Sunday, October 31, 2010

Holiday Gift Books 2010
White House Diary
by Jimmy Carter
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A couple of the reviews of this book I've seen call it an example of why Jimmy Carter's presidency failed. I don't read it that way. As a book it's a fascinating glimpse into the day by day of a presidency. It doesn't provide an overall narrative, although Carter's Afterword tries to add some context. Instead it gives us some idea of the daily reality. Given that this was a significantly smaller country (in population) in the 1970s, this book probably only hints at the complexity of the presidential calendar.

Carter was a relative novice in Washington, but even so, some of what he learned is probably new in its extent to every President. He is surprised by the sloppy journalism of the national press, and he finds as Presidents before and after him did, that the military establishment can out and out ignore the President and try to out wait him. The diary does counter some impressions of his presidency overall--he was pretty popular at the beginning, more so than Clinton would be. And for all his attention to detail, he made some big initiatives right away, particularly in the Middle East.

He's been criticized for recording his fishing catches, or for scenes like getting down on the floor to help pianist Vladimir Horowitz spread carpets to dampen the sound for his concert that evening. But to me these are welcome examples of some balance in the White House, some break from weighty matters that is necessary for a President to stay sane. I doubt many general readers will want to read every word of every entry, but this book is surprisingly serviceable for casual reading.

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