[This is one of the finalists in the 2022 book review contest. It’s not by me - it’s by an ACX reader who will remain anonymous until after voting is done, to prevent their identity from influencing your decisions. I’ll be posting about one of these a week for several months. When you’ve read them all, I’ll ask you to vote for a favorite, so remember which ones you liked - SA]
I decided to read a 600-page book about Jimmy Carter because I was tired of only reading about the historical figures everyone already agrees are interesting.
John Adams became an HBO miniseries. Hamilton became a Broadway show. The Power Broker and The Years of Lyndon Johnson became such status symbols that there was a whole pandemic meme about people ostentatiously displaying them in their Zoom backgrounds. But you never hear anyone bragging about their extensive knowledge of the Carter administration.
Like most people under 70, I was more aware of Carter’s post-presidency role as America’s kindly old grandfather, pottering around holding his wife’s hand and building Houses for Humanity. I mostly knew that he liked to wear sweaters, that he owned a peanut farm, and that he lost to Ronald Reagan.
But I wondered what, if any, hidden depths lay within the peanut farmer. Also, I wanted to enter this contest, and I didn’t want to pick a book that I thought a bunch of other people might also review. So I turned to The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter, by Kai Bird. Like Carter, this book seems to have been largely forgotten. It won a Pulitzer, but I had never heard of it until I googled “best book about Jimmy Carter.” It seems to have gotten a lot less attention than similar recent biographies about Grant, Roosevelt, and Truman, and it’s hard to imagine it ever becoming a TV show or a musical.
Carter was born in 1924 in Plains, Georgia, which, as you can tell from the name “Plains,” is very dull. His father was a successful farmer, which made his family wealthy by local standards. Almost every other Plains resident during Carter’s childhood was an impoverished African-American, many of whom worked on the Carter farm, a fact that is often cited as the answer to the central mystery of Carter’s childhood: how he grew up white in the Depression-era South without becoming a huge racist. It probably doesn’t tell the whole story, though, as his siblings came out just about as racist as you’d expect.
Carter attends the Naval Academy and eventually becomes a lieutenant on a nuclear submarine. At one point, he participates in a cleanup mission in which he is lowered directly into the core of an active nuclear reactor, thus causing him to develop superpowers that he will later use to win the presidency. Perhaps because of this experience—but, more likely, because he realizes that his deep-seated religious beliefs make him a poor fit for a career in an organization designed to wage war—he quits the Navy at 29 and returns home to Plains. “God did not intend for me to kill,” he says, which would have been an awesome catchphrase had those superpowers actually been real.
Searching for a new career, Carter runs for State Senate, loses due to voter fraud, then challenges the results and wins by 15 votes in a new election. A few years later, he runs for governor, and loses for real this time, to avowed segregationist (and man with a truly awesome name) Lester Maddox. Having never experienced failure in any way before, Carter is plunged into a profound spiritual crisis by this loss. Today, we would probably just say he was depressed. But as a religious Christian in the Deep South in 1966, you don’t “get depressed,” you have a spiritual crisis.
In 1970 Carter runs for governor again. This time, however, he decides to do whatever it takes to win. He runs a sleazy campaign that flies in the face of his modern-day reputation as kindly and honest. His campaign strategy has two core planks: 1) pretend to be a racist to appeal to the masses, and 2) avoid taking a stand on any other issue. Carter describes himself nonsensically as a “conservative progressive” and avoids commenting on the Vietnam War or the civil rights movement. He’s so good at pretending to be racist that the white supremacist White Citizens Council endorses him. He even wins the endorsement of his old opponent, outgoing Governor Maddox, who’s term-limited from running again. As far as anyone can tell, Carter never expresses any second thoughts about his disingenuous behavior during the campaign. Having passed through his spiritual crisis, he’s now guided by an unshakeable faith in his own goodness—a faith that justifies a victory by any means necessary.
The “fake racist” strategy works. Carter trounces his opponent, a wealthy businessman named Carl Sanders who he caricatures as “Cuff Links Carl”—when he’s not busy falsely accusing him of corruption, or hypocritically bashing him for his support of Martin Luther King. In January 1971, Carter is sworn in as the 76th Governor of Georgia.
