Jimmy Carter’s favorite word when he was president was “sacrifice.” Using UC Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project database, I calculate that he uttered it 479 times in speeches and statements during his four-year term. According to the same database, John F. Kennedy, who famously advised Americans to “Ask what you can do for your country,” used it only 60 times in his own public pronouncements.
Surely the willingness to sacrifice is an admirable value, for individuals as much as for nations. But Carter made it a fetish. Armed with Benjamin Franklin–like adages (“Today’s sacrifice will bring tomorrow’s security”), he compulsively told Americans, who were facing 10 percent inflation and 20 percent interest rates, that doing without was something to cherish. At swearing-in ceremonies for agency appointees, he would boast that the gent standing beside him was choosing to serve the public “at some considerable sacrifice to himself, financially.” At state dinners, he would praise the various host nations’ ennobled citizenry for their stoic endurance of famines, upheavals, or war. At a time when the unemployment rate for African Americans was 14.6 percent, he perversely importuned economic sacrifice in speeches before Black organizations. “We’ve never acquired an additional element of fairness or equity or freedom or justice without sacrifice,” he told the National Urban League in one of the opening speeches of his 1980 campaign. Throughout his presidency, he frequently launched into passionate fits of nostalgia for World War II, when “the challenge of fighting Nazism drew us together.” In one of his most famous speeches, given in April 1977, he deployed the word “sacrifice” 10 times to enlist Americans against an “energy crisis” that he called the “moral equivalent of war”; in an even more famous one, 14 days into his term, he implored Americans to set their thermostats to 65 degrees during the day and 55 degrees at night as he sat in a sweater before a roaring White House fire. (First lady Rosalynn Carter complained that the typists in her East Wing office had to warm their hands with gloves.)
The striking thing was that, when he gave that last speech, the United States was not really in an energy crisis. The country had been, for several months following the 1973 Arab oil boycott, and would be again. But in the interim, the price of gas at the pump had held steady. It seemed as if Carter were seeking excuses to demand that Americans make do with less. And when oil supplies finally did contract following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, he sounded almost giddy: “I don’t look on conservation or saving energy as a burden or an unpleasant sacrifice. It can be an inspirational thing. It can be an enjoyable thing. It can bring families together. It can bring communities together. It can make us proud of ourselves.”
"swipe left below to view more authors"Swipe →
The Supreme Court Could Soon Let Trump Buy All the Guns He Wants
The Supreme Court Could Soon Let Trump Buy All the Guns He Wants
The UAW Strike Inspires Anti-Union Panic—and Lies—From GOP Presidential Contenders
The UAW Strike Inspires Anti-Union Panic—and Lies—From GOP Presidential Contenders
Yet there was one time during Carter’s career when he didn’t call for sacrifice: when he ran for president in 1976. In campaign position papers and interviews with journalists, he averred that while inflation “must not be ignored,” America’s “major economic problem” was “unacceptably high unemployment,” so “we must pursue an expansionary fiscal and monetary program in the near future, with some budget deficits if necessary.” He campaigned, in other words, as a Keynesian. Later in the campaign, he explained that the wave of inflation that the United States had suffered in 1974 and ‘75 had been the “transient” consequence of “the big jump in oil and food prices”—explicitly rejecting the regnant theory that it was caused by excessive government spending. He also promised to enlist the Federal Reserve to lower interest rates and said that incoming presidents should get to appoint a new Fed chair who would be more aligned with the administration’s policies. But once in office, Carter changed his tune. When inflation again surged, he lectured that the cause was excessive government spending, to which the only appropriate response was… sacrifice. He quoted, over and over again, something Walter Lippman said in 1940: “You took the good things for granted. Now you must earn them again…. [Y]ou will have to sacrifice your comfort and ease.” As president, Carter successfully gutted a bill that he had run on: to create a federal guarantee of full employment. He also answered the clamor from Wall Street to choose an “inflation hawk” to chair the Federal Reserve. His appointee, Paul Volcker, then instituted—with Carter’s approval—a program of radical shock therapy intended to grind economic growth to a halt. Carter spoke of the necessity of “pain” so often during these years that the humorist Art Buchwald wondered whether Americans hadn’t voted in a sadomasochist. When inflation refused to budge, Carter replaced his original budget proposal for the fiscal year 1981, which he had previously boasted was “lean and austere,” with one that was $18 billion leaner, including a reduction of $1 billion in welfare spending. He also unveiled changes in bank rules to make it harder to use credit cards. (Volcker considered this a squeeze too far; Carter talked him into it.) Many complained, and reasonably so. But Carter’s response was to insist that those criticizing him were, as he told the National Urban League, “creating disunity among those who are on the cutting edge of progress and compassion and love.”
