Jonathan Alter Interview: Authoring Carter Biography Was an Escape from the Toxicity of Trump
Image attributed to Molly Alter
Jonathan Alter is an award-willing historian, columnist, author, documentary filmmaker and television producer. In 2019, he co-produced and co-directed Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists, and the film was the winner of the 2020 Emmy Award for Outstanding Historical Documentary. An MSNBC political analyst and former senior editor at Newsweek, he has written three New York Times bestsellers: The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies,The Promise: President Obama, Year One and The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope.
In his latest book release, His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life, Alter delivers the first full-length, comprehensive biography of the 39th President of the United States, with the epic story of an enigmatic man of faith and his improbable journey from barefoot farm boy to global icon. Carter turned 96 years old on October 1, 2020.
"I was surprised at the level of racial violence. I was surprised that Carter ducked it and until he was elected governor of Georgia, he would say nice things about George Wallace to try to get votes."
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Jonathan, are you staying safe and well?
Jonathan Alter: I’m doing okay, all things considered. I’m holding up okay. How about you?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Doing well, although it’s pretty irritating that some people are not taking this health crisis seriously.
Jonathan Alter: Yeah. I’m really irritated by that also and by the “real men don’t wear masks” thing. Then Giuliani says that, “Oh, people aren’t dying of this anymore,” when 700 people a day are dying. So it’s pretty annoying.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Is His Very Best the first full-length biography of Jimmy Carter?
Jonathan Alter: Yes, well the first independent biography. A guy named Peter Bourne, who was a close Carter aide and friend for a 15-year period, did one that came out about 25 years ago, but it didn’t encompass everything, and also it was written by a staffer. But, yes, mine is the first independent, full-length biography of Jimmy Carter.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Why did you undertake such a monumental task?
Jonathan Alter: I just thought that Jimmy Carter was misunderstood and that this easy shorthand “bad president, great ex-president” just didn’t do justice to the complex truth and that I should look at it myself to see if it was more complicated. He gave a virtuoso performance at the Camp David Accords. I heard that he had a plan on his desk to address climate change in his second term 30 years before it was tackled. I thought, “You know what? I’ve got to take a closer look at this guy.”
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What were you surprised to learn about Jimmy Carter during your research for the book?
Jonathan Alter: He led this kind of almost novelistic life, and that it was an epic American life with a lot of just amazing episodes I didn’t know anything about like running through a melted down nuclear reactor where you could only be in there for 90 seconds without dying. That’s when he was in the nuclear Navy and going door-to-door as a missionary for the Baptist Church in the North, dealing what can only be described as white terrorism in his own community. I didn’t know anything about Sumter County, Georgia, and it’s pretty similar to Lowndes County in Alabama. That was one county in Alabama where things were especially bad. But I don’t want to compare Sumter to Lowndes because I don’t know enough about Lowndes County.
Anyway, I was surprised at the level of racial violence. I was surprised that Carter ducked it and until he was elected governor of Georgia, he would say nice things about George Wallace to try to get votes. I was surprised by how significant it was when he beat Wallace in the 1976 primary, and he basically vanquished the racist wing of the Democratic Party at that point. I was surprised when Rosalynn Carter gave me the love letters he wrote her from the Navy which were as steamy as we’ve ever seen between a president and First Lady. There were endless surprises, I guess you would say (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I believe Carter's mother, Lillian, passed on to her son her progressive views about race relations, but there was a time, as you mentioned, when he was silent on civil rights. Did he meet Martin Luther King?
Jonathan Alter: He never actually met Martin Luther King. He met Daddy King, so he becomes an integrationist, partly with the influence of his mother, partly with the influence of his black woman farmhand, and partly because he didn’t like the way a Midshipman, First Class at the Naval Academy was treated. The farmhand named Rachel Clark signed her name with an “X,” and in many ways, acted as his mother. But then he comes home in 1953, takes over his father’s business after his father died, and he potentially ducks the civil rights movement. He doesn’t say racist things. He’s one of the only liberals in his whole county. But he doesn’t advertise it either because that would be the end of his business and the end of his political chances.
So he becomes a Senator, runs unsuccessfully for governor in 1966, has a born-again experience, goes door-to-door as a missionary, and then he runs again for governor in 1970. This time he runs to the right of the former governor who’s trying to make a comeback, and he uses dog whistles, code words and talks about how much he likes George Wallace. Late in the campaign, this Cessna pilot, who is close to the King family, introduces him to Daddy King. He and Carter connect. The pilot suggests that Carter say in his inaugural address, “The time for racial discrimination is over,” and he does that.
A lot of the white segregationists are appalled that Carter betrayed them, and the black Georgians in the crowd are amazed he said that. In Georgia in 1970, that was still a bold thing to say. Then Carter becomes a very progressive governor of Georgia, he puts up MLK’s portrait in the Georgia State Capitol, integrates the judiciary and a lot of the agencies. Pretty early on, he’s on the cover of Time magazine with the caption, “Dixie Whistles a Different Tune,” and he becomes kind of the face of the new South. He was really well positioned to go national, but by his own admission, he told me that if the Georgia Constitution allowed him to run for re-election as governor, he would’ve walked. He alienated a lot of people both with his views on race and also with his kind of elbows-out style. He was a very tough customer. He looked kind and gentle, but he’s a very tough guy.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You mentioned climate change earlier. I believe Carter installed solar panels on the roof of the White House, and Reagan got rid of them?
