To write a biography, you must live with your subject for a long time. I’ve been lucky enough to take up residence for the last five years with Jimmy Carter. In a sense, we vacation together—my study of him has transported me to the land of 1970s “malaise,” a difficult time in America but one where the president was trying to promote democracy, not assault it. Carter is an intense, steely man with plenty of faults but our time together (both in person and in my mind) has been a pleasure and an inspiration. His decency kept me sane in the time of Trump.
Carter is the UnTrump. If you went into Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory and tried to create the opposite of the current president, you would come up with this former president.
It’s true that Trump is now in the same position as Carter when he ran for reelection in 1980 against Ronald Reagan—trailing an aging challenger. But that’s where the analogy ends. I once asked Carter by email if he had anything in common with Trump. He had a one-word answer:
The two men have met only once, in the early 1980s, when Carter took his tin cup to Trump Tower. Trump was impressed that Carter had “the nerve and the guts” to ask him for $5 million but of course gave not a penny to the cause of peacemaking, global health, human rights and the other missions of The Carter Center.
After Trump was elected, they talked a couple of times on the phone, and Carter—in his mid-nineties—tried to wrangle an assignment as an emissary to North Korea. When Trump went himself, Carter felt more free to blast his lying and his Mexico border policy. Last year, Carter called Trump an “illegitimate” president, and this year he and Rosalynn enthusiastically endorsed Joe Biden.
My book is about Carter, not Trump, who is barely mentioned. But the contrast comes through on every page.
Trump is a liar; Carter promised in his 1976 campaign that he wouldn’t lie to the American people and—notwithstanding a few exaggerations—he never told any whoppers.
Trump is an autocrat; Carter’s human rights policy established a new global standard for freedom, helped advance democracy in scores of countries, and—as some conservatives of the time now acknowledge—hastened the end of the Cold War.
Trump takes no responsibility and gives himself A-plus grades; Carter told the military before the failed Iran hostage rescue mission: “Any success is due to you, but any failure is mine alone.” Sometimes he was almost comically accountable: When Dan Rather asked him on “60 Minutes” on the eve of the 1980 Democratic Convention to grade himself, Carter gave himself a B-minus, a C-plus, and a C.