The American presidency: two new books

Having barely survived the four years of the Trump presidency I am reflecting on how this unique institution impacts our democracy. There are two new books out about the American presidency, Peril, by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, and last year’s book on the presidency of Jimmy Carter, His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life by Jonathan Alter. Both are published by Simon and Schuster.

I just finished Peril. I pre-purchased it from Amazon Prime, and it magically came the same day as publication. I know that Amazon is evil, but damn, they’re convenient. I rarely buy books anymore, since to paraphrase from Ecclesiastes, there’s a time to buy books and a time to refrain from buying books. I have too many books. Still, the hype around this one was hard to resist and I didn’t.

Peril isn’t a great book, in much the same way that Lay’s potato chips aren’t great potato chips. To carry the metaphor a little further, you can’t really put Peril down until you’ve had more than you should have.

The chapters are very short, typically a page and a half or two. And the writing level is not particularly high; this is a book for a general audience and it shows. It’s chock-full of juicy anecdotes, but it’s a little light on nuance and political analysis.

In a synoptic approach, the focus is on the last months of the Trump presidency, the early days of the Biden campaign, the 2020 election and its aftermath until the near present. The COVID-19 pandemic pervades much of the scene. The January 6 riot at the capital is told in riveting detail.

I’ll leave it to the experts to decide whether Donald Trump is a malignant narcissist, but in the telling by the two Bobs he’s a small, mean-spirited, vengeful self-centered man. He’s not particularly interested in governing, but he likes being on TV, and he likes people talking about him in positive terms on TV. He brings out the worst impulses in America: nativism, xenophobia, White Supremacy, and hatred of the Other, be it migrants or Muslims.

The Peril in the title is not an understatement. It is clear from the telling that the man was not fit for the job and various theories about there being side-rails and/or adults in the room to keep him in check clearly were wrong. When there were adults in the room, they soon resigned, and the ones that remained were seriously lacking in their moral compasses. Trump like toadies and sycophants and he had plenty of them around.

As in all Bob Woodward books, the price for access seems to be the reclaiming of one’s reputation. Both Bill Barr and Lindsey Graham have clearly cooperated with the two Bobs in telling their versions of the story. They both come off looking better than they should, considering what we know about them from the public record.

Joe Biden and his camp come across as considerably more noble than the Trump crowd, which in fact they are, and this to me is the most interesting part of the story. The story about how Biden decided to run is a good one. After watching the White Supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August of 2017, which Trump refused to condemn, Biden believed he was entering a fight for ‘”the soul of America.” It is a sentiment that would’ve resonated with Jimmy Carter. There is some fascinating inside baseball about how Congressman James Clyburn of South Carolina became a king maker to help get Biden the nomination.

The two Bobs conclude that the continuing malign presence of Donald Trump remains a peril to our democracy, to which I cannot disagree. The final thing I want to say about this book is that it seems hastily put together. Simon and Schuster is a great publishing house, but this book, or at least my copy of it, had numerous pages where the print was smudgy and hard to read.

The other new book on the American presidency is Jonathan Alter’s His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life which came out last year and it’s also published by Simon and Schuster. This is a much better book in a variety of ways. It may be unfair to compare a full-blown biography such as Alter’s, with an ephemeral book like Peril, but I’m going to do it anyway.

The received wisdom is that Jimmy Carter’s presidency was a failure. Alter tells a much more complicated and nuanced story. He lays out Carter’s many accomplishments as well as the way that Carter hurt himself politically. Carter was stubborn, and he also thought he was above politics. He ignored the people in his own party who had accrued power and they never forgive him for it. It hampered his presidency.

Carter was an unlikely president. How he got there is a remarkable and engaging story. Carter grew up in the heart of the Jim Crow South and grew to be one of the most progressive presidents we’ve had. Carter was very late to the game in the civil rights movement. But once he was President he employed the power of his office to advance civil rights as much as any other president with the exception of Lyndon Johnson.

Carter was also ahead of his time on climate change. He had solar panels installed on the White House roof, which Ronald Reagan had removed. It’s a fascinating parlor game, but also perhaps a council of despair, to imagine what would’ve happened if Carter had won a second term, or if Al Gore had been president. Where we would be right now on climate change? But I digress.

Carter was also ahead of his time on global health and on conflict resolution. The chapters on Carter’s diplomacy with Israel and the Palestinians is one of the most engaging of the book.

Alter recognizes that Carter was one of the most lucky men to win the presidency, and one of the unluckiest men to be president. After Watergate and the dour cynicism of Richard Nixon, Carter ‘s smiling faith-filled optimism seemed just right to the electorate. But once in office he was stymied by events beyond his control, such as the fuel crisis and the revolution in Iran.

One of the really interesting things about reading these two books at about the same time is the comparison of the two men. Carter was perhaps our most moral president, and Donald Trump was well, Donald Trump. It raises the question about character in the American presidency. Unlike other systems we do not have both a figurehead chief of state, and a politician who runs things. They are combined in one awkward office. And it is an extraordinarily powerful office. Few remember that Jimmy Carter was the only president in generations whose administration was not involved in a foreign war.

As a Christian pastor I’m always interested in the interface between religion and politics. I have been dismayed by the Evangelical’s support for Donald Trump. It makes no sense to me. It seems profoundly hypocritical. Jimmy Carter was a legitimate Evangelical Christian. He taught Bible study. And he brought his moral compass to his presidency. Still, he was spurned by the evangelical right.

Alter tells a little known fact. There were six American presidents who invited Billy Graham to the White House. Only one occupant of the White House refused to have him come. It was Jimmy Carter. Carter was an evangelical Christian, but he was also a Baptist, and historically Baptists are very wary of entanglements between the church and the state. It makes complete sense that Carter would not invite Billy Graham to the White House. Good for him.

I enjoyed reading these two books at the same time. From where I sit, character still counts in our leaders. We live in a cynical age, but the kind of moral compass that Jimmy Carter brought to bear on his presidency is looking more and more attractive in these trouble times. We’ll see how Joe does.

(A note to my readers: as you may have noticed I haven’t posted since June. I broke my wrist on July 5, and I’ve had two subsequent surgeries. I am unable to type, so I haven’t been very productive lately. I’m using the dictation function to write right now. I hope to be back to writing before too long. Thank you for your patience.)