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"Jimmy Carter" and "White House Diary"

Jimmy Carter ran for president as a maverick. It’s also how he’s lived his life.

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Jimmy Carter
By Julian E. Zelizer
Times Books
150 pp., $23

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Two outstanding new books – Jimmy Carter, an accessible, insightful examination of the Carter presidency by journalist and Princeton history professor Julian E. Zelizer and White House Diary, a day-to-day, surprisingly blunt account of his White House years written by Jimmy Carter himself – work together to offer not only a lucid overview of Carter’s troubled presidency but also an almost photorealistic portrait of the former president.

Neither book offers much in the way of surprises. Rather, both confirm public perceptions of Carter as highly principled, often uncompromising, sometimes difficult in his relations with Congress and the press, and, on occasion, excessively detail-oriented. Taken together, however, they fill in the details and – in the case of Carter’s diary – flesh out our impressions of Carter with compelling, day-by-day details.

The 1976 election – the first post-Watergate presidential race – was set up perfectly for an outsider running against the corrupt Washington establishment. As Zelizer notes, Carter “had built an entire career around positioning himself as a political outsider ... [and 1976] was a year for the maverick.”

Carter writes in his diary: “I chose to focus my campaign on three themes: truthfulness, management competence, and distance from the unattractive aspects of Washington politics.” But running as an outsider and governing as one were different things, as the newly elected Carter would discover.

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