You must have a level of self-confidence that borders on unhealthy to run for president of the United States. To imagine - as you must - that you and you alone among all Americans of your time in public life are the best qualified to serve as the "leader of the free world" is the height of ego. It would be best, you might think, to express some humility in such supreme confidence in yourself. Humility is a character trait that rarely comes to light in Jimmy Carter's new book, White House Diary.
Like many Americans, I have deep respect for President Carter. Seeing him at the Denver 2008 convention was a great moment. I remember as a child being proud that a Southerner had been elected president in 1976 (not a Texan, a real Southern). President Carter's historic Camp David accords alone seal his place in history. The Carter Center has been a tremendous world-wide asset in the fight for peace and against disease. As a former president, Jimmy Carter, along with his wife Rosalynn, have been champions for community service, affordable housing and mental health care. President Carter is a Christian of deep conviction. Few people in history have better deserved the Noble Peace Prize.
Yet he was, in so many ways, a flawed politician. One wonders what motivated him to release his diaries (he writes in part it was to show the country how many issues he faced as president are still on the national agenda today). President Carter comes off looking aloof and nearly completely unaware of the political realities of his time. He seems almost surprised right up until mid-1980 that his presidency was in difficulty and where many people found fault with his leadership (think the famous "malaise" speech) President Carter spends a great deal of time congratulating himself on his wisdom. It would appear, sadly, that he found little time as president for self-reflection (though too much time to reflect on hemorrhoids).
There is no question in my mind that our nation and the world would have been better served had President Carter been re-elected. Still, White House Diary offers us a view of the former president that is filled with faults that he is unable to see. He is obsessed with small details (tennis court reservations will ring a bell with many) but unable to see the big picture. Garry Wills writes of the book: "Jimmy Carter is a better man than his worst enemy would portray him as. And his worst enemy, it turns out, is himself. At least, I cannot imagine a more damaging blow to his reputation than he delivers in White House Diary."
Reading the book feels at time like you're watching a B horror movie where only the main character is unaware disaster looms behind the next door. Regardless, any dairy kept by a president is a contribution to history. And, of course, he distinguished the presidency in ways that men like Richard Nixon never did. Those interested in modern American history will enjoy the nearly 600 pages of daily entries.