Of the more than 30 books that former President Jimmy Carter has written since leaving office, I started with his 537-page White House Diary, which he promoted on a book tour in 2010. I couldn't pass up the opportunity to meet him at a book signing because I was afraid of tackling such a long book about politics. White House Diary remained in my pile of books to read until Jimmy Carter's announcement that he had cancer motivated me to tackle it: I wanted to finish this book before he died. (I know, morose!)
While cleaning out the attic, Jimmy Carter discovered 5,000 pages of transcripts covering every day he served as the 39th president of the United States (1977-1981). His secretary was tasked with typing out his recorded thoughts as he kept a daily diary. Jimmy Carter was the first full-term president I ever experienced, but I don't remember him from that time. I only know him as a philanthropist: the guy who builds houses for Habitat for Humanity and saves lives in Africa by ridding the world of the Guinea worm. I've always liked that Jimmy Carter.
No matter your party affiliation, this book is a fascinating and informative read. It's well organized, starting with a chronological list of important events and milestones achieved while in office and a list of the senior officials with whom he worked. I barely recognized any of the names on the list, but I forged ahead anyway. The thing that makes this book less intimidating is its format. It's split up by year and by day, just like any journal, so the information is easily digestible in short chunks. It helps that Mr. Carter is a clear speaker and writer. He distilled the full 5,000 pages (which you can view at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta, Georgia) and provides his reflections on various topics and events. At times, he offers recent data or advances (and setbacks) made by subsequent administrations, giving the reader points of reference. If Jimmy Carter were my teacher, I'd probably have done better in history class.
White House Diary reveals the insanity and drama of being the president of the United States: spending your day in meetings about unrelated, complicated topics, receiving and reading massive briefings, and making quick decisions that at times determine the fate of the country or even the world. Jimmy Carter negotiated a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt that still stands today, and the Iran hostage crisis that dogged his reelection campaign still haunts him. I don't want this job, but Jimmy Carter was pretty good at it.
White House Diary includes everything, from all-nighters spent negotiating legislation to time off enjoyed with family. These entries reflect Jimmy Carter's kindness and sense of humor along with the tenacity, determination, and decisiveness needed for a leader. I was exciting to learn how integral his wife Rosalynn was to her husband's campaigns and overall office administration while accomplishing her own initiatives to improve health care for people with mental illness and the elderly. Even his mother Lillian got some things done by charming country leaders, diplomats, and other stakeholders around the world. The book ends with an afterword, where Mr. Carter reflects on his time as president with objectivity and humility that made me wish he got four more years.
By the time I finished White House Diary, I concluded that Jimmy Carter is an admirable overachiever. On any typical day during his administration, he might jog for miles at the crack of dawn, process paperwork, endure meetings, read an entire book, catch some fish, negotiate peace and renewable energy, sign acceptable legislation into law, or see a show at the Kennedy Center. These days, when he's not traveling the world or building houses and furniture, he teaches Sunday School in his hometown of Plains, Georgia. Before a recent class, he added another accomplishment to his list of many, announcing that he got rid of his cancer. I didn't expect anything less.