Politicians say things to get elected and then, once in office, do otherwise; that’s politics. But Carter demanded that we grade him on a curve. His signature campaign promise was “I’ll never tell a lie. I’ll never make a misleading statement. I’ll never betray your trust or avoid a controversial issue. If I ever do any of these things, then I don’t deserve your support.” And yet it was all a con.
Kai Bird’s massive new biography of Carter, The Outlier, never quotes him on the subject of sacrifice. Nor does it address the 39th president’s obsession with it, and it offers not a word on the essential bait-and-switch between his campaign and his presidency. These elisions make sense, in part, because of the book’s thesis: that Carter was not an austerity president who augured the coming of a new neoliberal age but rather a populist whose “instincts were always liberal.” Carter was also neither a mediocre nor a failed president, we are told by Bird, but a near-great one. He was not an entrepôt between political eras but rather a profoundly consequential leader whose “unbending backbone” advanced all manner of liberal goals as far as they could possibly go in a lowdown, dirty age. A foreign policy prophet who “refused to take us to war” or fall prey to what he called “our inordinate fear of Communism,” Carter birthed a human rights revolution in US foreign policy that “none of his successors” could “walk back.” Bird acknowledges the possibility that Carter ever indulged political expediency only once in the Oval Office—stopping to observe that, while he occasionally did so as governor, the presidency “unleashed Carter’s natural instinct to ‘do the right thing’ regardless of political consequences.”
There is a lot to disagree with, in whole or in part, in The Outlier’s depiction of Carter, but one of the reasons it is worth reading is that Bird, an accomplished and highly respected biographer who won a Pulitzer Prize for his cowritten life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, fair-mindedly sets down many of the counterarguments to his own case that Carter was a good president. That is why, reading The Outlier, this reader came away with a wealth of new reasons to confirm why he was, at least as president, often so bad.
Jimmy Carter was born in 1924 in tiny Plains, Ga.—population less than 700, then and now. His father, Earl Carter, was a local agricultural baron. Earl died in 1953, and Jimmy abandoned a promising Navy career to take over his peanut warehousing business. While his father had been a conventionally parochial and racist figure in local politics, Carter’s mother was an astonishing woman about whom not a single thing was conventional. Lillian Carter was the only white woman for miles around who would go into a Black person’s home. She was a profoundly self-confident and inner-directed individual who in 1966, at the age of 67, volunteered to join the Peace Corps and be sent basically anywhere her nursing skills were needed. That was the year her youngest son, now a back-bencher in Georgia’s weak state senate, decided to run for governor—a decision surpassed in its ambitiousness only when, in 1972, with less than two years as governor under his belt after his second, successful run, Carter began laying plans to run for president of the United States.
People driven to become the most powerful person in the world are not normal people. Think Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy (as well as Bobby and Teddy), Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama: All had mothers who inculcated in them the conviction that they were so special that they could accomplish anything and should ignore what anyone else said on the matter. And also fathers who were either emotionally or literally absent, stern figures who haunted their sons with the nagging feeling that no matter how much they accomplished, it would never be enough to win them over. Jimmy Carter was no different. He once even wrote a poem about it: “And even now I feel inside / The hunger for his outstretched hand, / A man’s embrace to take me in, / The need for just a word of praise….”
A childhood like this is a pitilessly efficient machine for producing a preternatural drive for accomplishment: the sort of drive it takes, for instance, to run for president as a free-spending Keynesian and then to govern as a penny-pinching austerian, all while claiming utter honesty as your political calling card—and performing the claim so unflinchingly that much of the world still buys it.
Bird certainly does; it’s what, in his view, makes Carter the “outlier” of his title. Consider that crucial policy issue of what causes inflation and how to solve it. Bird summarizes Carter’s conclusion (at least his conclusion as president) as follows: “The right response was to prioritize the fight against inflation by cutting the federal budget deficit.” For the next several hundred pages, Bird gives the reader no reason to question that conclusion, let alone why Carter should have or why he had in the past. He does, however, report much later in the book that others did—and that they, in fact, told Carter he should as well: “In the spring of 1977, Labor Secretary [Ray] Marshall flatly told Carter, ‘Budget deficits do not cause inflation.’ Marshall pointed out that the fiscal deficit in 1974 was only $5 billion and yet the inflation rate was 9 percent. Two years later, the deficit had spiked to $66 billion and the inflation rate had fallen to only 5 percent.”
