American history, biographies, book reviews, Jimmy Carter, Jonathan Alter, New Release, presidential biographies, Presidents
Jonathan Alter’s long-awaited biography of the thirty-ninth president “His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life” was published last month (September 2020). Alter is a journalist and author and was a columnist for Newsweek magazine for nearly thirty years. He has written a book on FDR’s first one-hundred days and two focused on Barack Obama.
Authors of freshly-minted presidential biographies often feel compelled to explain their rationale for writing yet another biography of a particular president. In the early pages of this hot-off-the-press biography, Alter works diligently to offer an explanation for his five year investment in one man’s life.
But if the justification Alter provides feels a bit forced, his choice of biographical subject is marvelous: Jimmy Carter remains one of the most under-covered former presidents in the modern era. And while Alter believes Carter may be the most misunderstood president in American history, Carter is – at ninety-six years of age – not only the oldest-ever former president but has led what may be the most productive and purposeful post-presidency in our nation’s history.
Ironically, this self-proclaimed “first full-length independent biography” of Jimmy Carter is not the longest of the books I’ve read on the thirty-ninth president. That honor goes to Stuart Eizenstat’s “President Carter: The White House Years” published in 2018 – a marvelous 898-page tome dedicated exclusively to Carter’s four-year presidency. Alter’s modestly shorter book (with 670 pages of text) is wonderfully comprehensive, adequately detailed, extremely balanced and very well-paced.
Carter’s childhood and naval career are well-covered as is his personal life…though, at times, his family disappears into the background when his political life dominates the discussion. In the book’s early chapters, the reader can almost sense the narrative being drafted from Carter’s own recollection of his childhood and time with the U.S. Navy.
Alter is also attentive to the divergence between Carter’s attitude toward and his inaction regarding desegregation and racial equality in his early life. Later, with his political career fully underway, his handling of those issues was decidedly more aggressive…and no less adeptly analyzed by the author.
Alter provides an excellent review of Carter’s 1976 campaign for the Democratic nomination and, while lacking the staggering detail of Eizenstat’s book, does a nice job reviewing (and a very good job summarizing) the Carter presidency. Chapters on the Panama Canal treaty, the Iranian revolution, the Camp David Accords and the Iranian hostage crisis are among the standouts.
Finally, this biography offers an unusually interesting perspective – and a generously complete review – of Carter’s extraordinarily active, charitable and long-lasting post-presidency. Only the narrative’s insistence on jumping back and forth through his four-decade retirement slightly diminishes the vitality of these chapters. Interestingly, Alter concludes that Carter’s presidency is underrated while his post-presidency is somewhat overrated.
There is little fault to find in this biography, but there are a few areas where readers may feel somewhat short-changed. At times the narrative can move quickly (through parts of Carter’s childhood, for instance) and a few, less important topics receive somewhat limited attention.
In addition, this biography is written by an accomplished journalist rather than a professional biographer. So it generally reads like interesting and insightful history, but rarely like great literature. Though the narrative does occasionally put the reader “in the room,” rarely does it employ colorful scene-setting to add vibrancy to the story. Instead, this generally feels like “history from a distance.”
Overall, Jonathan Alter‘s biography of Jimmy Carter is a welcome addition to the relatively limited universe of biographies focused on the thirty-ninth president. Comprehensive in scope, appropriate in depth, exceptionally balanced and filled with both personal and political insights, Alter’s biography of Jimmy Carter is extremely good – and quite possibly as good a biography as will ever be written of him.
Overall Rating: 4½ stars
Lee Kibbe said:
Just of interest. How much does the post Vietnam era play into the focus of the book?
Both Vietnam and Watergate played only minor direct, but important indirect, parts in the narrative (Carter’s presidency focused on peace and ethics in contrast to…Vietnam and Watergate).
Lee Kibbe said:
Chris Tharrington (@cbtharring) said:
I was 16 when Carter ran for president, so his was the first campaign I followed in detail, and his was the first presidency to directly affect me, since I got my first job in 1976, and I got to experience stagflation. I’m about two thirds through this book, and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. I wish it were longer and went into more detail on Carter’s decision making process, but that’s a minor quibble.
Have you read Stuart Eizenstat’s book? I’d be curious to know what you thought about that given your comment 🙂
Glad to see you reviewed this book. I’m almost at the Carter presidency, so the timing is nearly perfect, I bought this book the day it came out.
Carter is the first president I was really aware of. I hit high school partway through his presidency, and I vividly remember my history teacher talking about the Iran hostage crisis. The news coverage was steady, almost relentless. As the days racked up, the headlines continued showing the number of days in captivity for the hostages– until it became a thorn in Carter’s side. (the current Covid coverage makes me think of the Iran hostage situation–not that I think they’re analogous situations )
I’ll post an update when I’ve finished the book, and let you know my thoughts about it. Based on your review, I suspect I’ll like it. And I may also check out the Eizenstat book as well, if I finish up and still feel a need to get more insight into his administration.
I really enjoy this website. So far this year I have read President Obama’s memoir and Frederick Logengel”s first volume on JFK. This book on Carter is next but I am a little hesitant to start reading this book after reading Reganland last fall. How much of this biography on Carter is devoted to his presidency? I don’t want to feel like I am going over the same old ground.
A bit less than half the book is dedicated to Carter’s presidency. But you might be surprised…I’ve read multiple biographies on every president and in many cases, given the different writing styles, different biases, different perspectives, etc., you *almost* wouldn’t know you were reading about the exact same presidency over and over again. In any event, good luck whatever you decide to do!