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The Unfinished Presidency: Jimmy Carter's Journey Beyond the White House

The Unfinished Presidency: Jimmy Carter's Journey Beyond the White House

by Douglas Brinkley

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Hailed by Time magazine as "a fascinating . . . rich, energetic American story," this extraordinary biography will transform America's perception of Jimmy Carter.

Jimmy Carter left the White House in January 1981, defeated in his bid for reelection and rejected by the American public--but hardly broken. Outside the Oval Office, with a commitment


Hailed by Time magazine as "a fascinating . . . rich, energetic American story," this extraordinary biography will transform America's perception of Jimmy Carter.

Jimmy Carter left the White House in January 1981, defeated in his bid for reelection and rejected by the American public--but hardly broken. Outside the Oval Office, with a commitment rarely seen in an ex-president, he was more determined than ever to complete his life's mission: the achievement of world peace.

With unique access to the Carter archives and to the man himself, award-winning historian Douglas Brinkley brings us this unprecedented biography of the former President. Here are penetrating observations of Carter's complex relationships with such world figures as Mikhail Gorbachev, Deng Xiaoping, Margaret Thatcher, Fidel Castro, and Yasir Arafat, as well as his associations with the presidents who have succeeded him. Brinkley also reassesses the achievements of Carter's underrated White House tenure--the Camp David accords, Panama Canal treaties, and his championing of human rights. The Unfinished Presidency is the definitive portrait of this formidable world statesman.

--Brinkley is a regular commentator on NPR and his articles have appeared in the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, and Foreign Policy

"A thoroughly sourced intimate portrait of one of the country's most respected ex-presidents." --USA Today

Editorial Reviews

Godfrey Hodgson
Douglas Brinkley has told the story of Jimmy Carter's second and subsequent comings with critical sympathy and a wealth of research...Like him or not, a reader of this book may well conclude that [Carter] has understood more than anyone imagined, and done more than anyone expected.
The New York Times Book Review
Theo Spencer

He stained our national pride with a failed hostage rescue mission, hobbled us financially with helium-infused inflation and interest rates and, perhaps most unpardonably, made us wait in interminable lines at the gas pump. If you still can't forgive Jimmy Carter for these things, among many others, Douglas Brinkley's faithful chronicle of our 39th president's accomplishments since leaving office should go a good distance toward changing your mind. In The Unfinished Presidency, Brinkley stacks between two covers an exhaustively detailed compilation of all that the man from Plains has done since leaving office. In doing so, he reserves an ultimately positive (if not entirely exalted) place in history for the man he calls a "grinning Georgia overachiever blessed with a tinkerer's restless mind and a zealot's near messianic confidence in his own abilities."

Is Carter messianic or megalomaniacal? Brinkley presents conflicting evidence. We witness Carter making peace in Bosnia, Haiti, North Korea, Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia; monitoring elections in Panama, Nicaragua, Haiti and elsewhere; helping eradicate diseases like river blindness from the globe; working to eliminate famine from African countries via the spread of high-yield wheat; and struggling to free some 50,000 political prisoners, all since 1981. In Brinkley's hands, some of this material is gripping, such as Carter's tough-talking efforts to get Haitian coup leader Gen. Raoul Cedras to step down in 1994, minutes before American troops were scheduled to invade the island nation. Other anecdotes are less flattering: Carter grabbing the spotlight by briefing CNN before President Clinton on his work in Haiti, or trying to subvert George Bush's Gulf War plans by sending anti-aggression letters to various world leaders. Carter was, Brinkley writes, "complicating U.S. diplomacy with his unorthodox assumptions of authority."

Throughout all this, Brinkley -- a University of New Orleans professor and National Public Radio commentator who's written well-received books on Dean Acheson and Franklin Roosevelt -- also serves up some behind-the-scenes goodies. These include Carter's friendship with PLO leader Yasir Arafat (one that occasionally bordered on a "love fest") and, more recently, his intimacy with Clinton, who asked the Baptist minister to "pray for him in his hour of darkness."

Brinkley is an admitted Carter acolyte, and a persuasive one, but he ultimately fails to present his subject as a three-dimensional man. He makes it redundantly clear that it's Carter's small-town, overall-wearing values and Christian beliefs -- not the desire to buff his image or win a Nobel Peace Prize -- that keep him marching around the globe. Brinkley constantly refers to his subject as a "pious Christian" whose "bedrock faith" urged him and Rosalyn to "press on, to abandon despair for love and to turn defeat into victory." But he doesn't go far enough in explaining why this man, as journalist James Reston has noted, was so intense that when he dined, his knife "cut into the plate." He doesn't shed light on the Carter who famously told Playboy magazine he "lusted in his heart," or the one whose knee-jerk actions made his postpresidential staffers joke that his motto was "ready, fire, aim." Brinkley's book may lead to Carter's acceptance as one of our greatest ex-presidents, but as far as what motivated the man to become a candidate for that title, we get too much shell and not enough peanut.