Just a few minutes into his inaugural speech, Carter drops the pretenses of his campaign and executes on one of the most dramatic about-faces in modern-day political history when he declares that “the era of racial discrimination in Georgia is over.” The crowd gasps audibly, and outgoing Governor Maddox denounces Carter as a liar before the inauguration is even over. But Carter doesn’t care. He’s governor now, and he’s going to do what he wants.
And what he wants to do is… well, honestly, not all that much. Carter’s governing style is less “bold visionary,” more “competent manager.” He appoints more minorities to civil service jobs, starts an early childhood development program, and passes a reorg that streamlines a bunch of governmental agencies, but mostly he thinks about running for president. Governors in Georgia are limited to a single term, and Carter has national ambitions. He commits privately to a presidential run only a year into his time in the governor’s office.
When he first enters the 1976 Democratic primary, Carter is a complete unknown, and the general consensus is that he’s the longest of long shots. (“Jimmy who?” one opponent asks.) But two things go very, very right for him. First, he’s one of the few people who fully understands the changes to the Democratic primary process that were implemented after the chaos of the 1968 convention . He stakes his campaign on the now-familiar strategy of winning the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, which is groundbreaking at the time. More importantly, the fact that no one has ever heard of him turns out to be a huge advantage in the wake of Watergate, when voters are hungry for an outsider.
Despite the fact that his gubernatorial campaign was premised entirely on obscuring his actual beliefs, he opens his presidential campaign with the slogan “I’ll never lie to you.” He runs an Obama-esque campaign, emphasizing his personal background and outsider status rather than any specific accomplishments. By the time he wins the primary, he has a huge polling lead over the incumbent president, Gerald Ford, who’s unpopular thanks to his recent pardon of Richard Nixon and the memory of that time he slipped and fell down the stairs of Air Force One.
Carter then proceeds to squander almost his entire lead via a series of poor campaign decisions. First, he’s so overconfident that he refuses to prepare for his first debate with Ford, and completely bungles it as a result. He then sits for an interview with Playboy weeks before the election and, completely unprompted, mentions that he’s “looked on a lot of women with lust” in his life and “committed adultery in [his] heart many times.” There’s a growing perception that Carter is, in the infamous words of one journalist, “a weirdo.”
He isn’t helped by the fact that “the Establishment” is still a real thing in 1976, and they don’t like Carter one bit. The Establishment consists mostly of northern WASP elites, who are openly prejudiced against Carter for being southern, born-again, and distinctly not of their world. Former New York Governor W. Averell Harriman, who you can tell is a bastion of the Establishment because he just has an initial for a first name, sums up this view nicely when he says, “Carter can’t be president—I don’t even know him!”
Although his lead shrinks consistently up through election day, Carter nonetheless manages to squeak out a narrow victory against Ford, 49.9 to 47.9%. Had just 10,000 voters in two states flipped their votes, Carter would have lost the electoral college. But they didn’t. And now, the weirdo has become the president.
You’re Jimmy Carter, and just 23 years ago you were an unemployed Navy dropout. Now, you’re the most powerful man in the world. What do you do next?
The first answer is, you micromanage to a spectacular degree. Alone among all presidents since Truman, Carter refuses to appoint a Chief of Staff. He then immediately demonstrates why he needs one by involving himself in a comical number of minor decisions, including personally deciding which magazine subscriptions his speechwriting team should get, cutting down on the amount of food served at breakfast with congressional leaders, and canceling car service for his staff because it’ll save $92,000 of the $409 billion federal budget. Oh, and he also insists that all White House thermostats be set at 65° (55° at night), though this last mandate is eventually rescinded when the staff—some of whom are so cold they’ve been typing with gloves on—rebel.
The charitable interpretation of these decisions is that, in the wake of Watergate, Carter wants to emphasize that he and his staff are servants of the American people. The uncharitable interpretation is that Carter is an obsessive egomaniac who believes there is no situation that won’t be improved by his personal involvement.
