Zelizer (History and Public Affairs/Princeton Univ.; Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security—From World War II to the War on Terrorism, 2009, etc.) insightfully examines the 39th president.
Jimmy Carter’s presidency, from 1977 to 1981, is often portrayed by historians as a failure. In this brief biography, the author acknowledges Carter’s shortcomings as president, but he points out the largely forgotten fact that he was enormously popular during his first year in office. With the Watergate scandal still fresh, the American people were looking for a change, an anti-Nixon; in many ways, Carter fit the bill perfectly. Carter’s outsider status—he was a relatively young governor of Georgia, untainted by national politics—worked to his advantage, particularly during his presidential campaign. He was a moderate but idealistic Democrat who was uncomfortable with ideological labels, and was willing to take on the establishment to do what he thought was right. But some of these very same qualities worked against Carter when he took office. He often found it difficult to compromise and struggled to muster the support of his own fractious Democratic Party, let alone Republicans. At the same time, the seemingly intractable hostage crisis in Iran, soaring oil prices and the troubled economy would have presented huge challenges to any president. Zelizer points out that although his few major achievements in office were impressive—in particular, the brokering of a peace between Egypt and Israel and the creation of a comprehensive, conservation-based national energy policy—Carter’s style of antiestablishment leadership simply didn’t translate well to Washington, resulting in a chronic inability to get things done. But once he left office, his fearless determination to do the right thing led to his greatest successes: in particular, his founding of the Carter Center, an independent diplomatic institution that has successfully monitored elections around the world, and his charitable work building houses with Habitat for Humanity.
In just 150 pages, Zelizer manages to effectively analyze how Carter’s personality has led him to both failure and success.