The American people elected Jimmy Carter because he seemed to be more an American and less a creature of modern liberalism than his opponent, Gerald Ford. Candidate Carter called the American tax system "a disgrace to the human race." He touted that as Georgia's governor, he had slashed the number of state agencies. He called for "a government as good as its people." In the debate that won him the presidency, he lashed out against the Republicans' acceptance of Soviet tyranny over Eastern Europe. Here was a man wholeheartedly in love with everything America stood for.
Once in office, though, Mr. Carter inflated every noxious government program ever invented. He told the country that we had deserved to lose the Vietnam War. He helped destroy the Shah of Iran while kowtowing to the Ayatollah Khomeini, and ended up indecorously smooching America's worst enemy, Leonid Brezhnev, physically and otherwise. Therefore it is plausible to believe that Mr. Carter simply had run right and governed left, like so many politicians.
But as Douglas Brinkley shows in The Unfinished Presidency, his long account of Mr. Carter's post-presidential years, the former chief executive's flaws are of a solid piece with his sincere Americanism and with his decidedly un-Clintonian character. Mr. Brinkley's admiration for his subject leads to an overgenerous treatment of Mr. Carter's forays into foreign and domestic affairs. Nevertheless, the author recognizes that in these forays Mr. Carter neglects common sense. The book is valuable because Mr. Brinkley shows how the lack of common sense proceeds directly from Mr. Carter's most admirable, and most American, qualities.
Jimmy Carter is a Christian who puts everything he has into doing what he believes to be right. He teaches Sunday school out of Christian duty. He sacrifices his physical comfort to help build housing for the poor and to go to nasty places to promote peace. Mr. Brinkley tells us that when Mr. Carter fixes his steely blue gaze on an objective, he considers it a sin not to try his utmost to achieve it. In short, Mr. Carter lives the kind of life that good parents wish for their children.
Mr. Brinkley recognizes that Mr. Carter's post-presidential attempts to bring peace to the world have been deeply flawed. He does not discuss the similarity of these post-presidential actions to Mr. Carter's deeds in office. But he does show the reader how the flawed execution proceeds from noble motives.
Mr. Carter has made a second career of rushing to the side of the world's pariahs in times of crisis. He went to North Korea to try to persuade Kim Il Sung to give up his hard-won nuclear capability. The result was to help him keep it. He went to Bosnia to persuade Radovan Karadzic to stop killing non-Serbs, and succeeded only in being a prop for the butcher's next maneuver. He has also spent time with Yasser Arafat and Fidel Castro.
The essence of the Carter approach, according to Mr. Brinkley, is to attempt to forge personal relationships, "passing secret messages, flattering wives, hugging dictators, embracing war criminals, pleading with murderers to save lives, make peace, and feed the poor." To such ends Mr. Carter even invited Haiti's dictator, Raoul Cedras, to guest lecture in his Sunday school class. Mr. Brinkley, however, does not explain why anyone should have such faith in the power of a good person's personal affection to overcome evil.
That explanation lies in the evolution of American Protestantism, as explained by Swarthmore College professor James Kurth. Protestantism, writes Mr. Kurth in the most recent issue of Orbis, has gone through stages of declension in which personal relationship with God has been replaced by a nonjudgmental commitment to other humans. Mr. Carter may be the most perfect living specimen of Norman Vincent Peale Protestantism: rigorous about himself, value-free about others. We may note that in the next stage of declension, perhaps represented by Bill Clinton, Protestants also become value-free about themselves.
Mr. Carter and this book illustrate one practical problem (among many) with a sentimental, value-free approach to international affairs: It impedes understanding of the role of force. Mr. Brinkley does not pay enough attention to the fact that foreign leaders want to meet with ex-President Carter not for the intrinsic value of anything he might say, but rather because he might be able to exert some leverage on the policy of a powerful country.
A case in point is Mr. Brinkley's and Mr. Carter's version of the events that made possible the Dayton Accords that temporarily halted the Bosnian slaughter. It entirely neglects the chief fact: The Croatian Army beat the Yugoslav Army in a major conventional war in Krajina, giving Slobodan Milosevic every incentive to seek a cease fire. Mr. Carter's fireside Christmas with the Bosnian butchers, to which he no doubt subjected himself as a sacrifice for peace, was useless.
And yet Jimmy Carter's naivete contains a dimension of power that American voters sensed in 1976 but that Mr. Brinkley does not seem to grasp. Americans of the Norman Vincent Peale variety may not be quick in concluding that an enemy is beyond the reach of gentle persuasion. But when they do, they are almost as capable of moral indignation as their forbears were.
The combination of moral indignation and integrity has made America a fearsome enemy: We should not forget that it was Mr. Carter who began the great anti-Soviet military buildup generally attributed to his successor. Mr. Carter would have built 200 MX missiles; Ronald Reagan meekly accepted 50. Mr. Carter imposed the grain embargo on the Soviet Union; Mr. Reagan lifted it. Mr. Carter kept Americans out of the 1980 Summer Olympics. Mr. Carter sent weapons to the Afghanis. Mr. Carter's National Security Council, not Mr. Reagan's, stated the goal of forcefully changing the character of Nicaragua's Sandinista regime.
In sum, Mr. Brinkley's book shows a man of integrity engaged in silliness. Too bad it gives little hint that integrity can also produce seriousness.