Why Not the Best?
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1706
Jimmy Carter seems to have written Why Not the Best? in an attempt to convince us that he is actually the person that we want to believe in for the salvation of us all. This thought glimmers to the surface through the simple, unpolished writing style (by literary standards at least) that Carter uses. However, upon closer scrutiny, it becomes apparent that the author really believes in the image that he presents, and that he wants nothing more than to show the reader, as well as the American public, the light. As a philosophical mirror to the man, Carter’s work offers a window through which we can see the man and his beliefs at face value.
All politicians must have a campaign biography, especially in this advanced age of political commercialism, and, in this case, Carter has chosen to write his own life story. He takes us from his childhood and youth in Plains, Georgia, through his stint in the Navy’s nuclear submarine program, and back to Plains in an attempt to return to his roots to establish a political base. He then recounts all his handshaking, footsore treks across his home state on his way to the State House, his hopes and aspirations for the Presidency, and his solutions for all of our collective ills. It is a revealing journey.
In the beginning of his autobiography, Carter attempts to establish the tone of the journey he intends to take us on when he asks, Why can’t our government by the people, for the people, and of the people be “honest, decent, open, fair . . . compassionate . . . and competent?” An honorable question indeed; however, in order to understand the man who asks the question, we must first return to his home, back to his life as a child. The young Carter is presented as a hero-worshiper, a God-fearing boy, a youth with the thirst for knowledge of a Lincoln, the intelligence of a Kennedy, and the audacity of a Roosevelt or a Truman. Carter’s proselytizing of the American work ethic is quite convincing throughout the book, and his parallels are neither unintentional nor inaccurate. They serve to show that the boy James Earl Carter could strive, aspire, and ultimately achieve. As we can see from a historical retrospect, it has proven true; he has completed the cycle through to the White House.
In his early days as a farmboy in Georgia, Jimmy Carter was a student, a farmer’s helper, and a churchgoer. He alternately admired and feared his father, Earl, as a figurehead, and, more importantly, as a man. Earl Carter was respected in his community by divergent sectors: the white suburban farmer, afluent, as far as the times would allow; and, the poor, black sharecropper. “Mr. Earl” was to both groups a father-figure as well as a mentor; he was stern but compassionate. It was from his father that young Jimmy began to develop his aspirations; from him that he acquired the tenacity to survive, the will to achieve, and the perseverance necessary to acquire the knowledge to make it all work. However, it was not until much later in his life that he would find the precise words to describe his philosophy, in that particular phrase that was to become the catchword of the 1976 presidential campaign: “Why not the best?”
Despite a strict upbringing, Carter’s early years were not rebellious. He describes himself in his youth as diligent, a young schoolboy memorizing Bible passages to satisfy his thirst for knowledge of God and His creation. He tells the familiar story of passing into manhood, leaving behind the trappings of his youth and gradually gaining the wisdom that comes with increasing age. It is a Huck Finn journey of trial and tribulation leading through difficult decisions and malcontent among relatives.
If there is one feeling, one recurring theme in this autobiography, it is guarded altruism, which steadied his aspirations, tempered his dreams, organized his thoughts and actions, and, ultimately, carried him through to his final goal of the Presidency. Stemming from this reform-oriented altruism was his stern insistence on tackling the inequities of the system; his consistent attempts to bring into the open the activities of the behind-closed-doors decision-makers; and his desire to streamline the governmental bureaucracy.
This idealism first manifested itself in Carter’s tackling of the Certified Seed Organization in his home state. After becoming president of this organization, he rectified the inequities of the system, eliminated much unnecessary red tape for the small farmer, and set that government of agrarians on an equitable footing for all. For his efforts, he became a hero much like those he had admired as a child, and he proved to himself that he had the ability to move organizations, to change policies, and to represent the common man for the good of all. The stage was thus set for Carter’s role as spokesman for the common people. Grassroots politicking became standard procedure—his “see what I can do for you” approach, which would soon win him a seat in the Georgia State Senate. In all his campaigns, Carter would attempt to replace political catchwords, promises, and polemics with his frank, comfortable, believable offer of honesty, fairness, and straightforwardness in government.