That Carter was presented with this data and then ignored it is an astonishing piece of information. He should have known better. Carter was famous—and sometimes infamous—for the ruthless, evidence-based analytical detachment with which he reached his policy conclusions. One observer compared this tendency to the way his early mentor, Adm. Hyman Rickover, approached matters relating to the Navy’s nuclear submarine corps: “[He] has to know how every single engine or pump works.” But when it came to inflation, Carter was anything but cool and empirical. He believed that stopping inflation required sacrifice, no matter what the evidence or data suggested.
This conviction would prove fateful in the decades to come: The next two Democratic presidents would sacrifice federal spending, especially on social programs, upon this same altar. All this sacrifice was great for the investor class, who kept getting richer, but terrible for the working class, whose stagnating wages could have used some augmenting by more aggressive social spending. The class-biased nature of the “deficits kill economies” cult was rendered explicit in Bill Clinton’s reaction to Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan’s advice to abandon the economic stimulus program he had promised on the campaign trail. Such spending, Greenspan claimed, would stoke inflation and spook the investor class, and the economy would spiral into the toilet. “You mean to tell me that the success of the economic program and my reelection hinges on the Federal Reserve and a bunch of fucking bond traders?” Clinton responded.
That claim was proved false beyond a shadow of a doubt in the Clinton years and again in the Obama years: Both presidents inherited massive deficits from their Republican predecessors, but inflation kept declining nonetheless. Yet the die had been cast: Carter’s economic policies on inflation and deregulation would set the standard for the Democratic Party. In his catalog of reasons why he considers Carter’s presidency so consequential, Bird notes that, thanks to a deregulatory measure that Carter championed, “Craft beer became ubiquitous.” What was most consequential—economic policies that turned the Democrats away from deficit spending and expansive social programs and toward neoliberal budgetary austerity and friendliness to Wall Street—goes unmentioned.
On the subject of what was perhaps Carter’s greatest achievement, however, Bird is outstanding. His freshly researched and detailed account of Carter’s brokering of the landmark peace deal between Israel and Egypt is nearly worth the price of the book alone. In it, Bird masterfully conveys how exquisitely intricate Carter’s long-term game planning was for those famous 13 days at Camp David—and how adroitly he improvised on the fly when those plans went awry. We also see Carter’s gift for reading fellow politicians and cutting to the quick of their psychological drives. When Israel’s intransigent prime minister, Menachem Begin, was on the verge of scuttling the negotiations altogether, Carter handed him pictures of the summit, individually inscribed to each of his grandchildren, and said he hoped to meet them someday and say, “This is when your grandfather and I brought peace to the Middle East.” Begin teared up and remained.
It’s remarkable to watch Carter knowing just when to risk a scathing remark and when to say nothing at all; when to horse-trade and when to hold fast, ever reassessing the balance between the visionary and the pragmatic; when to salve a tender ego and when to provoke; when to make an end run and when a direct charge. You realize, in other words, what a skillful politician Jimmy Carter could be.
But this display of political skill just makes it all the more excruciating to observe him, in almost every other project, refusing to do politics at all. The pattern is familiar to any student of Carter’s presidency. He would announce the most sweeping policy proposal imaginable—such as his original energy program, with each of its 113 interlocking provisions affecting some constituency somewhere in a different way, devised in secret over 90 days with his “energy czar,” James Schlesinger, a Republican. Every single member of Congress, including the leaders of his own party, learned about it at the same time as the American people did, and in the same way: on TV. Carter then expected them to pass it unchanged—accusing them of selfishness, a lack of patriotism, or stupidity, often publicly, whenever they balked. By the time he came up for reelection, Carter had pulled this sort of stunt so often, and had so adamantly held himself aloof from any process of negotiation, that he had barely any political friends left at all.
This is my Jimmy Carter—a kinder, gentler unitary executive, with solar panels; our first “I alone can fix it” president. The signs were there long before Carter won the nomination. He had a favorite formulation in the early months of the 1976 primary season, before he apparently banned the word “sacrifice” from his campaigning vocabulary: “There is only one person in this country who can speak with a clear voice to the American people, who can set a standard of morals, decency, and openness, who can spell out comprehensive policies and coordinate the efforts of different departments of government, who can call on the American people for sacrifices and explain the purpose of that sacrifice and the consequences of it. That person is the president.”
