“His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life” By: Jonathan Alter

Jan 25, 2021


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“His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life” 

Author: Jonathan Alter 

Publisher: Simon & Schuster 

Pages: 800 

Price: $37.50 (Hardcover) 

Jimmy Carter Biography Reveals Complicated, Confident, Capable Former President 

Jimmy Carter has written 32 books himself, several of them memoirs, most notably the best-seller “An Hour Before Daylight: Memories of a Rural Boyhood,” and there are scores of books about specific periods or aspects of Carter’s life, but Jonathan Alter’s” His Very Best” is, surprisingly, the first full-scale biography. 

This is a long and complicated book. It needed to be, for President Carter, born in 1924, is a very long-lived and complicated man. 

The conventional short evaluation of Carter’s life might be that he had a failed one-term presidency possibly due to his naivete, and an extraordinary post-presidency, due to his saintliness. 

Of course, it’s vastly more complex than that. 

In the beginning, Carter was raised in Archery, Georgia, outside of Plains. Plains, population 430, was the town. Until 1935, their house had no electricity, no running water. There were slop jars, kerosene lamps and a hand pump at the well.  

With 350 acres, the family were decidedly not poor, but life was strenuous. Daddy Carter was stern, reserved in his affections, a perfectionist taskmaster. 

An oddity in his childhood was that the family read at meals except Sunday dinner, and then discussed what they read. Carter would himself keep that practice. 

From his childhood, Carter was a businessman, often dealing with peanuts—steaming, growing, warehousing, He is surely the most famous peanut farmer in the world. 

At Georgia Tech and then Annapolis, Carter studied engineering and was then selected by Admiral Hyman Rickover for duty on our first fleet of nuclear submarines. During the interview Rickover asked him if, at the Academy, he had always done his best. Carter had to admit, no. 

That was the last time.  

Carter can lay claim to a number of accomplishments, Alter argues. He is a nuclear engineer, but also farmer, surveyor, businessman, master woodworker, fly fisherman, poet, novelist, global health expert—The Carter Center has nearly eradicated the guinea worm and river blindness in Africa, children’s book author, electrician, teacher, governor, president, homebuilder. The list actually does go on. If we do not care to recognize Carter as a Renaissance Man, he certainly qualifies as a world-class autodidact, with the same intense curiosity and boundless energy that Leonardo Da Vinci possessed. 

After the Navy, campaigning for the Georgia senate and governorship Carter was, mostly, a man of his times regarding race. He regrets awakening late to issues of racial injustice. 

As governor he had that awakening and was also reborn as a Christian.  

Alter insists, indeed demonstrates, Carter’s presidency was not, on the whole, a failure. Historians are coming to agree. 

The Camp David Accords have held. Carter protected huge swaths of America’s wilderness. Turning the Panama Canal over to Panama almost surely averted a full-scale war in Central America. 

Unfortunately, soaring inflation, the gasoline shortage, and the Iranian hostage situation with the failed rescue attempt, doomed his reelection chances. \

Throughout his term in office, and since, Carter has been difficult man to summarize. Sometimes he was well ahead of his time, placing solar panels on the White House roof. Reagan took them down. 

Virtuous, sometimes to a fault, very frugal, he can be acerbic, picky, arrogant even. He’ll correct your grammar or how you use your hammer. 

He has a knack, it seems, of being correct in such a way as to irritate his companions. As a retired President, Carter sometimes appointed himself travelling secretary of state and infuriated Clinton and Obama. 

A man of faith, nevertheless he seems to believe that good actions are what will get you into heaven. Not afraid of death, Carter recently declared “I am absolutely confident I’m going to live again after I die.”  

Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.