• Jimmy Carter, A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety, Simon and Schuster, 2015, 257 pages, $28.
For many readers, the 1976-80 Carter administration may be unfamiliar, but in A Full Life, America’s 39th president, now 90 and suffering from cancer, may surprise even those who believe they know him well. The surprise emerges not in Carter’s poetry or painting, both sampled here, but in politics and economics.
His father, James Earl Carter, was “a libertarian at heart and deeply resented the intrusion of the federal government into his personal affairs.” The elder Carter opposed the New Deal agricultural programs “that required farmers to plow up part of their growing crops and to kill a portion of their hogs in order to qualify for ‘government relief’ payments.” Son Jimmy does not tell readers whether his father was justified in resenting this intrusion, and the libertarian inclinations evidently had little effect on the son.
As he explains, the Internal Revenue Service decided to audit his father’s income tax returns for a number of years, “demanding that I substantiate with written proof his claims that much of the income had been from the sale of timber instead of earned, and therefore subject to lower tax rates for capital gains.” Unfortunately, “it was impossible for me to prove the sources of all the income, and the resulting penalties took up most of the cash available in my father’s estate.”
Jimmy Carter, an outgoing Christian, does not render a clear moral judgment on this action. As president, he did not lead any charge for reform of the IRS, the most powerful and intrusive agency of the federal government. In A Full Life, Carter comments on current affairs, but the recent IRS targeting scandal escapes his moral vision. On the other hand, even sympathetic readers are likely to find him overly kind to himself.
“I became deeply involved in environmental issues by meeting challenges on our own land,” he explains. Black worshippers were not allowed in the Plains Baptist Church, but Carter says he objected to that policy. He also had a prophetic side.
“I saw the presidency as a way to accomplish specific goals that I considered important,” he says, and “decided four years in advance to be elected.” Fellow Georgian Dean Rusk, secretary of state in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, told Carter he should run in 1976. His Republican opponent was Gerald Ford, who “insisted, inexplicably, that the Soviet Union did not dominate any of the East European countries.” Actually, it did, and Ford confirms that no party holds a monopoly on fatuous statements. Carter made gaffes of his own, telling Playboy he lusted after women, but as one wag put it, after Nixon, Watergate, and Ford, few were going to vote against Jimmy Carter’s dentures and the Ten Commandments.
Carter says his first request to Congress was “to authorize me to simplify and streamline the federal government.” So the eager streamliner duly created two new cabinet-level entities, the departments of Energy and Education, which Carter says he wanted to be free of domination by teacher unions. He leaves out the fact that creating the Education Department was repayment for teacher union support during the 1976 campaign. He notes that Ronald Reagan promised to abolish the new departments but both survived. So no party holds a monopoly on the No Bureaucracy Left Behind policy.
Carter’s pick to represent the United States at the United Nations was Andrew Young, “a superb ambassador, who always supported freedom and human rights and I trusted him completely.” That will ring strange with readers who recall that Young proclaimed Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini a saint. On Nov. 4, 1979, as Carter notes, “American hostages were held captive by Iranian militants, supported by the Ayatollah Khomeini and his government.” A Full Life fails to explain that Iran held 52 American hostages for 444 days. The author devotes some attention to the failed rescue mission and its exploitation by Carter’s political opponents.
“Since I had refrained from exerting military force to punish the Iranians, the failure to secure the freedom of the hostages made me vulnerable to their allegations that I was an ineffective leader.” Many readers, whatever their political affiliation, are likely to arrive at that conclusion. As he explains, “I have never known what caused the Ayatollah to delay granting their [the hostages] freedom until I was out of office.”
The new tenant in the White House had something to do with it, but Carter is still at war with Ronald Reagan. Carter credits the end of the Cold War to Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost. No mention of Reagan’s anti-Communist stance, military buildup, or support for dissidents.
Those who believe Jimmy Carter one of the weakest presidents will find support in A Full Life. A good companion volume is Steven Hayward’s The Real Jimmy Carter, which makes a case that he was our worst ex-president. On that theme Carter adds evidence.
In Cuba, many families “are deprived of good income, certain foods, cell phones, access to the Internet, and basic freedoms, but they have access to good education and health care.” So much for the former president’s commitment to human rights. The Iranian regime, meanwhile, is now close to getting nuclear weapons. So what began as farce in 1979 could well repeat as tragedy, big time. But even if doesn’t, Carter says, the United States faces “an inevitable reduction in its relative global influence.” So, as in 1979, the malaise continues.
Lloyd Billingsley is author of the forthcoming Bill of Writes, a collection of journalism.