A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety
By Jimmy Carter
Simon & Schuster
239 pages, $28
By Edward Cuddihy
Historians have a name for it: Burnishing your legacy. It is not a modern phenomenon. Thomas Jefferson did it. Ulysses S. Grant was famous for it. Winston Churchill raised it to an art form. Even Julius Caesar did it.
Now at 90 years of age, one-term President Jimmy Carter has added a finishing polish to his already sterling reputation in a little book, fittingly entitled “A Full Life.”
The latest of more than two dozen books – even Carter has lost count – “A Full Life” is understated like the man, always warm and human, and in a few instances, even inspirational.
Carter has published whole books which delve deeply into one or more of his notable accomplishments or failures during the White House years, and has included in them detailed explanations of his thinking and motivation. This book is not one of them, nor was it meant to be.
This book is a smorgasbord, snippets and dabs of a truly full life from a childhood in the rural Deep South to the Georgia statehouse to the White House, and then 34 years as a highly active ex-president and often self-appointed goodwill ambassador.
For those too young to remember, former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter came out of nowhere in 1976 to salve a pained and weary nation following the double whammy of Richard Nixon’s resignation in shame and Gerald Ford’s questionable full pardon of his predecessor.
The soft-spoken former farmer, submarine officer and peanut warehouse owner from Plains, Ga., had the brains, the instincts and the heart for the job, but lacked the political clout to be president of the United States. His advisers were neophytes to the Washington power scene, as was he. The voters turned him out of office after four years in favor of Ronald Reagan.
Carter doesn’t overwhelm his readers with the details of world events in this volume. It is a broad-brush look in simple prose at an overachieving nonstop dynamo of a man, who has continued to toil relentlessly for his ideals, long after his political time has passed.
It is a quick read with little complexity, concentrating on the human element of the man and the people he came to like or dislike, trust or distrust. And yes, he names them. Carter can be self-effacing even while persistently detailing his accomplishments and those of his wife and partner Rosalynn.
At times, the reader pines for more detail – a little more guts and thunder – but Carter never devotes more than a few pages to any single topic.
He covers his two brushes with death while a naval officer on a nuclear submarine in a few sentences. His interview with then-Capt. Hyman G. Rickover and the legendary officer’s probing questions merit slightly more space.
Even his recollections of the Camp David Accord he engineered between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat deal almost exclusively with the two men’s distinctive personalities. It’s not the famous handshake Carter recalls as the magic moment. It’s Begin’s spontaneous recitation of the Gettysburg Address while standing on the very spot where Abraham Lincoln stood that burned itself into the Carter memory.
Incidentally, while the public remembers the Camp David Accord as a highlight of his presidency, he writes that his greatest lasting contribution was not Camp David, but the normalization of relations with China.
Some candid observations from the White House years include his blaming of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy for delaying a national health program for three decades on the flimsy grounds the Carter plan did not go far enough. He notes wryly that Kennedy, a few months after sabotaging his health plan, announced he would seek the White House himself instead of backing Carter’s re-election bid.
Carter also is critical of the Washington Post coverage of the Three Mile Island disaster, the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history.
“I called the Post executives to correct their mistake,” he writes, “but they were undeterred in their crusade to frighten as many people as possible.” The clear implication is that the Post was too full of itself in the years after Watergate to listen to a mere president, even if this president had some expertise in nuclear reactors.
Carter returns often to the theme that he, influenced heavily by his mother Lillian, was highly sympathetic to the plight of the African-American. It is as if he is compelled to answer criticism from the left that he didn’t do enough to follow President Lyndon Johnson’s lead on civil rights.
One of his revelatory anecdotes is his disclosure that the Washington press corps of the late ’70s hadn’t the faintest notion what he meant when he described himself as a born-again Christian. But he doesn’t explain beyond saying he didn’t have divine visions or daily instruction from heaven.
A humorous White House moment was the sight of him, the most powerful man in the Western world, and famed concert pianist Vladimir Horowitz, both on all fours in the East Room, unrolling Oriental rugs to cover the highly polished floors before a recital, while bemused White House aides and Rosalynn looked on aghast.
Much like John Quincy Adams, Carter’s legacy will be built on the 30-plus years after he vacated the White House. But unlike Adams, Carter’s accomplishments have not been as a government official, but as a private citizen operating on the edges of government, often without the support of the White House.
His work and the work of the Carter Center in the areas of world peace, Third World health and poverty, and homelessness in the United States obviously are how the 39th president wishes to be remembered in the next generation’s history books. And he might have added: Don’t forget the Nobel Peace Prize.
He chides most presidents who followed him for their bad judgment, and for valuing politics over the needs of the nation and world community. But even here, he treads softly, often like a father chastising a mistaken child. The president he judged to be a genuine human being was Gerald Ford.
After citing just about everything he wishes to be remembered for, Carter sums up his very full life with these words:
“It seems, at least in retrospect, that all the phases of my life have been challenging, but successful and enjoyable. … I am at peace with the accomplishments, [and] regret the unrealized goals.”
Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.