I just finished reading His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life by Jonathan Alter. This a biography about Jimmy Carter, the thirty-ninth president of the United States. Here are a few of my thoughts relating to the book.
Much of what formed Jimmy Carter’s personality came from growing up in the center of the Jim Crow South, Plains, Georgia. He grew up on a farm without electricity or running water. The detail of the information in this book is astounding. Jonathan Alter was fortunate to have access to the 2017 posting of twelve million additional pages of recently declassified documents on the CIA Records Search Tool (Crest) system. This included declassified minutes of key National Security Council meetings.
Carter’s message was integrity and decency. After the Nixon scandal, his notion of wanting “a government as good as its people,” was a welcome message. I am sure it was hard to get that message across, especially as the media was more focused on Carter’s colorful family than on what he was accomplishing for the country.
Miss Lillian, Carter’s mother, had celebrity status and was a favorite guest on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. You can watch the June 1979 interview with Johnny and Lillian on YouTube. It is quite evident that Johnny adored talking to this gracious southern lady. Lillian’s career was in nursing. It is impressive that she joined the Peace Corps at age 68. She worked in India with patients who had leprosy.
Gloria Carter Spann was the second daughter of Lillian and James Earl Carter, Sr. She was best known as a motorcycle enthusiast and the first women inducted into the Harley-Davidson’s 100,000 Mile Club. Out of all the Carter siblings, she managed to stay out of the media spotlight the most.
Ruth Carter Stapleton was the third of four children in the Carter family. She was well known as a Christian evangelist. Ruth was quite involved in Jimmy Carter’s political campaigns. Her celebrity and ability to motivate her supporters was an incredible help to the campaigns.
Billy Carter, Jimmy’s younger brother, also had celebrity status, his due to outlandish public behavior. I remember Billy Beer from the period Carter was in office. Carter always supported Billy, even as Billy created embarrassing situations during his political career.
A terribly sad family trait is the predominance of pancreatic cancer, taking Carter family members at a noticeably young age. Father, James Earl Carter, Sr., died of pancreatic cancer at age 58 in 1953. Carter siblings that died of the same cancer: Gloria Carter Spann at age 63, Ruth Carter Stapleton at age 54 and Billy Carter at age 51.
I was surprised to learn of Jimmy Carter’s feelings on the separation of church and state, especially with his strong Christian background. His break from the Southern Baptist Convention was brought about when ultra conservative leaders turned the SBC into a political organization in the 1980’s. Harry S. Truman was also a big proponent of separation of church and state. If you enjoy reading about U.S. presidents, I highly recommend reading The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World by A.J. Baime.
The acceptance speech that Jimmy Carter gave at the 1976 Democratic Convention resonates in the current political climate:
“Our Country has lived through a time of torment. It’s now a time for healing.
We want to have faith again!
We want to be proud again!
We just want the truth again!”
As stated in the book, the theme was how to recover from the “moral decay [that] has weakened our country.” Of the 782 pages in this book, this speech stood out more than any other section. Our country in 2020 is so divided and in need of healing. Post-Watergate (Nixon) era, people lost faith in the U.S. government. I recall the division of the population during the Vietnam era. 2020 feels remarkably like that period. I am hopeful for 2021. In 2020, we have the added stress and insecurity of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Carter did not have anything like that to contend with. COVID-19 vaccines have started to arrive throughout the country. Medical staff dealing directly with COVID-19 patients are the first to be inoculated. I look forward to getting together with friends and family this time next year, without the worry of getting infected.
Carter believed in peace, human rights, the environment and ethics in government. A main issue in accomplishing these ideals, he truly was not a politician. The basic premise of playing well with others seemed to have alluded him.
Another big surprise to me after reading the book, Carter was much tougher, rigid, intelligent, and more complex than I had viewed him. He truly was an underrated president.