American history, biographies, Douglas Brinkley, Jimmy Carter, Peter Bourne, presidential biographies, Stuart Eizenstat, US Presidents
After 215 biographies and nearly 2,100 days I’ve finally reached a president who is still…alive. Jimmy Carter is also the first president whose inauguration I can vividly remember.
I do not, however, recall much of his presidency. Little League baseball, multiplication tables and learning to write in cursive were apparently more on my mind at the time.
But as excited as I am to have arrived at the first “modern” president (for me, anyway), I’m also slightly apprehensive about this part of the journey. I’m always wary of biographies about living persons, I’m skeptical of biographies published within a couple decades of a presidency, and I’m always suspicious of biographies penned by friends, family or colleagues.
In the case of the 93-year-old Jimmy Carter, however, nearly four decades have elapsed since his presidency ended. And although he is still alive, it seems safe to assume that his legacy is unlikely to be altered by anything he does during the remainder of his life.
As for the fact that two of the three biographies I’m planning to read were authored by Carter Administration insiders…well, that’s hardly unique to this president.
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I’m beginning with Peter Bourne’s “Jimmy Carter: A Comprehensive Biography from Plains to Post-Presidency.” Published in 1997, this book was written by a friend of Carter’s who was also a member of his administration. It appears as thorough and as comprehensive as possible for a book written when its subject would be alive another two or more decades. This biography does not seem particularly beloved by readers but, given the dearth of options for Carter, it seems a reasonable place to start.
Next I’m reading Stuart Eizenstat’s “President Carter: The White House Years.” Published just four months ago this is easily the “freshest take” on Carter’s life. Eizenstat was Chief Domestic Policy Adviser from 1977 to 1981 and was known for diligently recording notes of everything he witnessed. With about 900 pages of text this biography has the potential to be the definitive insider’s guide to the Carter presidency.
I wrap up my tour-de-Carter with Douglas Brinkley’s 1998 biography “The Unfinished Presidency: Jimmy Carter’s Quest for Global Peace.” Brinkley originally intended to write a comprehensive three-volume series but became enamored with his subject’s post-presidency. This book resulted from that shift in focus. But where Brinkley’s appreciation of Carter’s retirement years seems prescient, publication of this book seems to have been somewhat premature since less than half of his post-presidency was in the rear-view mirror at that point.
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Also of note:
Carter has been in the news with noticeable frequency in recent months. Just two days ago the Washington Post published an article “The un-celebrity president: Jimmy Carter” focusing on his retirement in Georgia. He has recently also been featured in People Magazine as well as several other news outlets- in many cases related to the upcoming Georgia gubernatorial election.
In addition, fellow presidential enthusiast/historian Mike Purdy published a note this past winter (“My Encounter with Jimmy Carter“) which described his Fall 2017 visit to Plains, GA where he attended Carter’s church and met the former president.
Robin MacNab said:
I am way behind you in reading a bio of each president (stuck on Jackson) but greatly appreciate your wonderful contribution and incredible time and hard work. I did peek ahead a bit by reading one bio of Carter – Randall Balmer: Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter. It is relatively short and I thought well done and fair. Particularly good at dealing with the rise of the evangelical movement in the political realm. Carter is looking pretty good these days in the rear view mirror! For fun, I am about to read his book on his boyhood days “An Hour Before Daylight” which I am told is as good as Tom Sawyer. Thanks again!
Teacher in Tejas said:
I am stuck on Monroe. God the man is dull! 🙂
Oh, just wait. 🙂
How about the American Presidents Series book on Jimmy Carter by Julian E. Zelizer 🙂
Given my cap of 240 biographies on the first round, I couldn’t find a bio I wanted to defer in order to make room for it. Have you read it?
I did and a long time ago! It like all the other books in the American Presidents series, a well-done political biography of Carter. f I remember it was critical of Carter’s political skills, which I think the most political biographies of Carter do. I don’t think you are missing anything by not including it on your Carter’s list! 🙂
Off the topic of Carter: great obit of a Truman biographer who recently died. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/22/obituaries/robert-h-ferrell-dead-truman-historian.html
Thanks for sharing – I hadn’t seen this.
I recent unpacked the rest of the books I got from my dad’s old library (he was a professor of political science for nearly 40 years) and I’m curious about the carter bio I found in there: Dasher: The Roots & Rising of Jimmy Carter by James Wooten
have you run across this one?
Christopher Saunders said:
Glad you decided to tackle the Eizenstat book, that’s been on my reading list for awhile.