Jimmy Carter: A Character Portrait

SHORT REVIEWS

by Bruce Mazlish and Edwin DiamondSimon & Schuster, $11.95
In 1967, two Baptist missionaries marched from door to door in the coal country around Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, in an effort to convert some 100 families identified by savants in the Baptist hierarchy as “non-believers.” One of the missionaries was an uneducated Texan, a peanut farmer as it happened, and he was apparently successful in converting fifteen or twenty of the families assigned to him. His companion, a forty-three-year-old Georgian still a bit down in the dumps after losing a bid for the governorship of his home state, was also a peanut farmer. His name was Jimmy Carter, and happier days lay ahead.
This evangelical strain in the core of what the authors identify as Jimmy Carter’s “character” is both significant and occasionally overstated, in their view. From the literalist, linear, pietistic mood of the Baptist evangelical, they argue, a much more complicated, subtle set of spiritual understandings developed.
Though many critics scoff at the idea, Mazlish and Diamond are satisfied that Carter considered seriously, and took pains to discuss with theologically inclined friends, the work of such demanding and pragmatic Protestant theologians as Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Sören Kierkegaard. The result is a meshing of realism and evangelism that often puzzles Carter’s critics, but which explains the unswerving attachment of our thirty-ninth President to matters of absolute principle, to the sometimes unrealistic notion that right makes might.
The Mazlish/Diamond “portrait” touches on many of the familiar biographical facts: a sternly authoritarian father; a detached, bookish mother troubled by a sense of unrealized dreams; one sister who pulled her marriage together by sheer force of missionary will; another who has experienced spiritual rebirth; a younger brother somewhat spoiled and driven, eventually, to extremes of his own making.
The authors write interestingly and decisively about Carter’s relations with his political advisers and Washington colleagues, and while they do not challenge in any important way familiar complaints about the President’s administrative naiveté or legislative intractability, they plainly find him a political figure with enough courage, conviction, and clarity to offset the human failings he has carried with him to the White House.