I should be grateful that Rick Perlstein devoted 5,000 words to reviewing my biography of Jimmy Carter [“True Colors,” October 18/25]. That’s a lot of words. Unfortunately, the essay is less a review of the biography than a litany of the author’s complaints about Carter as a politician. For Perlstein, Carter is just not left enough, not liberal enough—and not a populist. I am reminded of a letter that Arthur Schlesinger Jr. sent to Victor Navasky in 1998 when I published a biography of McGeorge and William Bundy: “I would like to have said to Kai Bird that fair-minded scholarship triumphed over evident political disapproval in his very good book on the Bundys.” Perlstein’s review of The Outlier does just the opposite, allowing his ideology to blind him to the nuance of the biographical narrative. This is an old problem between historians and biographers. We need both—but in my view biography is the higher art.
new york city
Despite his espousal of universal human rights—the best feature of his presidency—Jimmy Carter was markedly to the political right of any Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt. His considerably more liberal and more pro-union vice president, Walter Mondale, was picked to placate the more liberal wing of the party and to mask Carter’s underlying conservatism.
Carter’s administration marked the emergence of the neoliberal age. He began the process of reconstructing a top-down, fully corporatized America. The abnegation of effective government regulation started during his administration with the deregulation of the telecommunications and airline industries.
True, the succeeding, far more right administration of Ronald Reagan vastly accelerated all of these trends, but their genesis resided in Carter’s presidency. His haughty, humorless preachiness and excoriation of the moral failings of average Americans were part of that process. There was, in fact, a rather seamless transition between the two administrations.
Like many serious people, Jimmy Carter bought the argument that a large budget deficit would destroy the economy. But more important for the United States and the entire world, he realized that we couldn’t continue on the path of unrestrained consumption that was destroying the atmosphere and the planet itself. I’m with Kai Bird. Carter was ahead of his time.
A Stream Called Drowning Creek
Thank you for publishing Ada Limón’s beautiful and powerful prose poem “Drowning Creek” [September 6/13]. Sustained metaphor, lines that breathe and carry the weight of thoughts and feelings… what a treat. I had almost despaired of reading poems in magazines; I’m glad I took the time to read this one.