I see Carter’s self-regard as overwhelming; Bird sees things in quite nearly the opposite way. That comes across most strikingly in a chapter called “Troubles With a Speechwriter.” In it, Bird reviews a tense moment in the spring of 1979, when Carter’s approval rating was dipping down to 40 percent and an extraordinary cover article appeared in The Atlantic by his former speechwriter, James Fallows, then 28 years old, which explained why he had quit in disillusionment—a disillusionment that by then had become widespread.
What were the reasons, Fallows asked, for “the contrast between the promise and popularity of [Carter’s] first months in office and the disappointment so widely felt later on”? He came to a striking conclusion: that Carter was driven not so much to do good things as to be seen as a good person. Articulating his own goodness in contrast with the implicit deficiencies of everyone else—for instance, their reluctance to sacrifice—is something he seemed actively to seek opportunities to do.
Consider an example from the time when the endless lines to buy gas began snaking through Southern California’s streets. To grasp why Carter’s response was so odd, one must first understand a paradox of the 1979 energy crisis: The actual supply deficit was rather small. The reason the gas lines were many times longer than usual, even though supplies were never down more than a fraction, was psychological: Panicked drivers responded to news that gas was growing scarcer by keeping their tanks “topped off” at all times—which only produced more scarcity, much like what happened with toilet paper at the beginning of the Covid crisis. The most effectual response a leader can generally offer at times like this is to dial down the panic.
Carter could have implored people to stop topping off their tanks. But in a statement to Southern Californians, he mentioned that practical solution only briefly at the end of a very long lecture that began by exacerbating the panic by noting that the problem could be “maybe worse next year.” (In fact, it went away within months.) Carter then reminded Americans that he had warned them this fuel shortage would happen, though they had refused to listen, and that it likely wouldn’t have occurred at all if Congress had been willing “to vote for steps that may be a little unpopular.” (This is unlikely.) Then he dilated, in numbered points, upon the history that had brought us to this situation; they included: “My decision that priority in a time of shortage must be given to heat for homes, hospitals, etc., and to food production.”
I love that detail: While his constituents were greedily guzzling gas, Carter wanted to make sure they knew he was busy providing for the sick, the cold, and the hungry. It was a sacrifice sermon, at the expense of doing his job; instead of using the presidential bully pulpit to solve a discrete problem, he was preening. As Fallows put it, “Jimmy Carter tells us that he is a good man. His positions are correct, his values sound. Like Marshal Petain after the fall of France, he has offered his person to the nation.” (Oh, and about those solar panels: Carter’s energy policies were far more about economic nationalism than conservation; much more important than promoting renewable energy was promoting American coal to replace imported oil.)
Bird sees Fallows’s article differently than I do, and also differently than another Carter speechwriter, Hendrik Hertzberg, who called it “very, very accurate” and “very, very good.” For Bird, it was a series of cheap shots from a disgruntled employee and did more to tank Carter’s presidency than the behavior it describes. Bird, after all, sees Jimmy Carter as Carter saw himself: If the things he did didn’t work, the problem was everyone else.
That perspective emerges in repeated tell-tale tropes throughout the biography. Carter is always seeking to “do the right thing,” in contrast with every other elected official at the time. (“Once again, he was astonished at the pettiness of the key senators sitting on the fence. Carter just wanted them to do what they knew was the right thing.”) He is described in terms of his “instincts”—“liberal,” “populist,” and erring toward “boldness”—instead of his actions. We are told about his noble internal state at times when Carter does things that are not liberal, populist, or bold—such as when he praised the shah of Iran as an admirable leader, unceremoniously fired a feminist aide for perceived disloyalty, or ordered the CIA to prop up the anti-communist dictator of Nicaragua. His awful decisions happen “inexplicably”; the noble ones, on the other hand, are Carter “showing his true colors”—even when what’s described as “inexplicable” conforms to a pattern, and the “true colors” betray a far more muddled hue.
Bird’s claims of Carter behaving inexplicably are most pronounced when he writes about foreign policy, a subject that poses a conundrum for the sympathetic liberal biographer. Carter began his presidency announcing that human rights would be the new benchmark for US foreign policy—to replace, as he put it in a glorious speech that first, hopeful spring of 1977, an “inordinate fear of Communism which once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in our fear.” As his secretary of state, Carter appointed Cyrus Vance, a diplomat who enthusiastically supported this vision. But as national security adviser, he appointed Zbigniew Brzezinski, who despised it.