His years in the Senate were formative ones. Having made a campaign promise of “reading every bill before voting on it,” Carter made good his word; he admits that he regretted making the promise, but that he never broke it during his four years in the Senate. It was also during these four years that an important idea took shape: If the elimination of the “many niches in which special interests could hide” worked on a State Senate level, then why not strive for the best and take on the entire state of Georgia? So, in spite of the overwhelming popularity of former Governor Carl Sanders in the 1970 election, and despite the urging of his closest friends and advisers not to run for the governor’s seat but to aim for the lieutenant governorship, Carter took on the fight for the State House. The decision was typical, in keeping with the self-disciplined philosophy of striving for the best, no matter what the outcome. Starting in the fall of 1966, Jimmy Carter spent four long, grueling years making “. . . about 1,800 speeches . . . and personally shaking hands with more than 600,000 people in Georgia.”
It was during this campaign that an important test of Carter’s philosophical standards took place. An Atlanta-based newspaper had published a seething condemnation of the “ignorant and bigoted redneck peanut farmer from Plains” and endorsed Sanders as the best, the only, candidate for Governor. Carter responded with a letter to the editor of the paper; that letter not only went unpublished, it went unacknowledged as well. At this point, Carter decided to utilize his time during the annual convention of the Georgia Press Association to read his unpublished rebuttal. Carter states in his book that this was a “mistaken and counterproductive action” on his part, but he felt that not to respond strongly to the attack would be to compromise himself. Therefore, despite the urging of his associates against his decision, Carter took on the entire fourth estate in Georgia; he simply could not stand by and let others railroad him into oblivion without the opportunity to defend himself. But, although this grandstanding did hurt him temporarily, in the long run it did not affect the outcome of the race. It did, however, have a definite effect later in the Democratic primary: in part because of the editorial, in part because of his blazing response, Carter lost a sizable portion of the black vote, as well as the financial support of many Atlantans. However, the general election went well, and a last minute campaign to get out and meet the people paid off for Carter; he won handily. Regarding Carter’s term as Governor, there are two very divergent stories. Carter’s version, of course, is one of streamlining, eliminating red tape, and returning the government to the people. The opposing version, heard often enough that it becomes important in any assessment of this book, was espoused most vociferously by former Lieutenant Governor Lester Maddox, and was echoed elsewhere throughout the State. It contends that Carter did nothing during his one-term office, that there was no such thing as zero-based budgeting in Georgia, that if anything, there was more red tape and more bureaucratic forms and figureheads than before. If one is to believe in the basic themes of Why Not the Best? such conflicting reports bear further investigation.
What emerges most strongly from this personal history is Jimmy Carter’s belief that we can have a government that is all-inclusively honest, decent, open, fair, compassionate, and competent—but only if we are willing to work for it. We must be willing to entrust a “new guard” of politician who is dedicated to striving for the good of all the people. According to Carter, the old concept that the people are in their homes and all’s right with Washington can no longer be tolerated; politics must be brought out from under its cloak of secrecy, out from behind its closed and sometimes locked doors. We can no longer accept the chasm that exists between our elected leaders and ourselves. Confidence can, and must, be restored through trustworthiness. We must appoint chairmanships and diplomatic posts on the basis of merit, not reward. And, no matter how deeply ingrained in Americans’ minds is the notion that the government is hopelessly big, illogical, and inefficient, the “new guard” of leaders must effectively demonstrate that the system can still be made to serve those for whose benefit it was originally established.
Carter has successfully argued his point, and his book turns out to be a completely convincing piece of campaign literature. But, although Why Not The Best? is definitely a sales pitch, it is very readable. It offers enough insight into its author to hold the reader’s interest throughout all the tales and anecdotes that make up the man’s background. What starts out to be a “vote-for-me” advertisement, ends up to be an enjoyable journey through one man’s origins and personal philosophy.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 30
Best Sellers. XXXVI, July, 1976, p. 133.
National Review. XXVII, October 29, 1976, p. 1193.
New Republic. CLXXV, September 11, 1975, p. 27.
New York Review of Books. XXIII, August 5, 1976, p. 22.
New York Times Book Review. June 6, 1976, p. 4.