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Astral Codex Ten Podcast

Jul 10, 2022

[This is one of the finalists in the 2022 book review contest. It’s not by me - it’s by an ACX reader who will remain anonymous until after voting is done, to prevent their identity from influencing your decisions. I’ll be posting about one of these a week for several months. When you’ve read them all, I’ll ask you to vote for a favorite, so remember which ones you liked - SA]


I decided to read a 600-page book about Jimmy Carter because I was tired of only reading about the historical figures everyone already agrees are interesting.

John Adams became an HBO miniseries. Hamilton became a Broadway show. The Power Broker and The Years of Lyndon Johnson became such status symbols that there was a whole pandemic meme about people ostentatiously displaying them in their Zoom backgrounds. But you never hear anyone bragging about their extensive knowledge of the Carter administration.

Like most people under 70, I was more aware of Carter’s post-presidency role as America’s kindly old grandfather, pottering around holding his wife’s hand and building Houses for Humanity. I mostly knew that he liked to wear sweaters, that he owned a peanut farm, and that he lost to Ronald Reagan.

But I wondered what, if any, hidden depths lay within the peanut farmer. Also, I wanted to enter this contest, and I didn’t want to pick a book that I thought a bunch of other people might also review. So I turned to The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter, by Kai Bird. Like Carter, this book seems to have been largely forgotten. It won a Pulitzer, but I had never heard of it until I googled “best book about Jimmy Carter.” It seems to have gotten a lot less attention than similar recent biographies about Grant, Roosevelt, and Truman, and it’s hard to imagine it ever becoming a TV show or a musical.

Carter was born in 1924 in Plains, Georgia, which, as you can tell from the name “Plains,” is very dull. His father was a successful farmer, which made his family wealthy by local standards. Almost every other Plains resident during Carter’s childhood was an impoverished African-American, many of whom worked on the Carter farm, a fact that is often cited as the answer to the central mystery of Carter’s childhood: how he grew up white in the Depression-era South without becoming a huge racist. It probably doesn’t tell the whole story, though, as his siblings came out just about as racist as you’d expect.