The next thing Carter tries to do is a little bit of everything. Since his campaign was mostly focused on his personality and outsider status, he doesn’t have a specific core promise to fulfill, and as a result, his time in office is a hodgepodge of different legislative priorities. Sounds like a recipe for complete gridlock, but amazingly, Carter gets a good chunk of his agenda through Congress. He deregulates the airline and trucking industries, establishes the Department of Energy, and teams up with Ralph Nader to implement vehicle safety regulations. He passes a sweeping civil service restructuring bill, reforms Social Security, and expands the Head Start program. Oh, and along the way he also legalizes craft brewing.
Somehow, he does all of this while having one of the worst relationships with Congress of any modern president. Some of the conflict is personal: Carter is the anti-LBJ in that he hates dealmaking and is perpetually unwilling to compromise . Deep down, he sees the dirty business of politics as inherently sinful, and he doesn’t understand why everyone can’t just do the right thing, especially when he’s explained to them at great length why it’s the right thing to do. He has huge Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, but they relate to each other with barely veiled contempt. (It doesn’t help that Carter is the complete personal antithesis of Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, a classic old-school Irish Democrat who loves back-slapping, cutting deals, and being a part of the Establishment Carter ran against.) Carter repeatedly vetoes bills passed by his own party because he has minor issues with them. At one point, he petulantly vetoes a $37bn defense bill because he thinks one specific item in it, representing less than 2% of the total, is a waste of money.
But some of the conflict is structural. To his credit, Carter is one of the first politicians to see that the post-New Deal consensus is fraying. Economic growth is slowing, inflation is rising, union membership is declining, all of which means that the traditional Democratic way of doing things—launching new federal programs, catering to interest groups, and accepting some waste and inefficiency as a cost of doing business—is on its way out, even if the old-school Dems don’t realize it yet. Really, Carter is less of a Democrat and more of a 1920’s-style Progressive Republican in the model of Teddy Roosevelt: focused on efficient, rational government, non-ideological problem-solving, and ethical stewardship.
Carter finds more success in the arena of foreign policy, where instead of dealing with mercurial politicians from his own country, he can deal with mercurial politicians from other countries. He starts by tackling the third rail of the Panama Canal. The United States built the Canal by essentially colonizing the part of Panama it runs through, and obviously, the Panamanians aren’t super cool with that. The U.S. government has been kicking the can down the road since the LBJ era by continually promising to return sovereignty over the canal to Panama eventually, and after over a decade of “eventually,” the Panamanians are getting impatient.
The politically easy move for Carter would be to drag out the negotiations until the canal becomes the next president’s problem, just as Johnson, Nixon, and Ford all did before him. But for better or for worse, Carter almost never does the politically easy thing. “It’s obvious we cheated the Panamanians out of their canal,” he says, and he negotiates a treaty in which ownership of the canal is turned over to Panama, in exchange for the U.S.’s right to militarily ensure its “neutral operation.” It’s a clever diplomatic solution—Panama gets nominal ownership while we retain all the benefits ownership provides—but the American public hates it. To the average voter, it feels like we’re just giving some random country “our” canal.
To get the treaty approved by the Senate, Carter plays the congressional negotiating game well for the first and maybe only time in his presidency. He lobbies heavily for his treaty with every senator, cutting individual deals with each of them as needed. One even goes so far as to say that in exchange for his vote, Carter has to… wait for it… read an entire semantics textbook the senator wrote back when he was a professor. Oh, and Carter also has to tell him what he thinks of it, in detail, to prove he actually read it. Carter is appalled, but he grits his teeth and reads the book. It’s a good thing he does, because the Senate ratifies the treaty by a single vote. Although it remains unpopular with the general public (five senators later lose their seats over their yes votes), those in the know understand that Carter cut a great deal for America. Panamanian dictator Omar Torrijos knows it too. Ashamed of his poor negotiating skills, he gets visibly drunk at the signing ceremony and falls out of his chair. He also confesses that if the negotiations had broken down, he would have just had the military destroy the entire canal out of spite.