There’s really no way to simplify the complexity of the foreign policy that resulted, which included many remarkable and courageous breaks with Cold War orthodoxy but also some abject surrenders to it. Yet Bird manages to find a handy device: When it comes to the bad stuff, the buck stops with Zbig. This implacable Svengali repeatedly advised bloodthirsty and reckless solutions that Carter, with his “natural instincts,” tried to ward off, until finally Brzezinski—who somehow managed to snooker the president into meeting with him more than any other adviser, and certainly far more than his diplomacy-minded secretary of state—ended up “wearing him down.”
That comes in May 1979, as the Islamists were rising up against the Soviet-aligned government of Afghanistan and Brzezinski persuaded Carter “to authorize a covert CIA program to fund this rebellion and to supply nonlethal aid to these conservative Muslim tribesmen.” Bird repeats that word—“nonlethal”—when discussing Carter’s signing of a second authorization of this aid in July. Yet Carter himself proved to be considerably more revealing about the aid than his biographer in a note in the book version of his White House diary, published in 2010: He explains how the CIA scoured international arms markets for weapons of Soviet manufacture, which were then routed to Pakistan to pass on to the mujahideen. Yet even here, Carter was not so frank as to reveal why this subterfuge was undertaken: The Symington Amendment, signed by President Gerald Ford in 1976, had banned arms sales to countries involved in nuclear proliferation, as Pakistan was ruled to be by Carter himself.
Brzezinski, Bird duly notes, was also pretty clear with Carter about his hope that the aid might spur a decision by the Soviet Union to invade Afghanistan. Despite knowing this, Carter expressed shock when the invasion took place. Then, in a State of the Union address that stated that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan “could pose the most serious threat to world peace since the Second World War,” he announced that the United States was prepared to go to war to protect Persian Gulf oil two countries away if it was ever threatened by the Soviets (something they had no intention of doing).
This promise to defend the Persian Gulf militarily became known as the Carter Doctrine. Bird says it “would have been more accurate to call it the ‘Brzezinski Doctrine’”—since these words were in the speech because Vance “had lost another skirmish in his bureaucratic warfare with Brzezinski.” A president’s poor judgment is apparently excusable if he is simply reading whatever words are set down in front of him on the podium. One should also not forget the timing of this State of the Union address. Carter was heading into a reelection race against an increasingly hawkish Republican Party, for which he replaced his 1976 campaign promise to cut the military budget with a promise to increase it. None of this is inexplicable; Carter had just made a similar decision with regard to Nicaragua and, a year earlier, had made noises about sending the CIA to intervene against the Cuban forces in Angola. He was stopped by a 1975 law specifically preventing that, which The New York Times reported he’d been lobbying senators to repeal.
Bird is also confident about the nobility of Carter’s inner being when it comes to the subject of race. Yet here, too, Carter appears to be less noble than Bird allows. It’s true that, first in the Navy, then as a businessman in Plains, Carter often showed extraordinary courage when it came to the subject of racial equality, sometimes at great personal cost. Things grew muddy, however, when he made his second bid for governor in 1970. In his first try, he’d been defeated by the segregationist Lester Maddox. In his second run, he decided on a campaign strategy that included winning over Maddox’s segregationist base. The most notorious example was a leaflet that his campaign put out with a photograph of his opponent, Carl Sanders, celebrating a victory with Black members of the Atlanta Hawks basketball team, of which he’d been co-owner. This embarrassment became more broadly known when the journalist Steve Brill published a piece in the March 1976 issue of Harper’s, “Jimmy Carter’s Pathetic Lies,” which holds up quite well, prompting a series of threadbare alibis from Carter partisans about what actually happened in 1970—it all supposedly went on without his knowledge—which don’t hold up so well.
“Someone distributed leaflets” is how Bird puts it. He then reassures us that Carter “was indeed a liberal by any measure—but he was determined not to be labeled one.” And Bird goes on to tell a story about Carter’s closest friend and adviser, a corporate lawyer named Charles Kirbo, who advised him after his victory not to join those fashionable Southern politicians who made themselves publicly “critical of some of our traditions in an effort to make themselves acceptable on a national scale.”
