For Old Times’ Sake

Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President

by Jimmy Carter
Bantam Books, 622 pp., $22.50

Crisis: The Last Year of the Carter Presidency

by Hamilton Jordan
Putnam's, 431 pp., $16.95

In 1975, when his ambitions for the presidency were taken seriously mainly by his family and his staff, Jimmy Carter wrote a book called Why Not the Best? It was a campaign biography, but it was quite different from the norm. To begin with, it was the candidate’s own work, the result of drafts scratched out on lined pads in Carter’s small, neat script. It also went far toward revealing the candidate’s personality.

During the period of his public life in which he was politically most successful—the first six months of 1976, when he came from nowhere to win the Democratic nomination—Carter’s appeal depended on his personality, rather than on any specific policy he endorsed. In his ten-a-day appearances during those primary campaigns, Carter would establish the fact of his formidable abilities by handling an audience’s questions or sitting down for discussions in small groups.

In his speeches, he ticked off the inventory of his experiences, implying that their cumulative effect would define his performance in office. He was a farmer, a manager, a veteran, a father, a reborn Christian, and a lover of the outdoors. He had run a state government, he had “met a payroll”; he had spent much of his adult life in a tiny, remote town; he was a Southerner who understood his region’s defeat, agony, and redemption. As time went on, Carter was forced, like other candidates, to explain his positions on nuclear-power generation and the constitutionality of school prayer. But from his point of view, and no doubt that of many voters, these were details; the hope that his election expressed was that he would prove to be a decent, competent man.

Why Not the Best? was more effective than any other document in nourishing that hope. Carter described listening on the radio to the second Louis-Schmeling fight, at a time when Schmeling’s victory in the first fight was being taken as confirmation of Aryan superiority. Through the window, Carter saw a group of black people listening outside, on a radio attached to a car battery. After Louis’s devastating win they said, “Thank you, Mr. Earl,” to Carter’s father, who had let them use the radio—and then, once they had moved a respectful distance from the white man’s house, erupted into cheers. Could a man who remembered that scene fail to understand the hopes and hidden injuries that created racial tensions?

Carter told of his bitter early days at Annapolis, in which he would submit to every other form of hazing but not be made to sing the hated “Marching Through Georgia.” Would a man with that determination fail to stick to his guns in office? In the effort to describe his personality, Carter took steps that political dignity usually rules out, such as recounting his fears that he would fail to qualify for Annapolis because of his “last clinging drop” of urine. If this was artifice, it was artifice so sweeping as to give the impression of utter guilelessness.

Keeping Faith is…

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