The Unfinished Presidency

Theo Spencer reviews 'The Unfinished Presidency' by Douglas Brinkley.

By Theo Spencer
May 19, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)
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He stained our national pride with a failed hostage rescue mission, hobbled us financially with helium-infused inflation and interest rates and, perhaps most unpardonably, made us wait in interminable lines at the gas pump. If you still can't forgive Jimmy Carter for these things, among many others, Douglas Brinkley's faithful chronicle of our 39th president's accomplishments since leaving office should go a good distance toward changing your mind. In "The Unfinished Presidency," Brinkley stacks between two covers an exhaustively detailed compilation of all that the man from Plains has done since leaving office. In doing so, he reserves an ultimately positive (if not entirely exalted) place in history for the man he calls a "grinning Georgia overachiever blessed with a tinkerer's restless mind and a zealot's near messianic confidence in his own abilities."

Is Carter messianic or megalomaniacal? Brinkley presents conflicting evidence. We witness Carter making peace in Bosnia, Haiti, North Korea, Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia; monitoring elections in Panama, Nicaragua, Haiti and elsewhere; helping eradicate diseases like river blindness from the globe; working to eliminate famine from African countries via the spread of high-yield wheat; and struggling to free some 50,000 political prisoners, all since 1981. In Brinkley's hands, some of this material is gripping, such as Carter's tough-talking efforts to get Haitian coup leader Gen. Raoul Cedras to step down in 1994, minutes before American troops were scheduled to invade the island nation. Other anecdotes are less flattering: Carter grabbing the spotlight by briefing CNN before President Clinton on his work in Haiti, or trying to subvert George Bush's Gulf War plans by sending anti-aggression letters to various world leaders. Carter was, Brinkley writes, "complicating U.S. diplomacy with his unorthodox assumptions of authority."


Throughout all this, Brinkley -- a University of New Orleans professor and National Public Radio commentator who's written well-received books on Dean Acheson and Franklin Roosevelt -- also serves up some behind-the-scenes goodies. These include Carter's friendship with PLO leader Yasir Arafat (one that occasionally bordered on a "love fest") and, more recently, his intimacy with Clinton, who asked the Baptist minister to "pray for him in his hour of darkness."

Brinkley is an admitted Carter acolyte, and a persuasive one, but he ultimately fails to present his subject as a three-dimensional man. He makes it redundantly clear that it's Carter's small-town, overall-wearing values and Christian beliefs -- not the desire to buff his image or win a Nobel Peace Prize -- that keep him marching around the globe. Brinkley constantly refers to his subject as a "pious Christian" whose "bedrock faith" urged him and Rosalyn to "press on, to abandon despair for love and to turn defeat into victory." But he doesn't go far enough in explaining why this man, as journalist James Reston has noted, was so intense that when he dined, his knife "cut into the plate." He doesn't shed light on the Carter who famously told Playboy magazine he "lusted in his heart," or the one whose knee-jerk actions made his postpresidential staffers joke that his motto was "ready, fire, aim." Brinkley's book may lead to Carter's acceptance as one of our greatest ex-presidents, but as far as what motivated the man to become a candidate for that title, we get too much shell and not enough peanut.

Theo Spencer

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