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

Loyal to a Fault

Time and time again, Brzezinski urged bellicosity from Carter and erred by interpreting practically every issue through an oversimplified Cold War lens, clashing with Vance’s and Carter’s preference to continue Presidents Nixon and Ford’s policy of détente with the Soviet Union. When the USSR invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, Carter moved firmly to the right, much to Brzezinski’s delight. It was a gross overreaction, maintains Bird. He argues convincingly that the Soviet Union’s incursion was in fact an understandable reaction to events in the country, with the Kremlin only reluctantly intervening to replace a hardline Afghan communist leader who had seized control of the country the previous year with a more moderate choice to head off an Islamicist revolt. It proved to be a disastrous move, but it was not driven by Soviet adventurism.

Bird frames Carter’s decision to retain Brzezinski as national security advisor as another example of Carter remaining loyal to those close to him, even when it cost him dearly. Earlier in his presidency, Carter had hesitated to push out his close friend and embattled Office of Management and Budget director, Bert Lance, when Lance was accused of having engaged in financial impropriety as a banker in Georgia. One can admire Carter’s penchant for sticking by a friend and his refusal to do the politically expedient thing. But Carter’s tendency to ignore the political ramifications of a decision was stupefying. Bird illustrates how Carter never grasped that a president must sometimes make politically convenient decisions to protect their larger agenda.

Bird, of course, devotes a considerable amount of space to the Iran Hostage Crisis, Carter’s biggest foreign policy failure, an albatross that hung around his neck for the final 444 days of his presidency. Delving into the complicated history of Iran and the Islamicist revolution that overthrew a brutal, and longtime, American ally, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and installed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as supreme leader, Bird provides ample context for the disaster, which caught the Americans flat-footed.

Bird commends Carter’s restraint in trying to find a peaceful solution for getting the hostages home rather than going in with guns blazing, as many conservatives advocated. The author is particularly critical of David Rockefeller and Henry Kissinger, both friends of the shah, who spearheaded an irresponsible lobbying campaign to convince the Carter administration to allow the shah, who was in exile and dying of cancer, to enter the United States for medical treatment. Carter strongly resisted the idea (“Fuck the shah!” he exclaimed in the presence of advisors), though he eventually gave in. Soon after, Iranian students overran the American embassy in Tehran, taking dozens of US government personnel hostage. Khomeini endorsed the action after the fact, recognizing the political benefit of holding leverage over the hated America. 

Carter responded by making the resolution of the hostage crisis his focus. Bird criticizes the president for this, claiming that Carter should have figured out a quick end to the crisis or have stifled the publicity advantage that the Iranian government gained from the hostage-taking. It is difficult to comprehend how Carter might have pulled off such a trick. The story was catnip to the post-Watergate media. The long-running Nightline, after all, began as a program entitled The Iran Crisis–America Held Hostage, and this framing played into Americans’ sense that the country itself, especially after the defeat in Vietnam, was being held captive to powerful and incomprehensible groups and forces beyond their control, from the Iranian government to gas shortages.

It is hard to understand, then, how Carter might have calmed this “victim nation”, as historian Christian G. Appy has labeled the American people’s mentality during this era, and the hungry journalists who worked to fuel it. Bird is undoubtedly right, however, that Brzezinski, who gave Carter bad advice on Iran, made the situation worse. The author argues that the prolonged hostage crisis helped cost him the 1980 election. It is a standard claim, albeit one that historian Rick Perlstein has discounted in his 2020 book, Reaganland. Perlstein points to exit polling showing that Carter actually won by a two-to-one margin among voters who selected the hostage crisis as the most important issue in the election.

One of the most controversial aspects of the hostage crisis had nothing to do with the actions of the Carter administration. For decades, there has been speculation that in July 1980, Reagan campaign manager William Casey met with a representative of the Ayatollah Khomeini, a man named Ayatollah Mehdi Karrubi, in Madrid. In a 1992 deposition with congressional investigators, Jamshid Hashemi said that he and his brother, Cyrus, set up and attended meetings between Casey and Karrubi in Madrid. The Hashemi brothers had connections not only with the Khomeini regime, but also with the CIA.

According to Jamshid Hashemi, Casey told Karrubi that if the Iranians delayed the release of the hostages until after the election, Reagan, if he assumed the presidency, would treat the Iranians favorably, ensuring their access to military goods and their nation’s frozen assets. Bird asserts that Casey’s alleged negotiations with Harrubi marked the beginning of the Reagan team’s arms dealings with Iran, which would lead to the Iran-contra scandal several years later.

While a Congressional task force would exonerate Casey, Bird points to other evidence that Casey was in Madrid during the dates alleged by Jamshid Hashemi. Bird admits that he cannot prove conclusively that Casey committed a treasonous act (most likely, a violation of the 1799 Logan Act, which prohibits private citizens from negotiating with foreign powers), but the reader is left with the sense that Casey most likely did the deed. With Bird’s analysis of this “October Surprise”, as well as an incident in which the Reagan campaign helped prep their candidate for a debate with Carter using a briefing book stolen from the Democrats, it is impossible for the reader not to draw a sharp contrast between the rectitude and decency of Carter and his staff and the seediness and corruption of many of Reagan’s aides. 

