Book review: ‘His Very Best’ by Jonathan Alter

By LARRY BALLWAHN | Wilton

Jimmy Carter was president of the United States from 1977–1981. It’s unlikely that anyone under 50 has much recollection of the Carter years. Much of what is written about his presidency is unfavorable, though he is seen as having a very productive post-presidency (Nobel Prize-winning humanitarian). Those of us who were adults during the late ‘70s remember them as a time of high interest rates and oil shortages and when Iran held U.S. hostages for more than a year.

Although Jimmy Carter was the Democratic candidate again in 1980, Republican Ronald Reagan won the election primarily because he was seen as the candidate best able to address the needs of the country. Carter had had his chance.

In what is being cited as the “first full-length autobiography of Jimmy Carter,” veteran author Jonathan Alter tells Jimmy Carter’s story. Raised in southwest Georgia in the 1930s, Carter was spared the worst of the Depression. The Carter family had more than most of their neighbors. Even so, Carter was 11 before the home had electricity and running water. The Carter farm was operated by a number of Black tenant farmers. Most of Jimmy’s friends were their children. Consequently, he was very open to the idea of integration throughout his political life.

Jimmy tried hard to please his father. To do so, he took on many farm tasks at a young age. While he adopted his father’s deep sense of religion, he did not accept the rigid segregation that was the rule of every white man in the area,including his father. By the same token, Jimmy did little about it until much later.

Jimmy Carter got his education in the Naval Academy. His father’s strict discipline had prepared him well for military life. Shortly after he graduated, he married a girl from home, Rosalynn Smith. He was 21, and she was 18. Among other things, Carter trained for service on nuclear submarines. When his father died, however, he and Rosalynn went back to Plains, where Jimmy operated the farm and farm store. His brother, Billy, had thought that would be his role. Billy later got that opportunity when Jimmy expanded from local involvement to state politics, serving first as a Georgia senator and then governor. The lengthy campaign for governor, and the team he built, spawned the idea of a run for president. After a failed attempt in 1972, Carter won the election and became the 39th president of the United States.

Carter’s tenure was post-Vietnam and Watergate. But it was a time of inflation, recession, and an oil embargo. There is a growing understanding that Jimmy Carter accomplished a good deal that was positive during his presidency. “His Very Best” goes a long way towards explaining the complicated man that is Jimmy Carter and, in the process, clarifying his presidency. The reader will also come to understand the contributions made by Rosalynn and the work the couple currently does.

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