Comprehending a Life

Alumnus Peter G. Bourne's biography of Jimmy Carter is the first book to chronicle the former chief executive's fortunes from Plains to postpresidency

By John D. Thomas

A bungled burglary at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., in June 1972 changed the face of American presidential politics. In the wake of Watergate, Peter G. Bourne realized that the national political power structure was in turmoil and that the opportunity was ripe for a complete outsider to run for the highest office in the land. So he sat down and tapped out a ten-page memo and gave it to his boss, Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter.

"No southerner has captured the presidency because he has not been willing to take the drastic step away from traditional southern politics that is necessary," Bourne wrote at the conclusion of his memo. "What is critical is the psychological and emotional decision to take the risk and run for the presidency to win, whatever the eventual outcome might be. I hope you will consider it and I think you can win."

Bourne dismisses the idea that his observations convinced Carter to run for the White House, but he will admit that the memo started the ball rolling. "At that time, nobody had become president in recent history who hadn't been part of the power structure of their party," Bourne said recently. "And I know Carter was embarrassed even to raise it with those who were closest to him because it would have seemed inordinately egotistical, hopelessly unrealistic, and embarrassing for him even to discuss. You add to that his natural humility, and there was no way he was going to raise it. But I really thought that Carter had the capacity to be president, that he was a truly unusual person. But until somebody laid it out and made it OK for him to talk about it, it was going to go nowhere. So I think my contribution was less convincing him to run than making it all right for him to run."

A psychiatrist, Bourne studied at Emory College for a year before going on to earn his medical degree from the University in 1962. When Carter was elected governor, Bourne joined his staff as a health care expert. He headed Carter's Washington campaign office during his successful run for the presidency and subsequently became a special assistant on health care. With an office in the West Wing of the White House, he had direct access to the president. "My most vivid memory," he says of that time, "is sixteen-hour days, seven days a week, unrelenting pressure, and never having enough sleep." Bourne has channeled much of the insight he gained from those experiences into his new book, Jimmy Carter: A Comprehensive Biography from Plains to Postpresidency. The New York Times has described the work as "seductive and important," and Publisher's Weekly has called it "the most reliable [Carter] biography thus far."

A great deal already has been written about America's thirty-ninth president, including eleven books by Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter themselves, but Bourne believes his work fills a void. "It's the only major book that has been done with Carter's cooperation," explains Bourne, who is also the author of a biography of Fidel Castro. "No other book will have the same detail, the same extensive range. At present, there really is not another book that deals with his entire life. There are books that were written prior to his assuming the presidency, and there are books about different aspects of the presidency like Camp David that are very detailed, but there is no comprehensive biography."

Because of his longtime friendship with Jimmy Carter and high regard for his subject, Bourne says maintaining objectivity was a concern. He believes that his closeness to Carter ended up being a kind of "double-edged sword. On the one hand, the close relationship enabled me to have a better and more intimate understanding of him. It enabled me to know the important elements and the important relationships in his life that a complete outsider wouldn't necessarily be aware of. At the same time, if you've known somebody intimately and you have some affection for them, there has to be an inevitable sympathy, if not a bias. But I worked very hard to be objective, and knowing him as well as I do, I think I know his shortcomings as well as his strengths."

While Carter is revered around the world today for his successes through The Carter Center, Bourne believes many people have underrated what he was able to accomplish in Washington. He points to the peace talks between Egypt and Israel at Camp David, the SALT II treaty, normalization of relations with China, and the deregulation of industries, including the airlines. "His accomplishments as president were enormous," says Bourne.

The author believes there are two primary reasons that Carter's presidency has been given short shrift. "One is that Carter himself has never been self-promotional. Other presidents had a significant part of the White House devoted essentially to public relations, and Carter found that totally unacceptable. At the same time, after he lost there was a very conscious effort by the people around Ronald Reagan to denigrate Carter's accomplishments."

Bourne also discredits the idea that Carter's humanitarian efforts have been designed to reburnish his image after losing the election. "I think if he had served two terms he would be doing exactly the same thing, and he would probably be doing it even more successfully," he says.

Bourne portrays Carter as a man with an uncanny drive to succeed. But unlike many politicians, in whom this intense will to win is fueled by a desire for prestige or power, Carter's drive grew from his profound faith in God.

"He was very much driven by his religious beliefs and his feeling that what really mattered in life and what was most rewarding was to feel gratified spiritually," says Bourne. "And to do that in his terms meant understanding the Christian message and living his life as closely modeled on that of Christ as possible. I think that is probably the single greatest driving force in his life. And I think he has always been committed to the notion of improving the quality of people worldwide."

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