Was Jimmy Carter the Most Underrated President in History?

The White House Years
By Stuart E. Eizenstat
999 pp. Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press. $40.

Shortly before Ronald Reagan was inaugurated in January 1981, one of his aides drafted a memo recommending that he invite his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, for a meal at the White House. “Ultimately, while the American people overwhelmingly rejected President Carter,” the memo said, “they continue to like Jimmy Carter personally.”

I found the memo during archival research recently, a reminder of a time when Carter loomed large in our national life. He was the down-home, jeans-wearing peanut farmer with the infectious grin who promised to heal the country after Watergate only to be brought down by a miserable economy and a hostage crisis that overwhelmed him. He was a populist outsider promising to make America great again long before someone else claimed that mantle. The memo got it right: Americans did reject him, but they also liked him personally.

Today, most Americans are too young to remember Carter’s presidency firsthand and know him more for his active post-presidency, appreciating his energetic, Nobel Prize-winning efforts to help the downtrodden, monitor elections and search for peace in the darkest corners of the planet. He has gone too far for some, particularly with his criticism of Israel. But while many in both parties consider Carter a failed president, they generally view him as a model former president.

Stuart E. Eizenstat argues that it is time to re-evaluate his four years in the White House too. Carter may seem like a transitional figure between scandal-tarred Richard M. Nixon and venerated Reagan, but in “President Carter: The White House Years,” Eizenstat makes the case that the 39th president changed the course of the country for the better.

“He has more than redeemed himself as an admired public figure by his post-presidential role,” Eizenstat writes. “Now it is time to redeem his presidency.”

Eizenstat is no neutral arbiter. A fellow Georgian, he joined Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign and became his White House domestic policy adviser. He is an unabashed admirer who in judging Carter against his presidential peers deems him “one of the most consequential in modern history.”

Indeed, he opens with a burst of excess, contending that Carter’s accomplishments outpace not just those of fellow one-term presidents like Herbert Hoover and Warren G. Harding but also the more highly regarded John F. Kennedy and George H. W. Bush. He goes further, asserting that Carter’s record outshines those of two-termers like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Few historians would go so far.



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