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Why Jimmy Carter may be the most misunderstood president in American history


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Judy Woodruff: Jimmy Carter is the rare U.S. president who is most lauded for his work after the Oval Office.

But Jonathan Alter argues in his latest book, "His Very Best," that former President Carter's influence inside the White House, might be the most misunderstood in our history.

Jonathan Alter, thank you very much for joining us to talk about your book.

You call Jimmy Carter perhaps the most misunderstood president in American history. I have known, have covered him for a long time. I even covered him before he came to Washington to be president.

What made you so interested in him?

Jonathan Alter: Well, what happened, Judy, is, I learned some of the details of his achievements at Camp David.

And this was a virtuoso performance. It's the most enduring and significant peace treaty in the world since World War II. And I started to think, if he could pull that off, maybe there's more to Jimmy Carter to -- than this kind of easy shorthand, inept president, great former president. And it just got me curious to get beyond that cliche.

And when I started to do the research five years ago, I found that he had actually achieved much more as president than I or I think a lot of other people understood, and that he was a political failure, but a substantive and farsighted success.

Judy Woodruff: Well, talk about that for a minute. What was it that made him the consequential president that he was? You write about how he was ahead of his time in many regards.

Jonathan Alter: He signed 14 major pieces of environmental legislation. And he was also the first leader anywhere in the world to think about climate change, which at that time was just in the scientific community.

But it really goes across the board, Judy. There were accomplishments all the way throughout, Jimmy Carter, who introduced and got passed the Ethics in Government Act that first protected whistle-blowers, Inspector Generals Act setting up those offices, FISA courts, FEMA. He established FEMA, did some of the first emergency planning.

I think people know that he created the Departments of Education and Energy, but the list goes on and on.

And in the foreign policy area, despite the failures in terms of getting the hostages out of Iran before the election, which hurt him badly, not only Camp David, but establishing full diplomatic relations with China, which created the bilateral relationship that our world economy is now based on, that was Jimmy Carter.

The Panama Canal treaties prevented a major war in Central America. The human rights policy was historic, helped kick off the democratic revolution around the world, helped end the Cold War, win the Cold War, as a lot of conservatives admitted later on.

But much of this was hard to understand at the time. So his political mistakes kind of overwhelm these achievements.

Judy Woodruff: It's a remarkable list.

But, despite all this, Jon Alter, there were a lot of mistakes. There were embarrassments, mistakes of his own doing, and then a lot of bad luck along with all that.

Jonathan Alter: Yes, absolutely.

So, Jimmy Carter has led this almost novelistic life. It's a real American epic. You know, he was born on a farm where they had no running water, no electricity, essentially in the 19th century.

So, Carter is coming this great distance. And he runs this campaign from zero percent in the polls, gets to the presidency, has a lot of good luck, as well as good timing, because he was running after Watergate as an ethical, moral candidate. But he has good luck.

Then, when he gets to the presidency, especially in the second half of his term, 1979 and '80, he's essentially swamped by events, including economic problems that were very serious and contributed in a major way to his not getting reelected.

He did, though, appoint Paul Volcker, who raised interest rates way above 15 percent, which hurt Carter when he was running for reelection, but, eventually, that harsh medicine ended inflation. So, Reagan got the credit and arguably got reelected in '84 for that, but it was Carter's appointee who accomplished it, Paul Volcker.

And -- but just to go to the political problems, he could not unify the Democratic Party. And that challenge by Ted Kennedy from the left in the 1980 primaries, that was very hurtful to Jimmy Carter.

Judy Woodruff: It was almost everywhere you look, between the Iran hostage crisis, as you mentioned, internationally, the spike in oil prices, the long gas lines, and then, as you mentioned, political problems.

Did you ever figure out, Jon Alter, what drives him? And we should say the man is still alive well into his 90s.

Jonathan Alter: Right. He's 96.

So, his faith definitely drives him. I devote a fair amount of attention to that. I think even that is very misunderstood. He was a strong believer in the separation of church and state and would not allow any religious-tinged events at the White house. But I also think a sense of atonement drives him.

But his father dies. He comes back to Georgia and -- to take over his father's business, farm supply business, get going in politics. And he's ducking the civil rights movement right through that 1970 campaign, even using some code words in that 1970 campaign.

And then, Judy, you were there for one of the most important events of his political career...

Judy Woodruff: I was.

Jonathan Alter: ... when he took the oath and gave his inaugural address as governor of Georgia. And he said, the time for racial discrimination is over.

And you could tell -- you said later that you could feel the electricity going through the crowd. It doesn't sound like anything, but it was a huge decision. Then he went on to integrate Georgia.

But then I think he spent the second half of his life, from that moment on, essentially making up for what he did not do in the first half of his life on civil rights. And that can be an inspiration for us, so this faith and this sense of wanting to do as much as he can for as many people as he can in whatever time he has left.

Judy Woodruff: It certainly seems to be driving him.

So, does he finally, Jon Alter, become like Harry Truman, a president who is appreciated, but decades after he's president, or not? What do you think?

Jonathan Alter: So, Harry Truman was his favorite president. He put the sign "The buck stops here" right on the desk.

And I'm hoping that I and other authors can contribute to a real reassessment of his presidency. He's not going to be in our first rank of presidents. He made plenty of mistakes, but I do think that historians are now starting to recognize that he got slimed in some ways after he left office, and that there was much more that he achieved than people recognize.

And, of course, we haven't even spoken about his achievements as a former president. He revolutionized the role of former president. Rosalynn Carter is this enormously formidable partner. And I have the love letters, kind of steamy love letters that he wrote her from the Navy.

So, he completely changed the role of first lady. She did much more, for instance, than Eleanor Roosevelt as first lady. And then, after he left office, he revolutionized the role of former president.

But I'm just trying to kind of correct but I'm just trying to kind of correct the balance here and end this notion that he was a lousy president, which is just not true.

Judy Woodruff: Jon Alter.

The book is "His Very Best," of course, a play on Jimmy Carter saying when he was running for president, why not the best? It's "His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life," a big contribution to our study of this presidency.

Thank you, Jon.

Jonathan Alter: Thanks, Judy.

Judy Woodruff: And I came to Washington to cover his presidency. And the book is very much worth reading.

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