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Historian Kai Bird Writes Biography Of Former President Carter

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A biographer of Jimmy Carter would like you to reconsider his presidency.

KAI BIRD: People sort of make a joke of the fact that Jimmy Carter is the only president to have used the Oval Office as a stepping stone to doing greater things.

INSKEEP: Kai Bird knows Carter is considered the greatest post-president. Since leaving office, Carter has observed elections, spoken for human rights, hammered nails to build houses for Habitat for Humanity and taught Sunday school far into his 90s. But conventional wisdom calls Carter's actual presidency a failure. The man from Plains, Ga., served a single term - elected in 1976, defeated in 1980. Bird's book "The Outlier" insists on a closer look at those four years.

BIRD: I would argue he was the hardest-working president we had in the 20th century, probably the most intelligent and well-read and, without a doubt, the most decent. It's forgotten, but he actually got a lot done during his four years in office.

INSKEEP: What are some of the things that he got done?

BIRD: Well, you think about seatbelts and airbags. That happened during his presidency. He deregulated the alcohol industry, giving us the opportunity to drink boutique beers in every American city instead of just Budweiser.

INSKEEP: Deregulated the airlines.

BIRD: He deregulated airlines, which allowed middle-class Americans to travel instead of driving long distances.

INSKEEP: Because the regulated airlines were more limited flights for higher prices. They were out of the range of a lot of people.

BIRD: Exactly. He deregulated natural gas. He deregulated the trucking industry. He passed a lot of social legislation. He appointed more African Americans and women to the federal judiciary than all his predecessors put together. His presidency was very consequential. And then on the foreign policy field, it's an incredible record. You know, he passed the Panama Canal Treaty against strong opposition. He negotiated a SALT II arms treaty. He normalized relations with China, passed immigration reform. He made human rights the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy. And none of this has been walked back. You know, it's a very clean record.

INSKEEP: He is portrayed as a big government liberal. That's how Ronald Reagan, who defeated him for the presidency, described him. But you've just been talking about deregulation, about shrinking the role of government in many instances. In what way was he a liberal, and in what way was he maybe not at all?

BIRD: Well, this is what attracted me to writing about his life and presidency. He's very complicated. You know, he was a social liberal. He was a white, Southern man who was the first Southerner elected to the presidency in 140 years. But he was an anomaly. That's why I call the book "The Outlier." He came from the deepest part of segregated south Georgia, and yet he was a liberal on race. But he was a fiscal conservative on the federal budget and on spending.

INSKEEP: When people said he was a big government liberal, did they actually just mean that they disagreed with his views on race - because he was appointing Black people to the judiciary, because he was giving back the Panama Canal, because he was worried about the U.S. image in formerly colonized places? Was that really what it was all about?

BIRD: Well, in the end, I argue that was essentially why he was defeated in 1980. He was only a one-term president. And he won in 1976 with the votes of white Southerners and evangelical voters and the Jewish vote and the union vote. And in 1980, just four years later, he lost the evangelicals, largely because he insisted on a separation of church and state and refused to allow white academies in the South to have tax-exempt status.

INSKEEP: Oh, these are schools that were started after the time of segregation so that white parents could continue to keep their kids away from Black students.

BIRD: Exactly. And Carter disapproved of that.

INSKEEP: When you talk about the number of people who were formerly supportive of him who he was willing to upset, you say he was willing to upset labor unions. He's willing to upset white evangelicals. He was willing to upset a lot of progressives. When he did those things, who was he for? Who did he think he was acting for?

BIRD: He thought he was acting in the larger public interest. To him, that meant lower middle class, poor people. For instance, he was willing to expand food stamps, adding 2 or 3 million to the rolls of food stamps that benefited largely African Americans in the South. He canceled - vetoed the B-1 bomber because he realized it was just too damn expensive and unnecessary. But this alienated a lot of liberal congressmen where the B-1 bomber would have been built in their districts. You know, Carter was willing to alienate a lot of people if he thought what he was doing was in the public good.

INSKEEP: Was this part of his political problem, also, that Americans didn't want to hear that there were problems with America that needed to be fixed?

BIRD: Oh, that was very much an issue. Recall his famous malaise speech in July of 1979. He never actually used the word malaise, but it was an extraordinary speech given after 10 days of retreat in Camp David, where he sat down and listened to a lot of criticism of his administration and came out with a speech that talked about the limits of American exceptionalism, the limits of finding happiness through material goods. It was a really extraordinary sermon, but he was trying to warn us Americans about the environment, about the limits of our view of ourselves as a nation that could be a shining light on the hill to others. He wanted to tell the American people that we have to be aware, that we cannot seek happiness simply in material goods.

INSKEEP: I have a question about that. Did he give the wrong speech that hurt him or just lose the argument over what it meant? - because you pointed at the beginning, he never even used the word that is used to describe the speech, malaise.

BIRD: Well, actually, when he gave the speech, it was - most Americans were stunned, and they could respond to what he was saying. They knew that there was some truth in this. But this came, you know, in the wake of long gas lines all summer long and an energy crisis and inflation rates of 13, 14%. And, you know, there was - a lot of people were kind of tired of the late '70s.

INSKEEP: Kai Bird, author of "The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.