Q&A: Journalist Jonathan Alter on former President Jimmy Carter’s ‘Underrated’ Presidency

Journalist and historian Jonathan Alter opened up about his new book, “His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.”

His Very Best Jimmy Carter, A life - Jonathan Alter

In His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life, Alter sheds light on Carter’s presidency — and how some of the issues he faced over the course of his political career are particularly relevant during these times amid an ongoing reckoning over racial injustice.

Wake-Up Call: Jonathan, you spent five years writing this book. Can you tell me a little about the process?

Jonathan Alter: A biography of a president is very intimidating. When I first arrived at the Carter Library in 2015 and came face-to-face with millions of documents, it was hard to know where to begin. But it was also exciting to have found that there was a huge hole in the line of scrimmage — while other presidents have had several biographies written about them, Carter’s whole life has never been tackled by any independent historian. I’m not sure why. Maybe the stench of failure around his presidency. I was worried about the age of my interview subjects, so I worked in reverse actuarial order — interviewing the oldest first. Some — like former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and former defense secretary Harold Brown — died not long after we spoke. Fortunately, the Carters, Walter Mondale, and others in their administration have stayed healthy and I ended up interviewing the former president more than a dozen times. The most fun was during breaks when we worked together building a house in Memphis for Habitat for Humanity. By the time I was done, I had interviewed 260 people about Carter. As I learned new stories from them, my confidence grew that I could write a strong narrative.

Carter’s complexity — and the epic story of his life — kept me interested, even obsessed, the whole time. But it was also helpful to be working on Carter in the Trump era. On the day in 2015 when he came down the elevator and announced his candidacy, I was at the Carter Library. MSNBC asked me to go to a studio in Atlanta and analyze the moment. I remember going back to the library and being relieved to be writing about a good and decent man. Over the last four years, Carter — the unTrump — has been a great relief from the toxicity of the times.

Jimmy Carter has been hailed as a great former President, but not a great President. Now that you’re officially a “Carterologist” would you agree with that assessment?

The conventional wisdom about Carter is wrong, or at least incomplete. I see Carter’s presidency as underrated and his post-presidency as a tad over-rated. Carter was obviously not in the first rank of presidents, but — like Harry Truman — much better than he was seen at the time. He was a political and stylistic failure, but a substantive and far-sighted success. The Iran hostage crisis and bad economy that cost Carter reelection overshadowed a surprising number of real accomplishments. He got more bills through Congress in one term than Reagan, Clinton, Bush and Obama did in two. (In part, because his party held both houses of Congress for four years, while the others did for no more than two). Besides Iran, his foreign policy was extremely successful. After four wars in 30 years, Israel and Egypt made peace at Camp David — thanks to Carter. He normalized relations with China, paving the way for the global economy. Against great odds, he won ratification of the Panama Canal treaties, preventing a major war in Central America. And his human rights policy helped generate a democratic revolution around the world that survives even this new bout of authoritarianism.

Through his path-breaking Carter Center, Carter since he left office has nearly eradicated a disease, brokered peace, and advanced democracy — among other accomplishments. He may be the greatest former president in American history. But he occasionally let his ego get in the way and he has many fewer levers of power than when he was president, which means his power of example is more important.

You discovered some very interesting things about Carter and race. His understanding of systemic racism started at a very young age, although he did make a few missteps along the way. How were his views on race shaped and what did he accomplish when it comes to racial justice?

Carter’s father was, like many Southerners, a white supremacist; his mother, a nurse, took care of ill black families for free. Carter took after his mother in that regard and was enlightened on race from a young age. He was also greatly influenced by his spiritual development and love of nature by an illiterate Black woman farmhand. In the Navy, he defended the first Black midshipman at Annapolis from hazing and Black sailors aboard his submarine. But after returning to rural Georgia when his father died, he was largely silent for 18 years about the evils of segregation, ducking the civil rights movement. He knew if he spoke out it would affect his business and end his political career. I got really interested in how bad it was in Sumter County in those years — MLK called the sheriff “the meanest man in the world.” This beast used cattle prods on Black teenagers. Carter was appalled in private but said nothing publicly,

Carter ran a dog whistle campaign for governor in 1970 (“law and order,” “local control”) in which he appealed to segregationists. But on the advice of his eccentric Cessna pilot (good story, but you have to read the book to get it), he declared in his inaugural address as governor that “the time for racial discrimination is over.” That doesn’t sound earth-shaking now but it was then. It put Carter on the map nationally.