Flush with confidence from his Panama Canal victory (his canalchemy? his Panamachievement?), Carter decides he should continue tackling foreign policy problems other people think are impossible. And there’s one obvious candidate: the conflict between Israel and the Arab states. Every single one of his advisors tells him this is a huge mistake and he definitely shouldn’t get involved, but knowing Carter, this only makes him want to do it more. His strategy: bring Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachim Begin to Camp David for a series of intense negotiations. As usual, Carter believes that if he can just get the relevant parties in a room with him, he can convince them to see things his way.
At Camp David, as with the Panama Canal, Carter reveals himself to be a masterful negotiator, which only makes his constant inability to successfully negotiate with Congress all the more infuriating. When dealing with his own country, he’s disgusted by the horse-trading inherent in politics and continually shoots himself in the foot by refusing to get in the muck. But somehow, when dealing with other countries, he’s able to accept that there’s inevitably going to be a certain amount of dirty work involved. This biography doesn’t really try to provide a theory for this discrepancy, and I wasn’t able to come up with one either. Perhaps Carter holds his own country to a higher standard—or perhaps, as president, he sees himself as above Congress and expects a subservience he doesn’t expect from other countries’ leaders.
Anyway, after two weeks of nonstop conversation between the three countries’ teams—during which negotiations almost fail more than once—they reach a deal. Essentially, the broad outlines are: 1) Egypt will officially recognize Israel and end the state of war between the two countries and 2) Israel will stop building settlements in the West Bank and transition towards self-governance for inhabitants of both the West Bank and Gaza . The Camp David Accords, as they’re known, are a phenomenal success, putting the region on a path straight to the utopia it is today: a prosperous, conflict-free Middle East in which democracy and human rights flourish and the Palestinian people have full self-determination.
Sike! Obviously, that doesn’t happen. The Camp David Accords are seen as a triumph at the time, but in the long run, the picture is more mixed. The first part of the deal holds up, even after Sadat—who ends up becoming quite close with Carter—is assassinated by fundamentalists just a few years later. But the Israelis immediately welch on the second part of the deal and continue building settlements. Today’s Israel has more than 20x the number of settlers as it did then, making the intensity of the Carter/Begin dispute seem depressingly quaint in retrospect.
Carter’s blissful focus on foreign policy is interrupted by deteriorating conditions at home. The economy hasn’t been great for most of his term, but now it’s starting to really decline, with inflation averaging 14% by the late 70’s. Paired with this high inflation are high unemployment and low growth—a set of conditions economists had previously thought was impossible. They’re so befuddled by the combination that they coin a new term for it: “stagflation.” If economic conditions during your presidency are so novel that economists have to make up a new word to describe them, it’s usually a bad thing.
The poor economy receives an additional shock with the 1979 oil crisis, when a drop in global oil production instigated by the Iranian revolution (more on that later) triggers a market reaction that more than doubles the price of oil. The result is not just skyrocketing gas prices but around-the-block lines at gas stations, with some even instituting rationing. Carter’s approval ratings, never great to begin with, drop into the low 30s.
A typical politician would see their unpopularity as the obvious result of the terrible economy. But Carter is perpetually tempted by the siren song of deeper explanations for simple problems, especially if he can interpret them through a moral or spiritual lens. Influenced by an obscure pollster—against, once again, the uniform advice of his entire team—he convinces himself that America is suffering not just from stagflation and gas lines, but from a spiritual crisis—perhaps like the one he himself suffered after his failed first governor’s race.
If the cure for stagflation isn’t readily apparent, neither is the cure for a nationwide spiritual crisis. To find it, Carter does one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever heard of a president doing: he invites a mishmash of politicians, intellectuals, and religious leaders to a two-week summit at Camp David where they can tell him what’s wrong with the country and, by extension, what’s wrong with him. For day after day, from 9am to as late as 1am the next morning, Carter sits taking notes on a yellow legal pad while this group critiques him, often in strikingly personal terms. It’s an exercise in self-flagellation reminiscent of cult indoctrination rituals and Maoist self-criticism, and one it’s impossible to imagine any other president voluntarily taking on. The whole scene is so wacky that Vice President Mondale seriously considers resigning.
