From Publishers Weekly
This slim biography portrays a president (1977-81) with more idealism than his predecessors but less luck and political skill. In a nation still reeling from Watergate, Carter's 1976 campaign stressing freedom from Washington politics propelled him to the presidency. Princeton history professor Zelizer (Arsenal of Democracy) regretfully points out that outsider status may win elections but exercising power requires traditional insider arm-twisting which Carter was slow to learn. His successes including the SALT II arms treaty, the Egyptian-Israeli Camp David peace accords, and a Social Security tax increase (denounced by conservatives but a lifesaver for the program). Zelizer feels Carter's hardest fought victory, passage of the Panama Canal treaty, damaged him by energizing his enemies without increasing his popularity because few Americans cared. They cared about inflation and unemployment, and Carter managed to anger both liberals and conservatives by rejecting both expensive social programs and massive tax cuts. Few blame him for Iran's revolution or the hostage-taking at the American embassy, but no presidential reputation could survive their long captivity or the bungled rescue attempt. And in this latest addition to the Am erican Presidents series, Zelizer concurs with other historians' lukewarm opinion of Carter but adds that many problems were beyond his control.
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This latest volume in the Holt series of compact biographies of American presidents is written by a Princeton professor of history. When politicians, pundits, and even historians speak of a failed presidency, the Carter administration is often cited. The term may be simplistic, even unfair, yet this engaging survey indicates that it is a resonably accurate description of Carter’s single term. Zelizer pays sufficient attention to Carter’s youth, his rise through Georgia politics, and his postpresidential efforts at international mediation. But the most engrossing portion of the work deals with Carter’s successes (there were some) and failures as president. He campaigned and won as a political outsider; unfortunately, he was unable to learn that he couldn’t govern as an outsider. He lacked the traditional ties to the core elements of the Democratic Party. When the Iran hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan eroded his support among independent voters, he lacked a hard-core base to rally behind him. For general readers, this work offers a fine analysis of the man and his career. --Jay Freeman