and he lacked the political skills that allow Bill Clinton to bounce back from alleged moral failures. But Carter does what he can with what he has, one step at a time.
Bourne observes that while it has become a cliche to say that "Jimmy Carter is the best ex-president in American history," such a statement implies an unfavorable comparison to his time as president. Bourne suggests that Carter's achievements in office--notably the Panama Canal treaty, the Camp David accords, the deregulation of the airlines and his energy policy--will in time be recognized as considerable. And as Bourne notes, the political issues that Carter stressed--a balanced budget, national health care, welfare reform and human rights--were forerunners of the contemporary political agenda. …