Some of the advice Carter gets is good (like when the newly-elected 33-year-old governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, tells Carter he needs to be a leader, not just a manager), but, as you’d expect would happen when you ask fifty people to tell you what’s wrong with you, some of it is totally off the rails. A prominent rabbi tells Carter that the real problem is Americans’ “unrestrained consumerism” and “mindless self-indulgence.” A Berkeley sociologist adds that Carter needs to “come down from the mountain with some hard truths” to help the American people “achieve personal happiness that does not depend on the endless accumulation of goods.”
Although this analysis is about as sophisticated as the kind of thing a precocious 19-year-old would tell you over bong hits, Carter eats it all up. Two days after the summit, he delivers a prime-time address to the country in which he claims that the real crisis isn’t the poor economy, but the American crisis of confidence. He draws a line from the Kennedy and MLK assassinations through the traumas of Vietnam and Watergate and all the way to the current energy crisis. It is perhaps the most unusual speech ever delivered by an American president—a wide-ranging, almost religious homily about America’s many failings.
To the astonishment of every single person other than Jimmy Carter, the speech actually goes over well—at first. Carter’s approval rating shoots up 11% overnight. But the good feelings don’t last. Within a few months, the polls are back to their previous lows, and the general feeling among the public is that Carter has been trying to blame the American people for his own failings. Today, the address commonly known as the “malaise speech” (though he never actually uses that word) is widely considered a political blunder of epic proportions.
Nothing pairs better with an economic crisis than a foreign policy crisis. Luckily, fate has one at the ready. As usual for the 70’s, it starts in the Middle East.
The origins of the Iran hostage crisis go back all the way to 1951, when the CIA led a coup in Iran to prevent the democratically-elected government from nationalizing their oil industry. As is usually the case with people who seize power in coups, the new, US-backed leader, the Shah, is a bit of a despot. (He infamously has gourmet lunches flown in from France on the Concorde.) By 1979, The Iranian people have had enough, and the Shah himself is overthrown by a group of fundamentalist Islamic clerics, who still control Iran to this day. In conclusion, we totally nailed the situation and none of our decisions backfired in any way. Go America!
Shortly after his escape from Iran to exile in Egypt, the Shah is diagnosed with cancer, and since he’s been a consistent American ally, lots of influential people think we should let him come to the U.S. where he can benefit from our best-in-class treatment. Carter is against the idea at first (in fact, he directly predicts that granting the Shah entry to the U.S. could lead to Americans in Iran getting taken hostage), but eventually he’s worn down by his advisors and gives in. Less than two weeks after the Shah arrives, Carter’s prediction come true: the American embassy in Iran is overrun and 52 citizens are taken hostage. Ironically, even the Shah ends up worse off, as he ultimately dies not from his cancer but from a series of avoidable medical errors made by his American doctors.
Carter has no good options for freeing the hostages. A military operation would endanger their lives, but he can’t negotiate for their release without seeming like he’s cowing to terrorists. He waits the situation out for almost a year, until he finally decides to give the go-ahead to a risky helicopter rescue attempt that the military has come up with. But the mission is a complete calamity—it’s like the Mr. Bean version of a military operation. A series of mechanical errors followed by a fatal crash during what should be a routine refueling stop kills multiple service members, and they never even make it into Iranian airspace. The remaining participants return home in abject failure, where the public perception of Carter is only slipping further.
Luckily, the President has an ace up his sleeve: the steadfast support of the last surviving member of the closest thing America has to a Royal Family, the beloved and inspiring liberal icon Senator Ted Kennedy.
Just kidding! The ever-ambitious Kennedy senses weakness and decides to primary Carter instead.
