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‘The Outlier’ paints a complex portrait of Jimmy Carter

‘The Outlier’ paints a complex portrait of Jimmy Carter

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Kai Bird’s book “The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter” seeks to renovate the legacy of the Carter administration in the only way likely to succeed: by adding to the scales of judgment an enormous amount of research and a refreshing lack of partisanship. 

Considering the fact that Carter’s single term in office is routinely caricatured as a mess of domestic malaise (long lines at the gas pumps and stagflation) and international impotence (the Iranian hostage crisis), it hasn’t lacked for good histories. In recent years alone, there was Nancy Mitchell’s excellent 2016 foreign policy analysis “Jimmy Carter in Africa: Race and the Cold War,” Stuart E. Eizenstat’s brilliant but biased 2018 book “President Carter: The White House Years,” and Jonathan Alter’s affectionate “His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life” from last year. And back in 1982, there was “Crisis: The Last Year of the Carter Presidency” by Carter adviser Hamilton Jordan, which remains one of the most frank and gripping White House memoirs of the modern era. 

All such accounts, however disparate, convey more or less the same impression of the man himself: Carter was a Southern Democrat, an engineer, an idealist, and a perfectionist. But even the friendliest renditions admit he could be a mulish martinet, fussily prone to getting stuck in the weeds of any issue, and oddly thin-skinned for a man in public service. “He tended to think that he was the smartest fellow in the room. And he probably was,” Bird writes in “The Outlier.” “But he also had a stubborn streak and a surprising audacity. His self-confidence bordered on arrogance.”

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