Kai Bird: The Outlier (2021) | featured image

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Biographer Kai Bird Shows Former US President Jimmy Carter as a Man Ahead of His Times

Kai Bird’s biography argues that former US President Jimmy Carter was a prophet of uncomfortable truths who urged America to reevaluate its myths and thorniest problems.

The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter
Kai Bird
June 2021

“Carter is perhaps our most enigmatic president,” writes Kai Bird in the prologue to The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter. The book is part of a slate of recent works, including Carter presidential aide Stuart Eizenstat’s President Carter: The White House Years (2018) and journalist and historian Jonathan Alter’s His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life (2020) that have attempted to not only decode Carter but also demonstrate that he was a far more accomplished president than is generally thought.

The standard view of Carter’s presidency is familiar: a good man who failed as a chief executive only to become the best ex-US president of all time. Bird acknowledges Carter’s blunders in office, his stubbornness, and his sanctimoniousness while praising him as a president “ahead of his times.”

Carter, in Bird’s estimation, was an outlier in 1970s American politics. He was a white man born in the rural South in the 1920s who resisted racism. He was a non-doctrinaire Democrat who felt uncomfortable with labor and other core Democratic constituencies. He was a fiscal conservative and a committed social liberal, supportive of the civil rights and women’s rights movements. The Outlier is a fresh take on Jimmy Carter. It presents him as a flawed but confident and capable man who spoke hard, necessary truths to his fellow Americans and racked up numerous accomplishments in office. His one-term presidency (1977-81) was anything but a failure.

Echoing Alter’s perspective, Bird portrays Carter as an active, decisive president whose achievements have been severely underestimated. The conventional wisdom is that he was a tepid leader who was overwhelmed by the job, even though he posted numerous domestic and foreign policy victories. While Carter was certainly hamstrung by events largely out of his control—a terrible economy and the Iran Hostage Crisis, just to name two—and at times his stubbornness and political ineptness cost him politically, for Bird, the Carter presidency marks a vital attempt to reorient the United States away from both the largesse of New Deal liberalism, without descending into the heartless austerity of postwar conservatism, and the constrictive Cold War thinking that had downplayed concerns about human rights abuses by America’s anti-communist allies. For Carter, the United States represented a force for good in the world, but he did not place his faith in American exceptionalism. The country was not, as many conservatives like former president Ronald Reagan [1981-89] seemed to think, exempt from the tides of history. 

Bird argues that Carter’s southernness is integral to comprehending him. That may sound self-evident, yet Bird identifies Carter’s southernness as an essential part of his worldview. Bird devotes nearly a fifth of his text to describing Carter’s upbringing and political rise in his home state of Georgia. Carter’s background, explains Bird, enabled him to see America as a country stifled by its myths. Carter understood, as much as one supposes any white man could, the struggles of Black people, who have largely been excluded from the triumphalist narrative of American history.

He was also suspicious of the tendency of Americans to believe that they live in a country blessed by endless bounty, unlike other nations. In Carter’s southernness lay the roots of his critique of American exceptionalism, affirms Bird. As president, he spoke honestly to the American people about the need to acknowledge and embrace limits—on American global power, domestic energy consumption, and economic growth—even when it offered him little or no political upside. One of Carter’s most famous moments, the “malaise speech” of 15 July 1979, showed him “tilting against American exceptionalism” at a time when unemployment and inflation were spiraling out of control.

Surely, Bird’s language here is not accidental. There was something quixotic about Carter’s quest to convince the American people that a “crisis of confidence” was inhibiting their ability to deal with a vexing issue like the energy crisis. Amazingly, it worked, at least for a while. The speech was generally well-received and temporarily boosted Carter’s flagging approval ratings.

Bird also contends that Carter’s southernness is crucial to comprehending his political philosophy. Commentators in the ’70s and subsequent historians have struggled to classify Carter, who exhibited a combination of liberal and conservative impulses, which only made politicians and opinion-makers on both sides of the aisle suspicious of him. Where other scholars define Carter as an early New Democrat or neoliberal (a precursor to Bill Clinton or Barack Obama), or as a throwback to the good-government Progressives of the early 20th century, Bird classifies Carter as a “southern liberal”. The author does not clearly define the term, though he claims that, as a southern liberal, Carter was guided by a realistic and pragmatic political ethos that led him to question his party’s unflinching support of New Deal liberalism.

Carter’s agenda was ambitious, perhaps too ambitious. Bird writes that the new president favored working toward peace in the Middle East, organizing US foreign policy around human rights, pushing Americans to consume less energy and making the country less dependent on foreign oil, reforming welfare and the tax code (“a disgrace to the human race,” Carter called it), devising a national healthcare system, and deregulating certain sectors of the economy. On domestic matters, Bird credits Carter with an impressive environmental record, including actions that brought millions of acres of Alaskan wilderness under federal protection.

Carter’s first-year legislative success rate, Bird points out, was better than any president since Lyndon B. Johnson. But, especially early on, the Carter administration’s shotgun approach to sending up legislation to Capitol Hill could be counterproductive. Carter’s overall program was also sometimes confusing, Bird asserts. Carter’s contradictory impulses were evidenced, for example, in his attempt to keep the budget lean to fight inflation while proposing money for job training to combat unemployment. By 1979, Carter was fully committed to fighting inflation over unemployment, creating incredible hardship for working people, a tremendous downside to his presidency that Bird passes over quickly.

