Peter Bourne’s “Jimmy Carter: A Comprehensive Biography from Plains to Post-Presidency” was published in 1997. Bourne is a psychiatrist who worked in the Carter Administration as Special Assistant to the President for Health Issues (but resigned after writing a prescription for an aide under a false name). Bourne is currently a visiting fellow at Green Templeton College, University of Oxford and is the author of a biography of Fidel Castro.
Bourne’s 508-page biography almost seems to be two different books merged under one roof. For its first two-hundred pages it is a relatively traditional biography of Carter’s early life – a survey of his ancestry and a review of his childhood, marriage and naval career. For the final 300 or so pages it is a curious blend of personal memoir (from the point of view of the author) and political biography.
Given Bourne’s close knowledge of his subject (and the fact he is not a historian) it seems surprising that I value the first part of the book over the second. But while I appreciate Bourne’s direct observations of Carter’s political life and actions, the later chapters focusing on his campaign for national office and on his presidency often prove dry, tedious, hard to follow and unnecessarily wonky.
The first thirteen chapters of the book feature several excellent moments: an interesting description of his time in the naval academy, an in-depth introduction to his wife Rosalynn and a revealing review of his religious beliefs and evolution. The last sixteen chapters, however, often feel more like a run-on collection of political observations and campaign-related minutiae than a methodically crafted narrative stitched together with keen analysis and cogent conclusions.
To his credit, Bourne admits his admiration for Carter early in the book but exercises admirable balance throughout; he is not reluctant to identify his subject’s strengths or his weaknesses (both personal and political). In addition, the author’s review of Carter’s gubernatorial career was interesting and I enjoyed reading about Carter’s decision-making process while pondering a run for the presidency.
But given Bourne’s training in the dissection and evaluation of complex personalities it is a shame he is never able to animate his subject. Throughout the book Carter remains a relatively rigid and somewhat uninteresting two-dimensional character. And the two chapters focused on his post-presidency lack the vitality and vigor which Carter himself seems to possess in retirement.
And where Bourne provides seemingly endless detail relating to certain events (such as an exhaustive – and exhausting – blow-by-blow account of nearly every state primary leading up to the Democratic convention), other moments go almost untouched such as his Cabinet selection, his day-to-day relationships with his most trusted advisers and much of his personal life.
Overall, Peter Bourne’s biography of Jimmy Carter is an undoubtedly useful and informative – though uneven and often colorless – review of Carter’s life through the late 1990s. As a comprehensive introduction to the 39th president it is more than adequate. But as an incisive and engaging review of his personal and political lives it is far from ideal.
Overall rating: 3½ stars