Carter's Candor

The courage behind White House Diary

Plains Spoken: Carter's next book, Craftsmanship, will showcase his pleasure pursuits, painting and woodworking.
Jimmy Carter Library

It is one of the few pieces of advice Jimmy Carter took from Richard Nixon.

Nixon asked Mrs. Carter at their first meeting, “Do you keep a diary, young lady?” Mrs. Carter pursued an ambitious agenda, traveling on the president’s behalf to world trouble spots. To the delight of many, the Carters did not conform to gender roles; she never got around to that diary, but he did. He dictated seven or eight times a day and ultimately brought five thousand pages of notes home to Plains, Georgia, when his term ended.

Holding fast to his legendary honesty, the president has given us the entries largely as they were dictated. “Despite a temptation to conceal my errors, misjudgments of people, or lack of foresight,” he says, “I decided when preparing this book not to revise the original transcript, but just to use the unchanged excerpts from the diaries that I consider to be most revealing and interesting.”

The book is astonishing proof that, for a president, there is no normal day. Dive in at virtually any juncture and see this truth; for instance, when Carter talks about—in the same breath—the normalization of relations with China and swimming with his daughter Amy.

In a recent interview with Emory Magazine, Carter, a University Distinguished Professor since 1982, could not be tempted to grandiosity regarding the roller coaster of public life.

“I or President Obama or the head of Coca-Cola or anyone goes through periods of intense engagement, but you still get up in the morning, breathe, deal with your family, possibly pursue hobbies. The juxtaposition of the global issues and the mundane opportunities of life are present in the life of everyone. My life has always been diverse in its character.”

For many students of history, Carter’s Middle East success and his struggle with the Iranian hostage crisis are the book’s banner items. But there are other revelations, as well.

This, for example, jumps out from July 14, 1977: “Had a meeting with Hugh Carter and other members of the staff to discuss how we would react to an imminent nuclear attack. My intention is to stay here at the White House as long as I live to administer the affairs of government, and to get Fritz Mondale into a safe place, underground or in a command airplane.”

Asked if courage came easily to him—and reminded that George W. Bush had no such choice as 9/11 unfolded—Carter made no apology, saying, “That was a unilateral decision, not even one that I discussed with Rosalynn. Fritz Mondale was completely competent to administer the affairs of my office.”

In his 2002 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Carter described himself as “a citizen of a troubled world,” but concluded on a hopeful note. Asked if that speech would end the same way now, he answered, “That is still my hope, but the expectation is much less.” He went on to list what haunts him, including the American inclination toward war, violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and our declining influence in the Middle East.

Indeed, at the beginning of White House Diary, guiding his successors seems to be part of his motivation: “I was surprised by the number of subjects that were of common interest to me and other presidents.”

The end, though, is more personal. “The words in these diary entries have almost seemed to come from an unrestrained and unbiased third party,” Carter writes, “and by rereading them I have gained a better understanding of myself and my administration.”

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