The Ted Kennedy of this book is not a sympathetic character. His primary challenge is driven mostly by his hunger for power and his personal dislike of Carter. Kennedy personifies the Washington establishment that Carter ran against; also, he’s a moneyed East Coast elite and he basically sees Carter as a southern hick. Kennedy had wanted to run for president the last time, in 1976, but that had been too close to the Chappaquiddick incident, when he drunkenly drove off a bridge with a woman he may or may not have been having an affair with, and left her to drown while he swam away . (The affair is now mostly known for inspiring a similar plotline in Succession’s first season.) In the 70’s, you could send a woman to her death with your drunken negligence and get away with it—at least, you could if you were a Kennedy—but you did have to let it recede into everyone’s memory for a couple years before you ran for president.
After a long, drawn-out primary, Carter has enough delegates to win, but Kennedy stays in the race all the way to the convention, dropping out only after a failed attempt to win via a last-minute rules change. He then gives a speech in which he pointedly fails to endorse Carter. Carter’s own speech just after is a comedy of errors: first, the teleprompter breaks, forcing him to ad-lib, which is not one of his strengths; then, a mechanical error causes the traditional parade of balloons to fail to rain down. Carter stands awkwardly on stage as just three or four sad balloons slowly float down from the ceiling. To top it all off, Kennedy, who has been getting drunk in his hotel room, is late to join Carter onstage for the scheduled display of unity, and in his inebriated state, he openly snubs him.
Carter is the underdog going into the general election, and he knows it. This is the first race he’s ever run as an incumbent, so none of his previous strategies work: he obviously can’t present himself as an outsider anymore, and he can’t avoid taking stances on controversial issues. But he also can’t really run on his record, since he’s presiding over both a poor economy and an ongoing foreign policy disaster. His biggest accomplishments are either difficult to explain or outright unpopular.
He also has the misfortune to be running against Ronald Reagan, who, in addition to being a once-in-a-generation political talent, is willing to fight dirty. Afraid that a last-minute hostage release deal (the possibility from which the term “October surprise” originates) will secure Carter’s reelection, Reagan’s campaign manager William Casey cuts an illegal backroom deal with Iran to ensure the hostages stay put until after the election. Or at least, it sure seems like he does—there’s no definitive proof, and many sources say otherwise, but a lot of highly suspicious circumstantial evidence has emerged in recent years. And not just from Reagan’s enemies—even James Baker, Reagan’s Chief of Staff, says that Casey probably did it .
To make matters even worse, Ted Kennedy comes back from the (political) grave to fuck with Carter one last time. One of his former operatives somehow manages to steal Carter’s debate prep book and passes it to the Reagan campaign. As a result, Reagan is prepared for every one of Carter’s attacks, and crushes him in the debate . Though to be fair, Reagan probably would have crushed him anyway, as Carter is a terrible debater and Reagan is notoriously charming. “A recession is when your neighbor loses his job,” he likes to say. “A depression is when you lose yours. And a recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his!”
In the end, Reagan wins in a 49-state landslide, the largest ever electoral win by a non-incumbent. The Democrats also lose the Senate for the first time since 1954. As a closing act, Carter’s team finally manages to secure a deal to release the hostages—but last-minute delays mean that instead of this being a capstone to his presidency, they go free just hours after Reagan takes the oath of office.
On his way out, Carter gives a gloomy farewell address in which he warns against the risk of nuclear war in apocalyptic terms. The survivors—“if there are any,” he says—“would live in despair amid the poisoned ruins of a civilization that had committed suicide.” Hearing the speech, his wife says, “This kind of thing is why you lost.”
I think you can draw two, somewhat contradictory lessons from the story of Carter’s presidency.
The first lesson is that you can’t help anyone unless you have power, so you should do popular things so that you can stay in power, even if that means making some moral compromises. Carter thought he was being ethical by taking principled stands, but all those principled stands meant he lost re-election, and Democrats didn’t hold the White House again for another twelve years. He probably could have done more good by moderating some of his unpopular impulses, thus allowing him, or others aligned with him, to maintain power for longer. Carter clearly understood this lesson when he pretended to be racist during his gubernatorial campaign, but he was seemingly unwilling to apply it to his actual presidency, perhaps because he saw a distinction between campaigning and governing.
