The Donald Trump years transformed not only American politics but also American history. Richard Nixon suddenly doesn’t seem quite so malignant. A few months ago the National Review, the conservative magazine founded by William F. Buckley Jr., actually ran an apologia for “one of our greatest presidents,” and suddenly the good points about Warren G. Harding were getting a public airing. So it should come as no surprise that Jimmy Carter, a one-term president like Trump, is having his day in court.
That day comes in the form of “The Outlier,” a lengthy biography by a Pulitzer-winning historian, and while Kai Bird does not spare us even the slightest detail of the failures of the Carter years — high inflation, high interest rates, Iran, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the preachy rhetoric, the prominence of the word “malaise” in the national conversation if not exactly in the president’s speech of that name — he offers a bracing reminder that the 39th president was a man of probity, decency, high hopes, and high moral standards.
We needed this biography, even if Carter, now 96 years old and probably at peace with himself and history, might not.
An admirer of the content of Carter’s character if not the content of his politics, Bird’s take on whom he calls “our most enigmatic president” is relentlessly fair-minded. Carter may have seemed imperious (to say nothing of impervious to criticism, or advice) but he walked the life he talked. He still buys his clothes at Dollar General, a convicted murderer was his daughter’s White House nanny, he lived in public housing long before he moved into the White House, he loaded 300 tons of fertilizer into 100- and 200-pound bags to make a living. Later a man reared in a home assembled from a Sears kit built houses for people he didn’t know, monitored elections in nations he didn’t live in, fought Guinea-worm disease on behalf of people he would never meet — and served as an example of selflessness to a nation bathing in consumerism and reluctant to wear a face mask to protect others from a deadly virus.
Overall the Bird book also is a timely reminder that the Carter years were consequential years, beyond the Camp David accords. There was deregulation of the airlines, environmental protection, an idealistic emphasis on human rights, an effort to work toward energy independence, the Panama Canal treaty and (often forgotten and almost always underestimated) the invention of the modern vice presidency, first occupied by Walter F. Mondale. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have Jimmy Carter to thank.
Many historians and commentators have wrestled with the role of the South in the life of the first Southerner elected to the presidency since Reconstruction. (Lyndon B. Johnson, who ascended to the White House after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, doesn’t count.) Bird approaches this with sensitivity and insight, telling us that Carter never forgot that he grew up in a conquered land — Georgia was the last of the Confederate states to rejoin the Union — and reminding us that Carter was surrounded by segregationists in his youth. The ardent racist Eugene Talmadge once spent the night in his house as a guest of Carter’s father, and yet Carter could say without irony or self consciousness that some of his best friends were Black.
Not that Carter was a prominent figure in the Civil Rights movement; he was not. But he had a knack for saying the uncomfortable truth. As governor he declared that “the time for racial discrimination is over.” Years later he said “we are now free from that inordinate fear of Communism which once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in our fear.” In neither case was his audience ecstatic about his pronouncement.
Indeed the Carter that Bird shares with us was determined to do what he wanted to do and what he thought was right, and to hell with everyone else, and with the consequences, too. He simply conflated the two, and so engendered and then endured the opprobrium of the Georgetown set, the foreign-policy establishment, and big corporations. Enemies accumulated, and inflation, interest rates, and Iran did not respond to moral suasion.
And soon enough — actually inevitably, as Trump can attest, though he loathed Carter — skepticism in Washington turns into opposition in Washington, and it came to pass that all the boldface names declared Carter incompetent and thus irrelevant. Labor turned on him, Ted Kennedy ran against him, Republicans abjured him. “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.” There, in one sentence, is the deftest definition of the Carter political profile written since he left office.
No Camp David triumph could save him, not when the hostages languished in Iran, not when his putative allies were in full flight, not when the curators of the Washington ethos were in full rebellion, not when a Democratic president’s natural allies were in a funk. “If the President had spent any time socializing with them, he no doubt would have been able to build some common ground,” Bird writes. “But nearly two years into his presidency, Carter had planted seeds of suspicion throughout the winning coalition that had carried him into the White House.”
Carter’s post-presidency redeemed him and reminded us of the power of his faith and of his faith in good works. And Bird’s biography redeems his presidency and reminds us of how callous we might have been during his years in office. Ronald Reagan — who understood the country better than Carter, who detected elements in the American character that Carter could not see — defeated him in the 1980 election. But Carter remains unbowed, in this book and in his Plains retirement.
THE OUTLIER: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter
By Kai Bird
Crown, 784 pages, $38
David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is a nationally syndicated columnist.