Why Jimmy Carter Was an Outlier: Kai Bird Talks to ‘New York Times’ Journalist Sam Roberts About His Praised New Biography of the 39th President

Kai Bird and his book, "The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter"

The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter, a new presidential biography of the 39th president by Kai Bird, executive director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the Graduate Center, was published this month to critical praise. Timothy Naftali, writing for The New York Times, called it an important book that “explains why American presidents continue to learn as much from President Carter’s mistakes as from his many achievements.”

On June 15, 2021, the day of the book’s release, Bird, who previously won the Pulitzer Prize for his co-authored biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, spoke to author and New York Times journalist Sam Roberts about the biography and his assessment of Carter’s presidency, as part of the Leon Levy Center’s spring events series. 

We share here excerpts from their in-depth conversation, which you can watch in full on YouTube

Sam Roberts: With all the other biographies you did, why Jimmy Carter? Why did he seem like such a compelling subject?

Kai Bird: I first got interested in Carter in 1990. I had just finished my first biography of John J. McCloy, the Wall Street lawyer. And in that book, I'd had to write a long chapter about the Iran hostage crisis. And it inevitably compelled me to write about Jimmy Carter, because he was the president during the hostage crisis.

When I was a young man in my 20s as an assistant editor at The Nation, Jimmy Carter was president, and I thought he wasn't liberal enough. Like a lot of Nation people, I think. And yet, here he was in his ex-presidency doing a lot of interesting things with the Carter Center.

So I told my mentor, Victor Navasky, that I was thinking of doing Carter as a presidential biography. And he said, well, the way to organize and to explore this idea is to go down to Atlanta and do a magazine article for me on what Jimmy Carter's doing with his ex-presidency.

I did that and I came away after two weeks, I wrote the piece. It was a nice cover story about all the fabulous things he was doing. But I came away from that experience thinking that it was too early, and perhaps I was the wrong person to do Jimmy Carter. I didn't understand the South. I didn't understand race. I didn't understand Southern Baptist. And it made me think, maybe I should wait.

And I went on to do other things. But I was always curious about Carter. He seemed to be an enigma. I didn't know what made him tick. And finally, in 2015, several books later, I came back to this subject.

Roberts: Kai, you said that because you didn't understand the South back then, you approached this like a foreign correspondent. What did you mean?

Bird: Well, if I had had my druthers, I would have moved down to Plains, Georgia, and spent two or three years trying to figure out the culture and the history of South Georgia, where he came from. But I couldn't persuade my wife to do that.  She was unwilling to live in Plains, which is still a population of about 650 people.

But I did what biographers do. I dug into the archives and spent a total of probably five solid months in the presidential library. I interviewed scores of people, including Carter, and really dug into it.

And I have to say, Carter was a difficult interview. He was polite and trying to be helpful, but he wasn't very much interested in the project because his focus these days is on the Carter Center and wiping out Guinea worm disease and bringing peace to Syria and things like that.

But in my very first interview, I was fortunate enough to ask him one pertinent question. I asked him, “Where are the papers of Charlie Kirbo, your personal lawyer? Because I don't see them in the archive.” And his eyes, his bright blue eyes, lit up. And he says, “Well, that's curious. Charlie wrote me all the time, memos and letters. And he was my closest friend from 1962 on.”

He turned to his aide and said we have to investigate this. And indeed, three days later, I got a phone call, and they had found five boxes of the Charlie Kirbo papers in the attic of his widow's house.

About six months later, I was allowed to have free access to everything in those five boxes. And it was a rich source of material. 

Roberts: You say the defining mystery of Carter was his childhood. How he nevertheless was molded into something quite alien from his South Georgian, racist culture. Well, what's behind that mystery? How was he molded?

Bird: That was the real mystery about, how could a Southern White boy raised in a tiny hamlet in South Georgia in the 1920s and ’30s with a father who believed in white supremacy, who believed in segregation, how did he escape from that? How did he come out as a young man going to the Naval Academy, already willing to treat African Americans as equals?

The mystery I think is solved in part by knowing a little bit about his mother, Miss Lillian, the very colorful, talkative Miss Lillian. Some of us know from her appearances on Johnny Carson and some of the other talk shows where she was famous for her one-liners. But Miss Lillian was a Southern eccentric woman. And there is room in Southern culture for that tradition. The women in particular could be a little offbeat, a little off territory, and she was tolerated.

Everyone knew in Plains that she had a different attitude about African Americans, and that she would attend church, but sometimes not. And she would drink her bourbon late at night. And she would allow young Jimmy Carter to play with his African American neighbors who were his only child mates. So this is a young boy who is completely comfortable in African American culture.

