American history, biographies, book reviews, Jimmy Carter, Peter Bourne, presidential biographies, US Presidents
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
I love all your reviews, even the ones like this one that helps me know I wouldn’t want to read this book! 🙂
There definitely are too many books to read and not enough time! And for every book someone has steered past based on my subjective opinion, I can almost guarantee I’ve had someone refer me to a biography I would have missed if it weren’t for their willingness to share their own insights. That, for me, may be the greatest unexpected pleasure this site / community has brought 🙂
When you get to Reagan, check out
Logan Mortenson said:
I agree, “The Clothes Have No Emperor” is a great read. It is not a biography, but rather a chronicle of every major political and cultural story of the 1980s. The author, Paul Slansky, has a wonderful sardonic wit.
How are there no decent biographies of Carter?
On Sun, Aug 26, 2018 at 2:04 PM My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies wrote:
> Steve posted: “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 wri” >
I still have two Carter biographies left to read, so I won’t pre-judge…but it does seem strange that no one of the McCullough, White, Donald, JESmith, Goodwin gang has tackled his life (yet).
Douglas Brinkley may eventually finish up his biography. He either started with the penultimate volume or he will have to update it.
What did he do? I know he was supposed to be a Georgian peanut farmer, he thought he saw a UFO, he and his wife were ultra-religious, his brother is an alcoholic with a beer brand, and Beirut or whoever had those hostages waited to give them to Reagan just to jilt Carter. That’s 100% of anything I know about the guy. He doesn’t strike me as particularly charismatic. When I saw Steve hit Carter, I thought “Cool- here comes Reagan.” He’s just boring to me.
Logan Mortenson said:
Carter’s legacy is a mixed bag and debatable to say the least. He wasn’t generally seen as charismatic on the level of other recent presidents, but in the eyes of many Americans he represented a course correction from Nixon and the Watergate crisis. Carter surely was a simple man, but also honest and truthful, which were valued qualities especially at the time of his election. His tenure was marred by numerous failures, including a bad economy, a poor relationship with Congress, troubled decision-making during the Iran hostage crisis and a national malaise. However, he also had many successes. Carter was a major factor in negotiating the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt. His round-the-clock work at the end of his term also eventually helped bring the Iran hostages back to safety. Despite his generally poor relationship with Congress, Carter was successful in passing most of his legislative agenda, second in that era only to LBJ. Most of the admiration for President Carter came in his post-presidency years, when he helped to eradicate diseases and monitor democratic elections around the world, along with building homes for Habitat for Humanity. Many feel he has been a much better post-president, which very well could be the case. Since he was only a one-term President, many see Carter’s tenure as a failure. However, as more time passes, his legacy is being re-evaluated.
Logan Mortenson said:
“Thirteen Days in September” is also on my reading list for Carter, which isn’t a biography per se, but deals with the negotiating process for the Camp David Accords.