Staff Pick: The Unfinished Presidency

A Historical Reflection on the Rise of Jimmy Carter

The Unfinished Presidency

by Douglas Brinkley

(Penguin Books)

If you're lucky enough to become a former U.S. president at the relatively young age of 56, what do you do with the rest of your life? If you're Jimmy Carter, your world-changing deeds have only begun.

In The Unfinished Presidency, Douglas Brinkley chronicles the life of our 39th president between the years 1981 (when he departed the White House, having lost his campaign for a second term to Ronald Reagan) and 1997, when he was still five years shy of winning the Nobel Peace Prize. The book is less biography — with all the closed-door access and thought supposition endemic to the genre — and more a historical reflection on what amounts to the rise of a global peacemaker and disease-fighter.

Carter's presidency suffered as much for the pressures of that era as for the decisions of the president himself. A fuel crisis, unrest in the Middle East (sound familiar?), and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan created a hornet's nest of national discomfort that the soft-spoken, cardigan-wearing Carter — however intelligent and capable — was simply not able to calm.

But upon returning to his native Georgia, Carter's energy was immediately devoted to the kind of international outreach that led to the highlight of his presidency, the 1978 Camp David summit with Egypt's Anwar Sadat and Israel's Menachem Begin. In Carter's eyes, why was an Oval Office necessary to promote human rights and the correspondence between bickering — even warring — factions?

Brinkley's book is eminently readable, as it follows a chronological, chapter-by-chapter format that shifts focus from one Carter challenge to another. Monitoring elections in Panama, Nicaragua, and Haiti, Carter is shown to be the personification of democracy, or at least the ideals Americans like to associate with the concept. Fighting guinea worm disease in Africa, Carter is placed in locales no previous president could have been pictured, during or after his time in office. (When you read the statistics that account for the near-eradication of that horrid disease, you appreciate how a single man — and the efforts his international weight can influence — can save thousands of lives.)

The most delicate pages of The Unfinished Presidency are those that tell of Carter's close relationship with Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader reviled by Israel and most of the American establishment for his connections to terrorism in the name of a sovereign Palestinian state. Carter's empathy for the Palestinian cause has long been a bone of contention in what amounts to the bloodiest conflict in modern Middle East history. But his friendship with Arafat (ironically, another Nobel Peace Prize winner) is the kind only a man as devout — both to his church and his own moral compass — as Carter might be brave enough to cultivate. Peace cannot be achieved, after all, until both sides of a conflict can reach agreement.

Carter proved to be a distraction to his successors. As a representative of the United States, but not always with the endorsement of the current administration, Carter had Reagan, George Bush, and Bill Clinton grinding their teeth at times, as official foreign policy somehow took its direction from a former peanut farmer doing and saying what he thought was right in the hottest pockets of the globe.

But that peanut farmer just happened to be a former president, too. Perhaps the finest former president this country has ever seen.

— Frank Murtaugh

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