Published last week, Kai Bird’s “The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter” is the most recent full-length review of the life and legacy of the 39th president. Bird is a journalist and author who has written biographies of McGeorge and William Bundy, CIA operative Robert Ames and presidential adviser John McCloy. His co-written “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Biography.
Although this book is the direct result of six years of research and writing, Bird has been intrigued with Jimmy Carter for nearly four decades. Drawing from the unpublished diaries of members of Carter’s presidential staff and his lawyer/adviser Charlie Kirbo, Bird is able to provide behind-the-scenes color unavailable in previous Carter biographies. But his thesis – that Carter was a more successful and decisive president than is generally recognized – is by now a fairly conventional perspective.
Bird’s writing style is straightforward and rarely flashy; he relies on well-articulated facts and embedded dialogue rather than descriptive scene-setting and literary flourishes to guide the reader. And although Bird’s emphasis is clearly on Carter’s presidency (consuming more than three-fourths of the 628-page narrative) he does devote meaningful attention to Carter’s upbringing and post-presidency.
Most readers will quickly notice Bird’s fondness for his subject. But if the author’s affinity for Carter is undeniable (and his praise consistently effusive) he is almost as quick to point out Carter’s peculiarities, flaws and shortcomings. On balance, however, Bird is notably forgiving of Carter’s faults and believes his presidential legacy has more room to rise.
One of this book’s greatest strengths is its consistently-thorough introductions to important supporting characters. Nearly everyone who plays an important role in Carter’s political life receives a robust, context-rich portrait. These are not quite as colorful as the “mini-biographies” featured in Robert Caro’s series on LBJ or in Adam Cohen’s review of FDR’s first 100 days, but they are invaluable in educating and engaging the reader.
Additionally, Bird provides an interesting chapter on Carter’s selection process for cabinet members and senior advisers, a fascinating review of Carter’s life in the White House and a colorful chapter on Carter’s relationship with his first speechwriter. Bird also provides a notably memorable chapter on the Camp David Accords and countless entertaining “fly on the wall” moments during Carter’s presidency. Finally, Bird’s observations in the book’s final pages regarding Carter’s legacy prove thoughtful.
But while this biography of Carter is quite good, it falls short of the standard set by Jonathan Alter’s “His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life.” Bird’s biography is only slightly shorter, but devotes less than half the pages to Carter’s childhood, naval career and early political life that Alter provides. All the essential elements of Carter’s extraordinary climb are present in Bird’s narrative but his biography fails to include certain observations, anecdotes, context and nuances vital to fully capturing Carter’s persona.
And while Bird’s coverage of the Carter presidency is 150 pages longer than Alter’s, I cannot think of an important presidential moment missing in Alter’s treatment. But where both authors feel Carter’s presidential service is under-appreciated, Alter’s biography explores Carter’s strengths and weaknesses with equal fervor while Bird more frequently seems to excuse Carter’s most politically-problematic flaws.
Overall, Kai Bird’s “The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter” is unquestionably good…but not quite great. Readers relying on this biography of Carter as a sole source of insight into his life will walk away with a solid understanding of his life and times. But in my view, Jonathan Alter’s book (published last fall) remains the undisputed “go to” biography of Jimmy Carter.
Overall Rating: 4 stars