Review: A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety

A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety
A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety by Jimmy Carter
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In this book, former president Carter looks back at his childhood, time in the Navy, and his political career. The last third or so of the book is dedicated to various national and international issues that he worked on during his administration and through the Carter Center, and his assessment of their progress and how subsequent presidents have dealt with them. Throughout the book are reproductions of President Carter’s paintings and poems he has written over the course of his life.

President Carter has written many books, most on more specific topics. This one ranges widely and some chapters have the understandable vagueness of a 90 year old man looking backwards many decades. He’s at his best here when writing about his White House years, no doubt improved by having access to his presidential diaries and, therefore, details. Towards the end of the book, the sections become quite short, with 2 paragraphs on abortion, three on North and South Korea, 4 on his opinion regarding the efficacy of economic embargoes, and so on. It has the feel of the writer wanting to be sure that all his thoughts on every topic get handed down before time runs out. Most of them are interesting and informed by so much experience; so very worth reading, even if I don’t agree with every word.

It’s a revelation to read histories and memoirs written about times one has lived through. Jimmy Carter was president when I was in elementary school. His daughter, Amy, was roughly my age. Everything I knew about the Carter presidency came via snippets of tv news and what I heard from the adults around me. In our eyes, he was a good guy who was dedicated to peace and energy conservation. He was a dad who wore sweaters. To us as New Yorkers, he was a peanut farmer and maybe a yokel. (Interesting to learn that the press carefully cultivated this view of Carter as a hayseed.) Did you know that, when he was running for president, the fact that he was religious was widely held against him. Now, candidates fall all over themselves trying to prove just how pious they are. Did you know Carter was an avid reader and classical music aficionado who served in a leadership position on one of the U.S.’s earliest nuclear subs? Did you know Carter had three adult sons when elected, two of whom lived in the White House during his presidency? And that the oft-told tale of Carter installing solar panels on the White House roof is true? (As is the one about Reagan taking them down.)

Also interesting in this book is his recognition of shortcomings – Alliances he failed to make, as with Ted Kennedy, resulting in some major losses such as when Kennedy withdrew support for Carter’s proposals for free and universal pre-natal care. And in his relationship with his wife, in which he repeatedly made major decisions without informing her until afterwards.

I don’t understand when people say Carter’s was a failed presidency. So many of the things he stood for are still regarded as important: peace, land conservation, alternative energy, diplomacy. And, in his career post-presidency: free and fair elections, disease prevention, affordable housing, equitable food distribution. All good stuff, and hard to argue with.

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