Carter breaking his silence on segregation in 1971 is a little like all of us breaking our silence on police brutality now. The question is, how to make up for lost time? Carter essentially spent the second half of his life making up for the silence of the first half. As governor and president, he moved Georgia and then the federal government from tokenism to genuine diversity. With a slip or two along the way, he became a champion of racial justice. (Curbing redlining, enforcing the voting rights act and, abroad, globalizing the civil rights movement with his human rights policy). “Atonement” might be too strong. But it’s fair to say that he has been driven over the years not just by his deep Christian faith but by his sense, as he put it after George Floyd’s murder, that “silence equals violence.”

What were some of his other major accomplishments in your view?

Carter revolutionized the role of both the vice president and the first lady. He established the departments of Energy and Education, launched FEMA and FISA courts, and without the Ethics in Government Act (which protected whistleblowers) and the Inspector Generals Act there would have been no Trump impeachment. As Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who he appointed to the bench, said, “He changed the complexion of the federal judiciary.” Thanks to OPEC, Carter was afflicted by sky-high inflation. He ended it by appointing Paul Volcker as chairman of the Fed. Volcker didn’t get results of course, until Reagan was president.

People don’t necessarily think of him as a strong environmentalist. But you contend we would have begun addressing Global Warming much earlier if he had been re-elected. How so?

Carter was the greatest environmental president since Theodore Roosevelt. He signed 14 major pieces of environmental regulation. Two of the best-known were the creation of the Super Fund to clean up toxic waste and the Alaska Lands Bill, which doubled the size of the National Park Service. And despite enormous frustrations on energy policy, he was astonishingly far-sighted. My book opens with him putting solar panels on the roof of the White House, part of the first federal backing of clean energy. Reagan took the panels down. Many obscure bills that were greeted by yawns by reporters turned out to be genuinely important — for instance, a bill incentivizing utilities to use clean energy instead of fossil fuels and the first real fuel economy standards. I was surprised to learn something almost no one knows — something tragic that puts the 1980 election in a new light. How high were the stakes? It turns out that shortly before leaving office, Carter acted on a report about global warming, which was then an obscure issue. Tragically, Carter would have addressed climate change in the early 1980s had he been reelected.

Why do you think he doesn’t get enough credit for the things he did? Did politics simply overshadow some of his policy achievements?

Carter was not a very good politician. He thought that campaigns were for politics and once elected, a good president ignored those grubby calculations. He thought if he did a good job, the politics would take care of themselves. This was naive, as even his wife told him. He wasn’t an especially good communicator and proved incapable of selling his achievements.

You spent time with him and Rosalynn. They have been married for 74 years. What did you learn about their partnership and why it’s endured?

This is one of the great partnerships in American history — the longest marriage in the history of the presidency. Rosalynn let me use in the book Jimmy’s passionate (even explicit) love letters from the Navy — letters never seen by any historian or journalists before. Rosalynn is a formidable woman, widely admired, and for good reason. She was her husband’s top adviser and the most powerful first lady the country had seen (more powerful than Eleanor Roosevelt). Together, they consistently learned new things — how to ski and climb mountains in their sixties, to take one example. She accompanied him to 120 countries after the presidency — and launched her own programs in caregiving and mental health (In the White House, she was responsible for the most important mental health bill in history and she represented him ably on diplomatic missions). But they say that one of the secrets of their long marriage was occasionally spending time apart.

What was the most surprising/weird thing you learned about Jimmy Carter?

Carter had a TMI problem, and not just because he famously admitted during the 1976 campaign that he had “lusted in my heart.” He gave a toast on a state visit to Mexico that included a reference to “Montezuma’s Revenge.” He asked the press office to tell the public that he was suffering from hemorrhoids. And when Dan Rather asked him to give himself grades, they included Bs and Cs.

I was also surprised to learn that he once said: “Fuck the shah.”

This originally appeared on Medium.