Time Magazine
A rich, energetic American story.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Jimmy Carter's post-presidential career as peripatetic global peacemaker has been dismissed by critics as nave and sanctimonious, notes University of New Orleans history professor Brinkley. He retorts here, viewing the former president as a deeply ethical leader, the most principled president since Truman and, as ex-president, a "wandering sage" and true citizen of the world, working to build democracies or resolve conflicts in nations as diverse as Sudan, Haiti, Bosnia and Nicaragua. Whether one agrees with this assessment, his report on citizen Carter's peacemaking missions and public good works provides an extraordinary, in-depth look at the range of Carter's progressive activities since 1980. Brinkley credits him with defusing a potential military showdown with North Korea in 1994 and averting a U.S. invasion of Haiti the same year. He reveals Carter's scorn for Reagan, whom Brinkley considers "immoral to the core." Brinkley documents the Atlanta-based Carter Center's efforts to eradicate disease and improve agricultural efficiency in Africa. His trenchant reporting extends the story detailed in Carter's own books, Everything to Gain (1987) and Talking Peace (1993).
Library Journal
It is widely agreed that Jimmy Carter is among the greatest if not the greatest of all ex-presidents in U.S. history. The book traces Carter's postpresidential life and career since 1980 in great detail and examines the transformation of Carter from "Jimmy Who?" in 1976 to what the author calls the "Jimmy Everywhere" of today. Beginning at the end of his presidency, the author, director of the Walt Whitman Center for the Culture and Politics of Democracy at Rutgers University, charts Carter's trips, freelance and official diplomatic efforts, house building for Habitat for the Humanities, peace-building missions, crisis management overtures, electoral supervision in Nicaragua and elsewhere, and continuing emphasis on human rights. This positive but not fawning book acknowledges the criticisms of Carter's recent foreign policy ventures while giving him high marks for intent and accomplishments. Concluding that "Nothing about the White House so became Carter as his having left it," this thorough and authoritative work will be of keen interest to students of the presidency and foreign affairs. For public and academic collections.Michael A. Genovese, Loyola Marymount Univ., Los Angeles
Erwin C. Hargrove
Brinkley's book is too long and diffuse and will thus discourage readers, but the individual narratives are rich.
Political Science Quarterly
Kirkus Reviews
If you wonder why Jimmy Carter was so unsuccessful as a president and outstanding as an ex-president, this book is for you. Carter's reaction to the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) captures the essence of the Carter enigma. Promoting a technically impossible "Star Wars" scheme, Carter believed, was dishonest. Yet as historian Brinkley (Univ. of New Orleans; Dean Acheson, 1992) points out, Carter's public condemnation of SDI reveals not only moral conviction, but also an utter inability to consider that the Reagan administration was simply using SDI to pressure the Soviets. As president, Carter was a man of moral absolutes in a world colored in shades of gray. As an ex-president, however, this same quality leaves him undeterred by concerns that prevent public officials from moving forward. To gain peace Carter will sit down with terrorists; tunnel vision can be instrumental when it is the ultimate goal that matters. The moralistic Carter has "turned the establishment of personal rapport with political outlaws into a diplomatic art form," and the world is better off as a result. Brinkley is a sympathetic biographer, but Carter's less admirable traits—unrelenting competitiveness, an occasional mean streak, and the oft-noted self-righteousness—are recognized along with the qualities Brinkley admires. Be forewarned, however: Brinkley is also an encyclopedic biographer. This volume reflects a decision to interrupt work on a complete biography of Carter to write a "short book" on Carter's post-presidency. That this "short book" runs 500 pages reflects Brinkley's emphasis on comprehensiveness, resulting in a sometimes tedious "first he did this, then he did that" tone thatmakes the work less lively than it should be. But there are also delightful vignettes, such as Brinkleyþs discussion of the origins of Habitat for Humanity, that make persevering to the end worthwhile. Carter's post-presidency appears not as an "unfinished" presidency, but rather as the continuation of work that was always about more, for Carter, than being president.

Product Details

Blackstone Audio, Inc.
Publication date:
Edition description:
Unabridged, 16 Cassettes
Product dimensions:
6.99(w) x 9.75(h) x 2.28(d)

What People are Saying About This

Stephen E. Ambrose
The best of the new generation of American historians tells us in vigorous language the story of Carter's quite amazing range of activities, at home and around the world.

Meet the Author

Douglas Brinkley is a professor of history at Rice University and a contributing editor at "Vanity Fair". "The Chicago Tribune" has dubbed him "America's new past master." Six of his books have been selected as "New York Times" Notable Books of the Year. His most recent book, "The Great Deluge", won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. He lives in Texas with his wife and three children.

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