The Foreign Service Journal, January-February 2022
THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2022 89 A Decent and Honest Man The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter Kai Bird, Crown, 2021, $38/hardcover, e-book available, 784 pages. Reviewed by John Limbert Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and historian Kai Bird has written a vivid and readable account of what happened when a decent and honest American president encountered unsolvable problems and faced adversaries, foreign and domestic, who were bound by no concern for truth or honor. Bird’s portrait rings true, especially his picture of Carter as the anti-Nixon, the deeply religious son of South Georgia, and the child of a mother who taught him enlightened views of race and humanity amid the harsh realities of the American South in the 1930s and 1940s. Carter, like Bill Clinton, was a white Southern Democratic governor whom his party saw as its best hope to reverse Republican election victories gained via the party’s “Southern strategy”—exploit- ing the barely hidden racist reaction to the 1960s civil rights and voting rights legislation of Lyndon Johnson (another white Southern Democrat). Until Obama’s victory in 2008 (and Biden’s in 2020), these moderate white South- erners gave the Democrats a fighting chance for winning the White House. Although the author does not spend much time on Carter’s three years at Annapolis and seven years of active- duty Navy service, his narrative makes clear that the United States Naval Acad- emy’s values of “duty, honor, country” helped form the future president’s approach to public service and politics. With a few exceptions, the academy has not produced devious people. During the fiasco of Iran contra in the 1980s, many saw what emerged when a few academy graduates thought they were being crafty. To complete the picture of Jimmy Carter, readers of Bird’s book should also watch Barbara Kopple’s brilliant documentary film “Desert One” about the failed Iran hostage rescue mission of April 1980. In that film, they will hear the voice of the same Carter that Bird has described. As Carter listens to the mission—and as his chances for reelection as president literally go down in flames in the Iranian desert—he remains unfailingly calm and polite. At the end, facing failure and the tragic death of eight brave servicemen, he says only, “Thank you, General.” Bird shows us how Iran consumed the last two years of Carter’s presidency and, arguably, led to his defeat in the 1980 presidential election. He provides a clear picture of the chaos and igno- rance that swirled around the president during those years. It’s worth remembering that on Dec. 31, 1978, Carter was visiting Tehran and warmly saluted the shah, calling Iran “an island of stability in a turbu- lent region.” A year later Iran was in chaos, the shah had fled his country, and—con- trary to all expert predictions—power was about to fall into the hands of an aging Iranian cleric with no political experi- ence and no education outside an antiquated seminary system. Bird lets history speak for itself and shows us how so many got Iran wrong. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski’s Cold War, anti-Soviet obsessions blinded him to a more complex reality. Bird (p. 391) provides a telling (and depressing) excerpt from Carter’s diary: “[Ambassador to Iran] Sullivan thought we ought to permit Khomeini to take over and that it would lead to democracy. Huyser [Brzezinski’s man in Tehran] thinks it would lead to communism.” How wrong can everyone be? A sad observation on the president’s advisers. Bird’s overall judgment of Carter, in both foreign and domestic affairs, is more positive than the conventional wisdom that “he failed as president but is a great ex-president.” In the book’s epilogue (p. 622), Bird states: “In retrospect he [Carter] liked to quote Mondale, who had told him, ‘We obeyed the laws, we told the truth, BOOKS Bird lets history speak for itself and shows us how somany got Iran wrong.