While Jimmy Carter’s post-presidential years have been exemplary, filled with significant humanitarian projects, his presidency is often regarded as a failure. Biographer and historian Kai Bird (American Prometheus) takes a fresh look in his balanced, detailed and very readable The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter.
Carter’s vice president, Walter Mondale, summed up their administration’s aims: “We obeyed the law, we told the truth, and we kept the peace.” Carter added, “We championed human rights.” His radical foreign policy initiatives and stellar domestic legislative record made his term an important one. Bird argues that Carter will come to be regarded as a significant president who was ahead of his time, despite the numerous missteps, misunderstandings and gossip treated as investigative reporting during his administration.
Carter was an outlier, “a person or thing situated away or detached from the main body or system.” Deeply religious and fiercely committed to the job, he was not an ideologue but a liberal Southern pragmatist, a fiscally conservative realist. He was perhaps our most enigmatic president, basically a nonpolitician who “refused to make us feel good about the country. He insisted on telling us what was wrong and what it would take to make things better,” Bird writes.
Two of Carter’s most successful foreign policy initiatives, securing Senate ratification of the Panama Canal Treaty and personally brokering the Camp David Accords, wouldn’t have happened without his persistence. He also normalized relations with China, negotiated an arms control agreement with the USSR and influenced his successors and others around the world with his human rights emphasis.
Domestically, Carter’s controversial appointment of Paul Volcker to lead the Federal Reserve helped to heal the economy. He appointed a record number of women and Black Americans to federal jobs, including a substantial number of nominations to the federal bench. He and Mondale also expanded the role of the vice president, creating the modern vice presidency we know today.
His first major mistake was to appoint Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was always a disruptive force, as national security adviser. Others in Carter’s administration were not Washington insiders, and there was often friction between them and the press, members of Congress and others who were lifelong politicians.
This compelling portrait of Carter, a complex personality who was finally undone by the Iran hostage crisis, is an absorbing look at his life and administration that should be appreciated by anyone interested in American history.