As a teenager, he became profoundly uncomfortable with his knowledge of the racial divide, of the segregated society. And it rankled him. So this is the source of Jimmy Carter's social liberalism. 

Roberts: The book is called The Outlier. What's the difference between an outlier and an outsider?

Bird: An outsider simply describes someone who is outside the circle. An outlier is someone in my mind that implies something more. He is consciously choosing a different path.

And this is Jimmy Carter. He is a guy who without a doubt is the hardest working president we've had in the 20th century, and probably the most intelligent and well-read. He knew, in any setting, he was probably the smartest guy in the room. And he wasn't afraid to take sort of outlier positions if he thought that was the right thing to do.

Roberts: You quote Walter Mondale as saying Carter thought all politics was sinful. Could you be a president thinking that all politics is sinful?

Bird: Well, maybe not, because after all, he didn't get reelected. But this is the other paradox about Jimmy Carter.

After all, he did come from nowhere to win the White House and he was relentless. He knew exactly what was necessary politically to do to win those primaries, to defeat Mo Udall and the other more liberal challengers as such in the Democratic primaries in 1976. And he was ruthless.

But the mystery is, coming back to your question, how could he be in the White House and regard politics as sinful?

Well, I argue in the book that in the ’60s, among many other books that he read, he read Reinhold Niebuhr. It's odd that he would be influenced by a liberal Protestant theologian from the East Coast establishment as such, but he was very much attracted to Niebuhr's argument that the world is a sinful place and that it needs to be mended. And that politicians in particular, and leaders in the communities, need to use their positions of power to do good.

But you need to achieve power to be able to do good. So this allowed Carter to meld his ambition with his religiosity.

Roberts: You point out a whole litany of accomplishments that I think lots of people, myself included, forgot. But then you say many of his proudest accomplishments were political losers, and therefore, he sort of is looked upon as a failed president, a failed presidency, in large part because he didn't get reelected. Why wasn't he able to capitalize on those accomplishments? And why did he lose so badly?

Bird: Well, first of all, that 1980 election was closer than people remember. The polls were actually within five percentage points up until two weeks, 10 days before.

But to answer your question, when he got into office, he did what he thought was the right thing. He tackled the toughest issues and often alienated his own political constituency.

He won the evangelical vote in 1976 by 75%, 80%, but he lost it by a landslide in ’80. 

Well, what had happened? He had alienated evangelical Christians by insisting on a separation of church and state, and insisting that white academies in the South that were popping up so that evangelical Christians could send their kids to all-white academies could not get tax-exempt status as educational institutions.

This was something that really alienated evangelical leaders who turned against him. Jerry Falwell, and the Moral Majority, which was just getting started, went out and campaigned hard against him.

He did the same thing with Jewish Americans, who voted 72%, 75% of them in ’76 for Jimmy Carter. And he lost a majority of them. He only won about 45% in 1980. This was despite the fact that he had done Camp David, he brought Anwar Sadat from Egypt and Menachem Begin of Israel together in those famous 13 days at Camp David, and forged a peace settlement.

But he then proceeded to try to hold Menachem Begin's feet to the fire over the question of a freeze on settlements in the West Bank. And this was regarded by Jewish American leaders as an egregious act of pressure against Israel. And there was a whispering campaign that Jimmy Carter, well, he'd done Camp David, but he was anti-Israeli. And in fact, he was just fearful that Israel, by building settlements in the West Bank, was going to make a long-term, permanent peace process impossible. And of course, we're living with those consequences today.

Roberts: Let me ask you about Camp David a minute. Did Begin lie to Carter about the settlements?

Bird: Well, that's a very contentious issue. And most historians who've looked at this have tried to argue that, well, there was a misunderstanding. Carter didn't actually pin it down. And Begin never would have agreed to a five-year freeze of the settlements. I argue based on the diaries and the memos and Carter's own belief and Carter's own, you know, this is a man who pays attention to details. He's a former engineer who famously managed every little detail and read 300 pages of memos every day in the White House and spent 12 hours a day working.

He believed that he had gotten Menachem Begin to agree to a five-year freeze of all settlement activity in the West Bank. And there was a separate letter that said this. And Begin at the last minute substituted a different letter. And this was after they had already scheduled the White House ceremony announcing the Camp David Accords, and Carter and Stu Eizenstat and the other aides believed that they were going to get the letter. It never came.

Carter believed that he had been deceived. And he told his aides that he thought that Begin had lied to him. And I think he had good reason to believe that he lied to him.

