Why Not the Best?

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...

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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.