Carter’s hard-to-categorize political orientation baffled both conservatives and liberals. His “muddle” of energy policies satisfied few members of Congress. Liberals complained that the president had become deregulation-happy, while conservatives saw him as a populist declaring war on oil and gas companies. Bird returns repeatedly to the theme of Democratic and liberal dissatisfaction. Congressional Democrats, for instance, were initially thrilled to have one of their own back in the White House after eight years of Republican rule. Carter, however, defied their expectations, even if he went on to back much of their agenda.

They saw him as miserly, proposing tight budgets. (Bird concludes that Carter was wrong about the perils of deficit spending, which narrowed his policy options.) A supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment and other major goals of the women’s movement, Carter angered feminists by holding fast to his position that federal funding for abortion should be limited to instances in which the mother’s life was threatened or the pregnancy had resulted from rape or incest. Likewise, Ralph Nader, who found an ally in Carter on the issue of consumer rights, was not above criticizing the administration, even though Nader would never enjoy more influence over the White House than during the Carter years. 

Bird suggests that Carter might have put aside his knee-jerk hostility to liberals, particularly the more left-leaning ones, and found common ground with them through their shared populist ethos. On more than one occasion, Bird admits, Carter did his best to be reasonable and still managed to alienate the left wing of the party. For example, both Ted Kennedy and Carter supported a system of national healthcare. Kennedy’s plan favored an expensive, universal plan out of the gate. Carter proposed a phased-in approach, starting with a less costly catastrophic plan. Kennedy led the liberal opposition to it, and so, Carter would later complain, “We lost a good chance to provide comprehensive national health care, and another thirty years would pass before such an opportunity came again.”

Bird lays some of the blame for this failure on Carter for his inability to forge a compromise with the liberals. A miffed Kennedy went on to challenge Carter for the 1980 Democratic nomination. Carter staged a brilliant comeback against Kennedy, though as Bird notes, the drawn-out process, with Kennedy staying in the race long after he had any chance of winning, hurt Carter’s campaign and added to the perception that the president was weak.

Carter confounded and frustrated more than liberals during his presidency. Other members of the political establishment struggled to make sense of the outsider from Georgia. Congresspeople and other Washington elites were annoyed by Carter’s distaste for political horse-trading and backslapping; Carter preferred trying to convince hesitant legislators to support a bill on its merits alone. As other biographers have done, Bird shows that Carter’s southernness, his more than intermittent political tone-deafness, and his belief that he owed nothing to the Democratic and Washington establishments, did nothing to ingratiate him to many powerful and politically influential people whose support he desperately needed.

As with domestic politics, Bird resists the popular tendency to cast Carter as a feckless operator when it came to foreign policy. The author, in fact, praises Carter for decisively taking on a host of issues around the globe, many of them unpopular. This includes his efforts to finalize the SALT II treaty with the Soviet Union and his successful lobbying campaign for Senate approval of two treaties that initiated a process for turning over control of the Panama Canal to Panama.

Carter also incorporated a commitment to promoting human rights into US foreign policy, a decided shift away from the Richard Nixon-Henry Kissinger strategy of realpolitik. Critics like the nascent group known as neoconservatives called Carter naive, but his human rights strategy went beyond moral posturing; it increased pressure on the Soviet Union and other authoritarian countries to treat their people better. Bird could do more to point out that the policy was carried out unevenly, with important American allies like the repressive Shah of Iran getting a pass, while the Carter administration bore down on equally dictatorial regimes in Latin America, a playground for US meddling since the 19th century. Carter’s human rights focus and other foreign policy shifts frequently cost him politically. But he didn’t care. In his mind, they were the right thing to do and that is all that mattered. Bird considers these policy “departures” as indicative of Carter’s “resolute” brand of leadership.

So too was Carter’s decision in 1978 to bring together Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin for peace talks at Camp David. Most of Carter’s advisors thought it was a bad idea, with a high likelihood of failure. Carter did it anyway; his stubbornness, religiosity, granular knowledge of the issues, and his personal strength all led him, over 13 grueling days, to help hammer out the framework of an Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. The following year, Bird details, Carter flew to Egypt and then Israel, again against the advice of his top aides, to make sure that the resulting agreement between the two countries did not fall through.

Bird considers Carter’s work on the Camp David Accords and the resulting peace treaty as a marvelous example of the president’s statesmanship. Bird contends, too, that it constitutes a much greater achievement than Henry Kissinger’s oft-celebrated efforts in the Middle East earlier in the decade. Neither the Israeli-Egyptian treaty nor its implementation were perfect. Nevertheless, the agreement resulted in Israel withdrawing from the Sinai Peninsula, which it had seized from Egypt in the Six-Day War of 1967, and ensured peace between the two bitter enemies, who accepted provisions of mutual recognition, normalization of relations, and an end to the state of war between the two countries that had existed since 1948. Without Carter’s wisdom and doggedness, Bird claims convincingly, this “triumph” would not have happened.

Scholars commonly present the Carter administration’s foreign policy as a battle between the dovish Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and the hawkish National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. While partially true, Bird insists that Carter kept his own counsel when it came to making foreign policy decisions. The president, who was more closely aligned philosophically with Vance on most issues, repeatedly disagreed with Brzezinski, and Bird shows that Carter’s decision to keep the hard-line anti-communist on his staff was a major error.