Roberts: He was a guy who you point out, few of his predecessors or successors could boast that they had not lied, that they had not broken the law, they had not taken the country to war. So why was his presidency viewed as a failed presidency?

Bird: The easy answer is that he didn't win reelection, and, by not winning reelection, he ushered in decades of conservative, neo-conservative, political trends. And so that sort of cemented his position as that tipping point towards a conservative era.

But with the passage of time, it's quite extraordinary to look actually at what Carter accomplished. He had Democratic control of both the House and the Senate, and he passed a lot of legislation, everything from deregulation of natural gas to deregulation of the airline industry that allowed middle-class Americans to fly for the first time in large numbers. He got through seat belts and airbag regulations that saved 9,000 lives at least every year in America.

And on foreign policy, the list is really quite astonishing. He passed the Panama Canal Treaty and negotiated the SALT II arms control agreement. He normalized relations with China. He passed the first major immigration reform in several decades. He made human rights the center of American foreign policy, not only in a symbolic way, but in a way that couldn’t be ignored, even by his more conservative successors. So his presidency is actually quite consequential.

Roberts: Did he have a tin ear in some respects?

Bird: Part of the reason that Carter was so perplexing to many Americans was that precisely the fact that he was a Southern man. And Carter did nothing to sort of woo the Georgetown set. He routinely turned down dinner invitations from Katharine Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post. And he wasn't the kind of guy who felt comfortable going to a Georgetown cocktail party. He thought that was a waste of time. And so he then set himself up to sort of exacerbate his image as a Southern Georgia bumpkin.

And the political cartoonists had a field day making fun of his accent, his looks, his dress, and his Georgia boys, Hamilton Jordan and Jody Powell, who were sort of in-your-face, Southern white boys who were defiant against the norms of the Washington establishment.

Roberts: The ex-president did a lot of monitoring of elections in other countries around the world when he left office. Did he say anything at all about the 2020 election here? And whether he thought that President Trump went absolutely overboard in saying it was an unfair election?

Bird: Carter has released a statement saying that the election was fair, and he's actually quite happy with the election of Biden who was an old political ally, the first senator to endorse him for president in ’76. And he was very unhappy with Trump, but he’s had a long history of, going back several decades now, about complaining about the nature of American election laws and campaign finances. He’s even questioned whether America is on the road to no longer becoming a certifiable democracy, because not enough people are voting, and money is controlling the process to a degree that makes it undemocratic.

Roberts: You quote Tony Lewis as saying that Carter rechanneled an authentic modern voice of that old American strain populism. How does that populism differ from the populism people feared in the last election?

Bird: There is right-wing populism and left-wing populism. And Jimmy Carter was certainly a populist in the Southern tradition of progressive populism.

He came from this small town, as we all know, Plains, Georgia, but he was actually quite privileged in his growing up. His father owned several thousand acres of farmland. The Carters were probably among the richest residents of Plains.

And by the time Carter ran for president, his peanut warehouse operation was really a small agricultural business, not just a peanut farm, and it was worth several million dollars. He had a small businessman's notion, or sort of prejudice against corporate America. And he had a suspicion of wealthy Americans and wealthy corporations getting tax breaks.

He tried very hard as president to introduce tax reform and failed. And his diary is filled with acerbic comments about this, about the opposition he encountered from liberal congressmen, who scuttled his efforts at real tax reform.

So he was a populist, but he also was a fiscal conservative. He had a suspicion of deficit funding. He didn't understand Keynes. He really was deathly afraid of federal deficits. And in the 1970s, when the country was struggling with stagflation, he was very concerned about inflation. And he thought that there was a relationship between federal deficit spending and inflation. So he was a populist, but he was concerned about good government and zero-based budgeting.

This was perplexing to standard East Coast liberals who didn't understand why he was so opposed to pork barrel spending.

Roberts: The Outlier is subtitled The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter. By now, almost 97, has he finished it?

Bird: He would argue no, that his work is undone. That he sort of used the Carter Center as an extension of his presidency. He's trying to still bring peace to the Middle East and solve the Syrian civil war. And he still is really concerned about Israeli-Palestinian peace, and also healthcare issues in the third world and Africa, Guinea worm disease, and other diseases.

These are all issues that he was concerned about when he was president. And I think he regrets that he wasn't reelected, because he thinks he could have gotten a lot more done during the second term.

And I think in retrospect, I liked the subtitle, not only his attitude but it explains the rest of his life too, which was sort of an unfinished presidency where he's carrying out his good works.

Listen in on the CUNY Book Beat podcast with Kai Bird

Submitted on: JUN 24, 2021

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