Before becoming actively involved in politics, liberal-leaning Jimmy Carter was a successful cotton farmer and businessman in Plains, Georgia. When the state’s governor, senators and most other leading citizens joined the White Citizens Council, he was asked to join. When he refused, he was told that he was the only white man in the community who didn’t sign up.
“A sign was put on our office door one night, COONS AND CARTERS GO TOGETHER,” Carter writes in A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety.
This wasn’t the only time the 39th president, Nobel Peace Prize winner and international humanitarian has created a major controversy. Who can forget the Playboy magazine interview when Carter admitted he had “looked on a lot of women with lust?” Then there was Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, his 2006 book that was condemned by a pro-Israel lobby and a number of prominent political leaders.
Today, depending on how controversial his latest statements or writings have been, Carter receives between 1,500 and 3,000 letters a month, according to his new memoir. But there’s little in the new book to provoke his critics. Instead, he reflects on his full and mostly happy life as a respected activist and public figure, while revealing some “personal and intimate events” for the first time.
One of his most surprising revelations relates to his sometimes rocky relationship with wife Rosalynn Carter. Married in 1946 — they lived next door to each other in Plains and grew up together — Carter explains that he followed the example of his father and other men he knew by making the primary decisions in his family. But when he decided to leave the Navy in 1953 after his father’s death and return to the farm in Georgia, Rosalynn, who had not been consulted, “was astounded and furious.”
She wasn’t consulted about his decision to run for the Georgia Senate, either, but she didn’t get mad that time. Instead, she went to work helping out in his campaign and even making speeches, forcing her husband to realize how capable she was. For the first time in their marriage, they became partners in every aspect of their lives.
There were other conflicts, such as the time the couple decided to coauthor a book about personal health. That was a terrible decision, both discovered, and resulted in constant arguments and communication “only through harsh e-mails.” Their editor intervened and the book, Everything to Gain: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life, was finally published.
They made up that time, of course, and all the other times, and are so close today that this book is dedicated “To Rosalynn, who has kept my life full of love.”
Rosalynn liked planning entertainment for dignitaries, and one of the most readable chapters in the book recalls the social life of the Carter White House, with the couple inviting “thousands of friends” to spend the night and attend concerts or other official entertainment for foreign visitors. A favorite overnight guest was Willie Nelson, who would run five miles with Carter during his visits. Other guest artists included Beverly Sills, Isaac Stern, André Previn, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Frank Sinatra, Leontyne Price, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Dolly Parton.
Carter also muses on his childhood at the farm; his strong religious beliefs; his paintings and poems, several of which are included in the book; Habitat for Humanity, which helps build houses in America and abroad and plans to build 100 houses in Nepal this year; and the Carter Center, a nonprofit organization founded by the Carters in 1982 to improve the lives of people around the world, now thriving with a staff of 180 and thousands of volunteers.
The two chapters in Carter’s memoir about his presidential duties are titled “Issues Mostly Resolved” and “Problems Still Pending.” In the former, he writes about the hostage crisis his last year in office, calling it “the most stressful and unpleasant year of my life.” From late 1979 to early 1981, Carter struggled unsuccessfully to release 52 Americans held captive for more than a year by Iranian militants. His inability to bring them home made him look weak and ineffectual.
Most of the political material here has been covered in numerous other books, including some by Carter himself. A surprisingly good writer, Carter is the author of more than two dozen titles, including A Remarkable Mother, a charming paean to Bessie Lillian Gordy Carter, who went to India with the Peace Corps at age 70, and An Hour Before Daylight: Memories of a Rural Boyhood, a lovely and haunting memoir about his Depression-era childhood that was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2002.
A Full Life is not the best book Jimmy Carter has written, but it is a wise and moving look back at a truly remarkable man.
Elizabeth Bennett reviewed this book for the Houston Chronicle.