Here’s something you probably didn’t know:
Richard Nixon, the man most responsible for putting him in the White House, can also be held to account for Jimmy Carter’s latest book — as well as the most documented ex-presidency in American history.
Yes, that’s right. That Nixon. The fellow with the metal detector and Bermuda shorts.
We know this because Carter phoned here the other day, a little damp from pounding a few nails at a Habitat for Humanity site in Washington D.C., but otherwise in good health.
Late last month, the former president had given obituary writers across the country a group heart attack by checking into a Cleveland hospital only a few days before his 86th birthday.
It took one day to kill the stomach virus, and a second day to satisfy an army of doctors — which threw a national book tour into havoc. So the intently organized Carter had to double up last week — flogging his new tome over the phone while in the middle of a five-city tour of Habitat sites.
The ex-president will be at the Carter Center in Atlanta at 6 p.m. Wednesday to sign copies of “White House Diary.”
“This may be my last chance to offer an assessment of my time in the White House,” Georgia’s most famous peanut farmer was quoted as saying in the press release enclosed with copies of the book sent to journalists.
“Well, it is,” the elderly man said over the phone, in bottom-line fashion.
The book, which runs to 500-plus pages, is a distillation of Carter’s daily and sometimes hourly, but always unofficial, musings during his four years as president.
“This is the most definitive that anybody could possibly be. I dictated my most highly personal and private notes that I made seven or eight times a day for four years. I’ve had to cut down the volume of those notes by about 80 percent,” he said. “But after about a year I’m going to make the entire original transcript available at the Carter Presidential Library.”
Details run the gamut. White House staff concerns over the fact that Carter owed no federal income taxes in 1976. (See, Nathan Deal? You’re not alone.) Mideast quibbling. Iranian hostages. A meeting with the prime minister of Grenada, who believed in flying saucers and whose dirty laundry fell out when he opened the wrong briefcase.
Most notably, the book includes Carter’s assertion that U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, who would mount a debilitating primary campaign against the president in 1980, sabotaged his president’s effort to bring about a national health care system — delaying the Democratic objective for another three decades.
“White House Diary” includes a few regrets: Carter admits he neglected the political aspects of the U.S. presidency. “I made minimal efforts to develop and maintain the [Democratic] party’s cohesion,” he confesses. (See “Kennedy, Ted.”)
And he failed to establish “a mutually respectful relationship” with the Washington press corps.
But the biggest surprise may be the origin of the ex-president’s career as a writer. Carter said he began jotting his White House notes to posterity from the get-go because of a trip to Washington not long after his election as governor of Georgia.
It was February 1971 or ’72, he thinks. The occasion was a gathering of the nation’s governors. His wife Rosalynn was with him.
Though he had earned a little national ink for his inaugural declaration that segregation in the South was dead, Carter was relatively sheltered. He had never met a U.S. president before. And Nixon was present at one affair.
“When he greeted my wife, he said, ‘Young lady, do you keep a diary?’ And she said, ‘No,’” Carter remembered. “And he said, ‘Well, you ought to.’ That’s the reason I began to keep my diary notes. Of course, I never did tape-record anybody.”
Fate is often a circular beast in pursuit of its own tail. While an excellent dispenser of advice, Nixon turned out to be a lazy diarist. His reliance on a secretly embedded recording system in the Oval Office proved his downfall in the Watergate scandal.
Nixon’s 1974 resignation cleared the way for the Georgia governor — one who promised never to tell a lie — to take the national stage.
But when the American public tired of Carter in 1980, it was Nixon and his advice who again came to the rescue of the 39th president.
“White House Diary” is only the latest of about two dozen books penned by Carter. He has experimented with poetry and fiction. But the best of the former president’s literary works are those that have depended on a diarist’s daily habit.
We know where Carter thinks his celestial soul is headed. His 500 Sunday school lesson plans — all recorded, according to “White House Diary” — tell us that.
But Carter, like Nixon and Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln and John Adams before him, also believes that man has a civic soul — an afterlife, if you will, in the bosom of history books.
This kind of immortality rarely gives its subject the last word. But our Jimmy Carter, meticulous to the end, is out to seize it if he can.