Winter Books
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Issue Date:  February 8, 2008

By Jimmy Carter
Simon and Schuster, 272 pages, $29.99
By Frye Gaillard
University of Georgia Press, 128 pages, $19.95
Jimmy Carter's life in progress

Reviewed by WAYNE A. HOLST

Historian Douglas Brinkley ended his 1999 book The Unfinished Presidency, about Jimmy Carter’s post-White House years, by quoting from the poet Dylan Thomas. “Do not go gentle into that good night,/Old age should burn and rave at close of day …” Mr. Brinkley believed these lines described Jimmy Carter, whose lifelong sense of calling have spurred the former chief executive to continued public service on a global scale.

Unquestionably, Jimmy Carter stands as one of the most notable “post-presidents” in American history. The presidency occupied but four years of his life and exists as only one important part of it. He has clearly contradicted many of his detractors who, in the early 1980s, were quick to issue negative post-mortems.

Carter left Washington in the wake of the American hostage crisis in Tehran. Today, we may be better positioned to recognize that he may not have been so naive and unsure of himself as his critics declared at the time. In hindsight, it’s clear that the Cold War was winding down, and Islamic fanaticism was beginning to emerge as a much greater threat to global stability. The world needs and expects a different kind of leadership from America than Cold War confrontation. It may be that Jimmy Carter, the proven military veteran, understood this better than we knew when he struggled to define and exemplify a new leadership role for America three decades ago.

Beyond the White House and Prophet from Plains both assess the legacy of Carter. The first is an autobiographical apologia covering his last 25 years. The second, written by veteran journalist Frye Gaillard, is sympathetic but more objective.

Beyond the White House focuses primarily on how Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter have invested their lives in the worldwide work of the Carter Center in Atlanta. It also describes their service in Habitat for Humanity, an international, hands-on organization that provides poor families with new homes. In some places, the book reads like a promotional document for the center, but in others, genuine excitement is generated. Readers are provided with intriguing, behind-the-headlines accounts of what happened on the ground during Carter’s global peacemaking ventures to such places as Cuba, Haiti and North Korea. The former president kept copious notes of his dealings with leading figures in these countries.

Prophet From Plains reviews the Carter legacy as it evolved through the early years in rural Georgia, his days in state politics, the presidential experience and the years since that time. Jimmy Carter’s politics are profoundly rooted in his southern Christian faith formation. Mr. Gaillard quotes authoritative sources reporting that while some of his political failings were serious, there were indeed positive aspects of his presidency that have been overlooked and not given the weight they deserve. Among these was his openness to negotiation, even with terrorist groups if need be. His stance was considered weak at the time, but Carter knew that while there were occasions when raw power should be met with raw power, there were also times when a willingness to talk and work dialogically might avert war.

Indeed, taking the long view, Carter’s contribution to history may yet prove to be that of peaceful warrior anticipating a new age rather than that of the failed warrior of a dying era.

Others go so far as to say that Carter is a prophet who may be remembered a thousand years from now because human rights and peace were the cornerstones of his work. Both books, with considerable profit, could be read together as they reflect differing perspectives of a life in progress.

Wayne A. Holst teaches at the University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and at St. David’s United Church in that city.

National Catholic Reporter, February 8, 2008

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