Former Newsweek writer Jonathan Alter’s new biography of President Jimmy Carter is less a political biography and more a hagiography. Like all lives of saints, it includes a passage describing a time of sinning before redemption. That was early in Carter’s political career when he artfully appealed to the votes of segregationist Democrats. But, in Alter’s view, as soon as Carter became Georgia governor in 1970, he transformed himself into a superhero, one who can harvest peanut crops even as he is heralding the rapture.
Alter signals his less than perfect objectivity in his introduction when he informs the reader that Carter ‘was the first American president since Thomas Jefferson who could fairly claim to be a Renaissance man, or at least a world-class autodidact’. Among the many accomplishments that the author cites as proof that our 39th president was a modern-day Leonardo: he is a fly fisherman, and he collects arrowheads.
Readers are subjected to 800 pages of this sort of fawning minutia. In the process, Alter manages to take fresh, interesting material and make it into something akin to attendance at a slide presentation on the mating habits of blind mole rats. The interest level doesn’t just wane. Major historical events read like the directions on a mattress tag.
To persuade readers that Carter is always wise, benevolent and soulful, Alter frequently has to invent completely new history. Those old enough to remember the Georgia native may recall that his administration concocted an $88 billion strategy to produce gasoline from oil sands and coal. Adjusted for inflation, this synthetic fuel plan was a $314 billion scheme to use the least-environmentally favorable forms of energy as America’s main sources of power. Yet Alter insists that ‘he would almost certainly have begun to address global warming in the early 1980s had he been reelected’. This is like saying that Hitler would have been a great friend to the Jews were it not for that final Allied push across the Rhine. Similarly, Alter claims that Carter wasn’t showing that he had been naive about communism when he told ABC newsman Frank Reynolds that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had ‘drastically’ altered his view of the Russians. Nor was it cynicism that motivated him to avidly, if quietly, pursue George Wallace’s endorsement in the 1976 presidential election. (When Democrats seek out support from avowed racists, they’re being savvy and practical, not calculating.) And Carter’s handling of the hostage crisis was not that of a pusillanimous incompetent, but rather a measured figure who wisely sought peace.
Alter’s biography does provide a thorough outline of the events and characters of Carter’s term in office, and it will likely serve as a useful reference source to future writers. It also points up some of his real accomplishments in domestic policy. Among these were his decisions to deregulate the airline and trucking industries, his signing into law of cuts in the capital gains tax rate and his appointment of Fed Chairman Paul Volcker. Those are its virtues. But it’s as objective and qualified as the Peking Daily is about a US-China trade pact, and of a thickness for buttressing the walls to Fort Knox. Unfortunately, what lies within its pages is not gold.