The second lesson is that your success as a leader is largely at the whims of fate. Since you never really know when you’ll lose power, you should do what you think is right while you still can. For all of his unpopular decisions, the biggest strike against Carter in the mind of the American public was the deteriorating economy, which was largely out of his control. Had he done what many of his advisors wanted and delayed most of his politically risky decisions to a hypothetical second term, he probably would have lost anyway, and would have ended up accomplishing even less.
Reading this book, I kept imagining the alternate history in which Reagan succeeds in his 1976 primary challenge to Gerald Ford, which he lost narrowly in real life. Since Reagan is a much more talented politician than Ford, and isn’t tainted by Ford’s association with Nixon, he almost certainly picks up a couple points of the vote and beats Carter. Then he ends up presiding over stagflation and takes the blame for the poor economy. He loses in 1980 to Ted Kennedy, who ushers in a decade of liberal dominance until his presidency implodes in scandal amidst the revelation of his many drunken affairs.
Although it may not be clear from this review, The Outlier is actually intended to be a positive reappraisal of Carter’s presidency. The author clearly admires Carter’s iconoclasm and moral backbone, and he interprets many of Carter’s decisions through the most positive lens he can—for example, by blaming failures like the hostage crisis on listening to the wrong advisors. His thesis is that Carter was a man ahead of his time: decades before today’s public debates over race, our use of natural resources, and government hypocrisy, Carter looked the country in the eye and forced us to confront the looming end of American exceptionalism. But we didn’t want to hear the message—so we shot the messenger.
The book did convince me that Carter is somewhat underrated in the popular imagination (admittedly a low bar to clear), but I don’t think it fully succeeds in its overall attempt to rehabilitate Carter’s image. It depends on what you think the job of a president is. Is it to tell blunt truths to the American public and push us to acknowledge our country’s flaws? Or is it to implement policies that lead to tangible improvements in people’s lives? While the best leaders may do some of both, ultimately the latter is what really matters. Carter may have been ahead of his time, but being too far ahead of your time is just another synonym for being wrong.
I also don’t think this book succeeds purely as a biographical portrait of its subject. After I finished Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson, I felt like I really knew LBJ. But even after finishing all 628 pages of this book, Carter remains a mystery to me. I can tell you everything he did during his presidency, but I still don’t feel like I really understand him. What motivated Jimmy Carter? How did he develop his seemingly unshakeable confidence? Why did he even want to be president in the first place? (Ted Kennedy’s high-profile fumble of this question famously contributed to his primary loss, but Carter never really answers it either.)
In the author’s defense, some of this may be because he has chosen an impossible subject. Throughout his time in office, Carter was widely considered to be an enigma by a press and public that were obsessed with psychoanalyzing him. Unlike the voluble Lyndon Johnson, whose loquaciousness left behind a vast group of people who could later report back on what he’d thought and said, Carter rarely socialized and had almost no friends. He was, in the words of the author, “probably the most private and socially reticent individual ever to occupy the White House,” a difficult trait for a biographer’s subject to have.
Nonetheless, the slipperiness of its protagonist ultimately left me unsatisfied with this book. In the end, The Outlier is a lot like the Carter presidency itself: easy to like and in certain ways admirable, but ultimately a missed opportunity.
1: During the convention, Chicago cops indiscriminately attacked not just anti-war protestors but also journalists, photographers, and even innocent bystanders, to the horror of those watching on TV.
2: Also, he never once expresses dominance over his aides by making them come into the bathroom with him and take dictation while he takes a dump.
3: This is, of course, a grossly oversimplified summary of the actual deal; if you want more, Wikipedia has a good overview
4: It’s never been definitely proven that Kennedy was drunk at the time, but it seems pretty safe to assume he was given that he was leaving a party where he was seen drinking—and because it’s extremely uncommon for sober people to drive off bridges.
5: It also wouldn’t be unprecedented, as we now know for sure that the Nixon campaign similarly conspired to mess up LBJ’s Vietnam peace talks.
6: 20 years later, when someone steals George W. Bush’s debate prep materials and passes them to Al Gore, the Gore campaign immediately alerts the FBI.
Your Book Review: The Outlier