Jonathan Alter: Yeah. Well, at that time, solar panels were not connected to climate change. It was a path to energy independence because he didn’t want us to rely on oil from the Middle East. That was his focus. At that time, no one really knew about climate change outside of a few scientists. But then, just before he left office, he got a report from several of his people. He had acted on all of their reports in the past, and carbon dioxide pollution was identified as a problem.
So I think it’s quite likely that he would’ve gone on to address climate change. If we had done what he wanted to do like the fuel economy standard and other renewables, that would have prepared us much better for where we are today, and the conversion to renewables would’ve been easier if he’d been re-elected, even though he was pro-coal because coal was domestic, his first priority on the energy front was to get us off of foreign oil.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: How would you compare Rosalynn Carter to other first ladies?
Jonathan Alter: Rosalynn Carter, with her husband’s help, revolutionized the office of First Lady, and she was the most active First Lady in American history at that point. You can make the argument that maybe Hillary Clinton had more responsibilities and was an adviser to her husband like Eleanor Roosevelt, but Rosalynn Carter is a tremendously formidable person and extremely well liked.
She is responsible for some major achievements like most significantly chairing the President’s Commission on Mental Health in order to improve mental health services, some of which were defunded by Reagan, then funded again years later by Obama. In 1991, Rosalynn and the former First Lady of Arkansas, Betty Bumpers, were responsible for the laws in most states that require inoculation for kids before they start school.
Rosalynn was the first First Lady who became a diplomat. She went on an important diplomatic mission to Latin America. In the years since, she has been her husband’s full partner in everything they’ve done at the Carter Center. I think comparing her to other first ladies is a little bit unfair to the other first ladies because she was so active on so many different fronts. Since then, she has sponsored the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving at Georgia Southwestern State University, and the program has helped to change how we view caregivers. She teamed up with Congressman Claude Pepper, and they did a lot to end the federal mandatory age retirement requirement. The list of her achievements goes on and on.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Jimmy Carter used to say that George W. Bush was the worst president in history because of the number of deaths in the Iraq War. Has his opinion changed?
Jonathan Alter: Carter said that Trump is an illegitimate president, but since COVID, I haven’t interviewed him. I did many interviews with him before COVID, but he had a fall last year, and he’s quite frail, so he doesn’t give interviews anymore. He issued a statement about the pandemic, but he tends to look at things in terms of body counts like how many people died because of someone’s decision.
Of course, he said Trump’s a liar, and in the summer of 2017, he called him an illegitimate president who was put in by the Russians. He was so appalled by the Iraq War. But I think that the combination of children in cages and the negligence on the pandemic that led to many deaths because Trump was botching the effort, may have changed his opinion. In May, the experts were concluding that mask wearing would help. So from May until October, the failure to wear masks is a major contributor as to why we’ve been hit so much harder than other countries. So I think Carter would put that on an historical tab, but I don’t actually know whether he would now think Trump is the worst president ever.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You predicted that the 2000 election (George W. Bush and Al Gore) would be settled in court and was the first pundit to predict the long recount process. What is your prediction for this election 20 years later?
Jonathan Alter: It will either be a Biden landslide or a contested election. In other words, it might be an election where Biden doesn’t win by enough, and Trump has already indicated he’ll challenge the results. But there is a chance that Trump can make a comeback between now and the election. I never say “never” in politics.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Donald Trump continues to voice doubts about the validity of the election results, which is definitely not a good thing.
Jonathan Alter: That’s why when I wrote the book about Carter, it was an escape for me from the toxicity of Trump. I think one of the reasons it’s selling so well is the contrast. Carter is the un-Trump. Where Carter is monitoring elections around the world trying to ensure democracy, Trump is trying to destroy our faith in elections. Carter has devoted a lot of his life to the peaceful transfer of power. In 1990, in Nicaragua, he even talked communist Ortega into leaving power peacefully and not challenging the election.
That’s why I couldn’t answer the earlier question about whether Carter feels that Trump is the worst president. I don’t know for sure. But I think that, at this point, Carter probably feels that Trump is the worst president ever. When he said that Bush was the worst ever, it was before Trump didn’t commit to a peaceful transition of power, and he is the first president in American history who has not guaranteed that. That’s very scary and of real concern not just to Carter but to everybody who pays any attention to our history.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Jimmy Carter recently turned 96 years old. Is he satisfied or happy with his life’s accomplishments?
Jonathan Alter: Yeah. He’s very happy with his life and what he’s been able to accomplish. He read and memorized the poem “Invictus,” and I asked him if he now was the master of his fate and captain of his soul. He said, “Yes, I am.” He felt like he had accomplished a lot, but he always wants to do more. So even now, he is trying to raise money for COVID relief and urging people to vote for Joe Biden.
Carter can’t travel. He’s frail. But he will do whatever he can to try to advance the causes he believes in. At this point, he is a world class humanitarian. For all of his shortcomings, he has done more for more people than almost anybody you can think of anywhere in the world. So I think he’s pretty happy with the way things have gone. But he’s never satisfied. He’s a driven individual. He always wants to do more for himself and for the world.
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