In making his case for rehabilitating Carter’s presidency, Bird relies on a wide variety of sources, including new archival material. Alongside his own interviews with Carter and the president’s campaign and White House advisors, Bird makes use of published memoirs, Carter’s edited presidential diary, and a smattering of materials available at the Jimmy Carter Library in Atlanta.

Every biographer is anxious to showcase their new finds, so Bird draws liberally from unpublished diaries provided to him by two White House staffers, Landon Butler and Tim Kraft. But his most important find is the papers of Charles Kirbo, a prominent Atlanta lawyer whom Carter first met in the early ’60s when Carter was getting his start in Georgia politics. Though Kirbo was not on the White House payroll, he had the president’s ear, and frequently jetted into Washington for Oval Office meetings.

Prior to the appearance of his papers, the extent of Kirbo’s influence on the president had remained unclear. Bird, using Kirbo’s archives, which were sitting in the attic of Kirbo’s widow until Bird happened to ask Carter about them, sprinkles the narrative with new finds from the lawyer’s memos. For example, in the spring of 1977, Kirbo encouraged Carter’s populist instinct to challenge the business community by supporting doing away with a tax loophole that allowed companies to avoid paying taxes on overseas profits. More than two years later, Kirbo urged Carter to make a televised address about a trumped-up controversy over the presence of a detachment of Soviet troops in Cuba to keep the president’s pending arms limitation treaty (SALT II) with the USSR on track. Such insights improve our understanding of both Carter’s decision-making and Kirbo’s role in that process.

While Bird’s book is an excellent study of Carter’s presidency, it is not without its deficiencies. For example, in the introduction and early chapters, Bird highlights race as crucial to understanding Carter and his presidency, but the biography’s treatment of the presidential years falls short in substantiating that claim, as it largely passes over the administration’s actions regarding racial matters.

By the late 1970s, the civil rights movement had long since crested; Carter would sign no landmark civil rights bills. Still, it is odd that Bird tells the reader so little about the administration’s approach to race, other than Carter’s appointment of an unprecedented number of African Americans to federal judgeships. For instance, Bird sets aside just two paragraphs to the noteworthy decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), in which a sharply divided Supreme Court aligned with the administration’s position of supporting affirmative action while opposing racial quotas. Bird is completely silent on the administration’s ample use of set-asides, a type of affirmative action mandating that a certain percentage of federal contracts or funds be allotted to minority-owned businesses.

Finally, the author barely mentions the administration’s policies toward Africa, which historian Nancy Mitchell has argued in her book Jimmy Carter in Africa: Race and the Cold War (2016), were strongly influenced by US racial politics. To Bird’s credit, he does include a fascinating discussion of how the Carter administration hurt its standing in Black and Jewish American communities through its clumsy response to UN ambassador Andrew Young violating a misguided US government pledge not to negotiate with any representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

In some sections of The Outlier, Bird also could have provided more context for the social and cultural environment of the ’70s. This would have aided, for example, his discussion of Carter’s approach to issues like women’s rights. And aside from tracing the rising appeal of conservative principles in the late 1970s, a topic covered expertly by Rick Perlstein in Reaganland, Bird might have given the reader some sense of Carter’s understanding (or lack of understanding) of the shifting terrain of political thought during the era.

After a brief, perfunctory chapter on Carter’s life after the White House, Bird, in an epilogue, returns to the challenges faced by the president in the late ’70s. Bird describes the Carter years as a “tipping point” between the Rooseveltian liberalism that had dominated American politics since the ’30s to a Reagan-style conservatism that would favor tax cuts for the wealthy and deregulation for business and would accelerate the shift toward a neoliberal, globalized order. Bird groups these changes together with events like the developing world’s growing religious fundamentalism and enmity toward the West, which accompanied a slackening of the Cold War’s grip over geopolitics.

Bird mostly sees Carter as a “victim” of these changes. That is a fair point, though it should be said that some of Carter’s policies, such as deregulation and the war on inflation, often hurt workers and served as a bridge to the crueler world of Reaganomics.

Bird ultimately rejects the traditional narrative of the Carter presidency as a tragedy, in which a decent man was brought down either by events beyond his control or through his own incompetence. For Bird, the real tragedy was that Carter, despite some notable accomplishments, never got to advance his vision fully, one that included a serious, long overdue exploration of the limits of American power and resources. Instead, Bird articulates, voters rejected Carter in 1980, in part because his politics did not fit into a familiar political mold.

Bird’s Carter is a prophet, urging the nation to reevaluate its myths and to confront some of its thorniest problems. While Americans have mostly forgotten or misunderstood this aspect of Carter, Bird concludes that, 40 years after he left office, his presidency “now seem[s] all too relevant.” Putting aside the question of what lessons we should learn from his administration, thanks to The Outlier, we have a much clearer grasp of why Carter’s presidency, flawed as it was, mattered—and how it frequently succeeded.