Douglas Brinkley’s “The Unfinished Presidency: Jimmy Carter’s Journey Beyond the White House” was published in 1998, seventeen years after Carter’s presidency ended. Brinkley is a history professor at Rice University and the author of nearly two-dozen books including biographies of Walter Cronkite, Teddy Roosevelt and Gerald Ford.
Brinkley’s “The Unfinished Presidency” is based on roughly two hundred interviews and nearly limitless access to both Carter and his personal papers. And while Brinkley initially set out to write a full-scale three-volume series on Carter, he decided to focus his efforts on his subject’s unique post-presidency.
This biography quickly proves extremely readable, historically insightful and surprisingly captivating. During its 479 pages, Brinkley provides an occasionally critical – but often admiring and sympathetic – portrait of the 39th president and his post-presidency. And although the narrative often describes its subject using past tense (as though he was long gone), the book was published when Carter’s retirement years were not even half-over.
It generally proceeds in a chronological manner but individual chapters frequently tackle his retirement years by focusing on specific subjects or topics. Almost without fail, chapters begin with a thoughtful introduction to the matter-at-hand and Brinkley consistently provides helpful historical context for whatever is being discussed.
The narrative begins with a diagnosis of Carter’s failed bid for re-election in 1980 and by comparing the incoming and outgoing presidents in terms of style, politics and personality. Once the former president’s retirement is underway, Brinkley escorts the reader on Carter’s frenetic travels across the globe executing a variety of charitable missions: New York, Bosnia, Haiti, North Korea, Nicaragua, Panama, the Middle East and Yemen among the destinations.
Not content with simply re-hashing Carter’s post-presidential diary, however, Brinkley frequently revisits times in his subject’s past in order to provide a backstory or to introduce important characters. And while Brinkley does not set out to write a character study, what results from his close analysis of Carter’s humanitarian missions is nothing less than an incisive study of the man’s inner core.
For many readers, though, the detailed chapters covering Middle East tensions, seemingly intractable challenges in sub-Saharan Africa and corrupt politics in Central America can be dull and tedious. Fortunately, Brinkley finds a way to inject spice and insight into most topics to maintain reader interest. And his coverage of other subjects (such as Carter’s first meeting with Fidel Castro, his relationship with Bill Clinton, and Amy Carter’s rebellious collegiate endeavors) are tantalizing.
But much like Carter’s hectic schedule in the early years of his retirement, the narrative tends to devolve into a scattershot jumble of topics and trips. And, somewhat similar to Stuart Eizenstat’s recently-published book covering the Carter presidency, several chapters in this book dive deeper into topics than many readers will want to go.
Overall, however, Douglas Brinkley’s coverage of the early decades of Jimmy Carter’s post-presidency is excellent; it is filled with sharp insight, perceptive observations and cogent analysis. And while it may have been published a decade or more too soon (its subject is still ticking two decades later), this book provides an extraordinary window into his retirement years and, ultimately, his character.
Overall rating: 4 stars