Carter delivered a famous inaugural address as governor in which he chose not to take his best friend’s advice—intoning instead, to shocked murmurs (and to adulation that put him on the cover of Time), “I say to you quite frankly that the time for racial discrimination is over.” Concludes Bird, “Carter was showing his true colors.” But his true colors became far more challenging to discern a little more than a year later, when Carter led a bloc of Southern delegates seeking to sabotage the presidential nomination of George McGovern. Bird veritably glides over that part of Carter’s ascent to national prominence, in four short paragraphs aimed at establishing how Carter “kept his distance” from George Wallace and his followers. But this is not true. In fact, in 1972, Carter presented McGovern with an ultimatum that was very much in line with what Wallace and his followers thought and said about federal efforts to reverse some of those Southern traditions: He demanded that McGovern denounce what Carter called “that discriminatory provision of the Voting Rights Act” requiring the Justice Department to review the voting laws in Southern states to assure they wouldn’t disenfranchise Blacks. If McGovern refused, Carter continued, he would lead a delegate walkout at the Democratic National Convention.
We don’t hear about this episode in Bird’s new biography. Nor do we hear how, in his campaign for president against Gerald Ford in 1976, Carter used Wallace, who endorsed him, as a campaign surrogate—as well as two Mississippi senators, John Stennis and James Eastland, who were campaigning for their party’s presidential nominee for the first time in 20 years. Carter said it was a “great honor for me to be campaigning” with two “statesmen” who were “committed to absolute integrity,” only to see the two put that integrity on display in a different way: They wouldn’t let Carter lie about their records. When a reporter pointed out that he had just claimed that the two senators had accepted the “complete and total integration of the South” with “courage” but then noted that Stennis and Eastland had opposed every civil rights bill, Carter responded, “I doubt that that’s correct.” Stennis and Eastland, however, were quick to set the record straight: “I never voted for a civil rights bill in my life,” Stennis said. Eastland added, “Neither did I.”
That’s politics, where true colors are hard to find. Yet Carter had some, I think. You can discern them in Bird’s most remarkable archival find: Kirbo’s memos to Carter from the 1960s all through his presidency, from which we learn, among other things, that Carter’s best friend was an abject racist. Nonetheless, Carter never seemed to have considered separating from him. Loyalty to those who were loyal to him was one of his true colors—a trait that could shade into something almost like cronyism.
About Brzezinski, we learn that “Carter did his best to resist [his] hawkish views, but he never considered firing him,” because “the personal chemistry was right.” Nor, until it was almost too late, did he distance himself from his second-best friend, a Georgia banker named Bert Lance, whom he appointed director of the Office of Management and Budget. Lance was so certain of his friend’s confidence that he expected to end up as the Federal Reserve chair—even though his only relevant experience was managing small Georgia banks, so corruptly, in fact, that he finally had to resign (but not before Carter stood by his side at a press conference after much of the relevant evidence was already on the record and intoned, “Bert, I’m proud of you”).
Or take another close Georgia friend, his louche White House science adviser Dr. Peter Bourne, who dispensed semilegal drug prescriptions to White House staff. Bird strangely says that Bourne was among Carter’s most “mature” aides, a judgment made easier by the fact that Bird neglects to mention the time Bourne snorted cocaine—which he called in a 1976 article “probably the most benign of illicit drugs currently in use”—at a Christmas party crowded with journalists and politicians. Carter was finally forced to push him out, too—but not Hamilton Jordan, another Georgia crony (there really is no more suitable word), despite his habit of missing meetings, insulting congressional leaders to their face, and never returning phone calls. Jordan’s top deputy described him as “a child.” At the nadir of his presidential popularity, Carter elevated Jordan to chief of staff.
There are many more such examples. In fact, one of The Outlier’s considerable strengths is that, as a result of Bird’s comprehensiveness and fair-mindedness, we are presented with so many counterexamples that disprove the idea that Carter was an outlier. Reading the book, we get to see arrayed in one place how many close advisers Carter kept around him mainly because of how comfortable they made him feel—many because, in Fallows’s shrewd assessment, they owed “their first loyalty to the welfare and advance of Jimmy Carter.”
The banality of Carter—who, like most politicians, preferred aides who sucked up to him—helps explain a finding I made during the hours I spent plowing through the 39th president’s panegyrics to sacrifice. When asked whether it was hard to be president, Carter would often reply, “It’s not a sacrifice to serve as president. It’s gratifying.” Indeed, separating himself from incompetent advisers whose presence made him feel good; accepting the normal give-and-take of politics as part of his duty to his country and his party; not scolding everyday Americans for being less noble than he—any of those things would have been hard. Ironically, the only person from whom Jimmy Carter rarely asked a sacrifice was himself.