Not since Teddy Roosevelt can I recall a former president who has had such a consequential and purposeful retirement as Jimmy Carter.
And not since John Quincy Adams can I remember someone suffering a lackluster presidency only to find such significant redemption after leaving office.
TR spent most of his post-presidency hunting, exploring, agitating…and trying to win his way back into the White House. Shortly after JQA lost his bid for a second presidential term he won a seat in Congress and spent the rest of his life fighting for causes he fervently supported. (He literally died in the Capitol!)
Carter, on the other hand, has spent his 37½ year (and counting) retirement traveling the world on a wide variety of charitable and humanitarian missions. He also teaches Sunday School at his local church in Plains, GA (yes, still). And while history generally remembers his presidency with a long, exasperated sigh, almost everyone now agrees he has re-defined what it means to be an exceptional ex-president.
So it may be no surprise that after reading three biographies of Carter I’ve concluded that the best way to really understand the 39th president is to study his post-presidency. Because once you recognize what makes Carter “tick” today, nearly everything in his past – with the possible exception of his decision to enter politics – seems to make perfect sense.
* “Jimmy Carter: A Comprehensive Biography from Plains to Post-Presidency”(1997) by Peter Bourne – this is a meritorious but slightly curious comprehensive study of Carter’s life. It begins with a traditional review of Carter’s childhood, his marriage and his naval career. It then switches gears and becomes, essentially, a personal memoir woven into a political biography. Bourne’s discussion of Carter’s retirement is brief and unexceptional.
Given the author’s familiarity with Carter (Bourne worked for a time in the Carter administration) the book is surprisingly balanced, and some of Bourne’s insights are quite interesting. But the focus, flow and style of the book is too uneven and inconsistent and Carter is never fully dissected or revealed – 3½ stars (Full review here)
* “President Carter: The White House Years” (2018) by Stuart Eizenstat – this is the most recent (and the most in-depth…but not the most comprehensive) biography of Carter. Although its title suggests an exclusive focus on his presidency, Eizenstat covers Carter’s life from his earliest years up through his single term in the White House.
The first 20% of the book is an excellent review of Carter’s pre-presidency while the remainder of the book (roughly seven-hundred pages) provides a detailed examination of his presidency. Readers like me will find the first part of the book surprisingly satisfying…and the second part of the book far too detailed.
What is regrettably missing – but never promised or implied – is coverage of Carter’s post-presidency. With that included (and a new title, of course) this would be the undeniable “go to” Carter biography for the foreseeable future. As it stands, Eizenstat’s detailed and lengthy tome is a serious and impressive – but not flawless – biography of a man whose life is still being led and whose legacy is still being settled – 4 stars (Full review here)
* “The Unfinished Presidency: Jimmy Carter’s Journey Beyond the White House” (1998) by Douglas Brinkley – this biography provides the most fulsome, intimate and detailed coverage of Carter’s (ongoing) retirement years. Based on exceptional access to its subject and his personal papers, this is not quite an “authorized” biography but is frequently admiring and sympathetic.
Brinkley is at his best providing historical context and introducing new characters and subjects. After reading this book it is hard to imagine writing a character analysis that provides more insight into Carter than Brinkley manages to convey by focusing on his post-presidency.
Carter’s retirement is generally covered topically rather than chronologically; the depth of these discussions is impressive but could be overwhelming or tedious for some readers. In addition, the book was published when Carter’s post-presidency was less than half-complete. But the former president’s pace and intensity have slowed, so where its publication once seemed premature this biography may well have captured the full essence of its subject – 4 stars (Full review here)
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[Added October 2020]
* Jonathan Alter’s long-awaited biography of Jimmy Carter (“His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life”) was just published. With access to some of Rosalynn Carter’s unpublished diaries, the release of early letters from Jimmy to Rosalynn and interviews with more than 250 people, Alter has written the most comprehensive (if not detailed) biography of Carter to date.
While only modest in length (with 670 pages of text) compared to Stuart Eizenstat’s more detailed coverage focused on Carter’s presidency, Alter does a fine job balancing coverage of every part of Carter’s life. Coverage of Carter’s early life is revealing, the review of Carter’s presidency is quite good (if a touch too efficient) and the four chapters on Carter’s four-decade post-presidency are excellent. It’s most conspicuous shortcoming: it reads like an interesting article penned by a journalist rather than great literature written by an eloquent biographer.
In my opinion, this is now the “go to” biography on the thirty-ninth president – 4½ stars (Full review here)
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[Added June 2021]
* After six years of research and writing, Kai Bird’s biography of Jimmy Carter (“The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter”) was recently published. Among the benefits which accrue to the reader: Bird was able to access the unpublished diaries of several members of Carter’s presidential staff as well as his lawyer/adviser Charlie Kirbo. As a result, this biography contains behind-the-scenes color I’ve not seen elsewhere.
Bird’s biography of Carter is slightly shorter than Alter’s (with 628 pages of text) and while Alter’s focus is on Carter’s life outside the White House (with double number of pages Bird allocates to these years), Bird’s clear focus is Carter’s presidency.
But while Alter’s significant incremental investment in Carter’s personal life and retirement years pays off handsomely, I did not detect much incremental value in Bird’s comparatively heavier investment in Carter’s presidency. In any event, readers wishing to deeply explore Carter’s presidency have other even more targeted options including Eizenstat’s review of the Carter presidency.
Overall, Kai Bird’s biography is more than adequate to serve as a readers “only” biography on Carter…but it falls short of the standard set by Jonathan Alter last fall. – 4 stars (Full review here)
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Best Biography of Jimmy Carter: “His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life” by Jonathan Alter
Best Coverage of Carter’s Presidency: “President Carter: The White House Years” by Stuart Eizenstat
Honorable Mention: Kai Bird’s “The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter”