cover image The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter

The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter

Kai Bird. Crown, $38 (784p) ISBN 978-0-451-49523-5

The 39th president stood apart for “challeng[ing] the myths of American innocence and American exceptionalism,” according to this admiring biography. Pulitzer-winning historian Bird (The Good Spy) discerns much positive achievement in Carter’s one-term presidency, including airline deregulation that made flying cheap; prescient energy policies that boosted domestic energy supplies and solar power; human rights initiatives that “played a role” in Latin America’s trend toward “popularly elected regimes” in the decade after he left office; and the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement. (The book’s centerpiece is a gripping recap of Carter’s wranglings with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin—whom Carter privately called “a psycho”—at Camp David.) Among the factors that contributed to Carter’s downfall, Bird examines his fixation on taking the morally and intellectually correct stance, despite political realities; his insistence, especially in his infamous “malaise” speech, that Americans recognize limits to prosperity and global power; and the contradictions between his Southern populism and his racial progressivism, as well as between his liberal socioeconomic commitments and his deficit hawkery. Bird skillfully paints Carter as a mix of genuine idealism and “clear-eyed ruthlessness” behind a folksy facade, and shrewdly analyzes the forces of stagflation, deindustrialization, and U.S. imperial decline—capped by the Iran hostage crisis—that hobbled him. The result is a lucid, penetrating portrait that should spur reconsideration of Carter’s much-maligned presidency. Agent: Gail Ross, Ross Yoon. (June)