The Unfinished Presidency

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Douglas Brinkley is director of the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans. Called “the best of the new generation of American historians” by no less an observer than Stephen Ambrose, Brinkley was well into the writing of the first installment of a three-volume biography of Jimmy Carter in 1994 when he realized that everyone he talked to was most interested in the post-presidential Carter, whose reputation had been transformed from “malaise-ridden loser” to that of global peacemaker and perennial Nobel Prize candidate. The Unfinished Presidency is Brinkley’s engrossing and revealing account of that transformation.

One of the things that clearly separates The Unfinished Presidency from a lesser telling of Carter’s post- presidential work, besides Brinkley’s engaging style, is the level of research that is woven seamlessly into every page of the book. Brinkley had direct access to the former president—including traveling abroad with him—and to his post-presidential papers and correspondence, much of the latter to and from world leaders. Brinkley also used the resources of the Carter Center and the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, both in Atlanta. Finally, the author conducted more than two hundred interviews with such diverse figures as Yasir Arafat, Gerald Ford, Octavio Paz, Shimon Peres, Colin Powell, and Ted Turner. Brinkley’s first-hand observations, passages from Carter’s personal diaries and correspondence, and timely and telling quotes from Carter’s colleagues, supporters, opponents, and the press grace the pages of the book and provide the reader with unusual insight and perspective.

Another factor that contributes to the success of Brinkley’s book is the nature of his subject. The Unfinished Presidency is not simply another book on a former president’s post-presidential activities, because the president in question—once code-named “Dasher” by the Secret Service because of his peripatetic nature—has proved to be anything but merely another former president. Rather than quietly retire to an estate, golf with the rich, and augment his personal income with speaking fees, Carter has tirelessly and very personally taken on a wide range of domestic and international problems, from housing for the poor, to the aversion of war, to world health—all of it under the umbrella concept of human rights. How many presidents, for example, in or out of office, would lead a busload of people, including his wife, from Georgia to New York to renovate an apartment building for a week, lead a church service en route, and then bunk with his co-workers so that a newlywed couple in the group could have the only private room? How many would choose to travel to Bosnia with his wife the week before Christmas, sleep on army cots in war-ravaged Sarajevo, and travel in an armored vehicle into the mountains to negotiate another country’s peace? How many would tour African villages to see first-hand the ravages of guinea worm disease, or personally vaccinate children in Bogota, Colombia? Little, it seems, has escaped the attention of this particular president emeritus; and little, as well, has he been unwilling to do, personally, to help.

It is Brinkley’s contention throughout his book that Carter’s dedication to making the world a better place for all who live in it, black or white, North or South Korean, Israeli or Palestinian, stems directly from his profound Christian faith and his dedication to Jesus Christ. As Brinkley writes, more than anything else, Carter is “a good Christian, an unashamed exemplar of the simple values taught in American Sunday school,” a man who identifies with the message and active, hands-on, on-site work of the Christian missionaries of the world, an “authentic religious man of principle,” who would agree with the words of William Penn with which Brinkley opens his book: “To help mend the world is true religion.” Carter’s life’s work, including and particularly that of his post-presidential years, is his Christian faith put into practice, his attempt “to help mend the world.” It is impossible to understand and appreciate Carter’s work, Brinkley contends, without understanding and appreciating his Christian motivation.

Brinkley begins his book on election day 1980 and pursues a generally chronological order thereafter. The “thereafter” is chock-full of Carter’s exploits as a “global citizen.” The disappointment of losing to Ronald Reagan may have sent Carter unexpectedly back to Plains, Georgia, but leaving the White House would ultimately send citizen Carter on to...

(The entire section is 1889 words.)