“It is difficult,” wrote David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, “to overstate the psychological overload that the drama of the Trump presidency presents.”

Millions are feeling it and looking for escape. Jonathan Alter found his in the life and times of another president: Jimmy Carter.

He recalls: “Every time I felt the toxicity of Trump I could retreat to the Carter Library. The Carter papers kind of brushed away the toxins that I was feeling surrounding me.”

The upshot is His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life, the first full-length independent biography of the 39th president, who shares little with the 45th except that both won the White House as political outsiders and both became desperately unpopular (Carter’s approval rating sank to 28%). Polls currently suggest both may last one term.

Speaking from his home in Montclair, New Jersey, Alter says: “I sent Carter an email saying, ‘Do you think you have anything in common with Donald Trump?’ and I got back a one word response: ‘No.’ Certainly in terms of their character, achievements, sense of responsibility, Jimmy Carter and Donald Trump have nothing in common.”

Indeed, Carter’s never-to-be-forgotten remark to Playboy during his 1976 election campaign – “I have looked on a lot of women with lust; I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times” – now seems a model of decorum compared with Trump’s advice on Access Hollywood: “Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”

Carter’s life spans an American century, from growing up as a barefoot farm boy – and son of a white supremacist – in the Jim Crow south to watching a nation convulsed by the killing of George Floyd. He took office in 1977, the year Star Wars dominated cinemas, Björn Borg won Wimbledon and Joe Biden was a dynamic young senator from Delaware.

Now 96, Carter is the longest-lived president and, Alter contends, perhaps the most misunderstood. Conventional wisdom holds that he was a genial failure whose defeat by Ronald Reagan was sealed by humiliations such as the Iran hostage crisis and his claim to have been attacked by a “vicious-looking, oversized swamp rabbit” while fishing. The same orthodoxy says he had a redemptive second act in public health and human rights advocacy around the world.

But Alter’s first surprise is his book cover: a portrait by Andy Warhol.

“There was a time when Jimmy Carter was cool,” says the author, who has previously chronicled Franklin Roosevelt and Barack Obama. “Hunter Thompson [the gonzo journalist] liked him so much that he helped make him president. He was genuinely friendly with Gregg Allman and Willie Nelson and spent time with and was admired by Bob Dylan and many other musicians from a lot of different genres.

“Even though playing a musical instrument is just about the only skill that Jimmy Carter doesn’t have, he’s a great music fan and did a lot to advance musicians when he was president. The music that he played in the Oval Office, and in his study just off the Oval Office, was mostly classical. Then, in the evening, he would play country music or rock’n’roll.”

This year has also seen the release of a documentary, Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President. This is not the Georgia peanut farmer of public perception. Alter adds: “He was treated by a lot of the press corps as a hick. A lot of anti-southern bias partly accounts for the Carter presidency, but he actually had one of the most cultured White House schedules of events of any president. He’s a cultural maven.”

The stocks of former presidents rise and fall. Abraham Lincoln remains the gold standard. Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower are enjoying a bull run. Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson are nosediving amid racial reckoning. Bill Clinton is said to be a good bet for future reappraisal. Alter argues that Carter is ripe for it too.

“I describe Jimmy Carter as a political and stylistic failure, especially in comparison to Ronald Reagan, his successor, but a substantive and far-sighted, even visionary success. I think he is misunderstood because people have overstressed his unpopularity and underemphasised his actual achievements as president. The extraordinary thing is how many of them there are.”

Alter points to overseas accomplishments such as the 1978 Camp David accords, ending a conflict between Egypt and Israel that had included four wars in 30 years; the normalisation of relations with China, which “provided the foundation for the global economy as we know it”; establishing human rights as a pillar of foreign policy; and the Panama Canal treaties, which prevented a major war in Central America.

The author acknowledges in his “warts and all” telling, however, that allowing the deposed shah of Iran into the US on humanitarian grounds was “the worst decision of Carter’s presidency”. He had been duped into believing the shah could not receive adequate medical attention elsewhere. The blunder precipitated the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran, with American diplomats held hostage for 444 days.

“The second worst decision,” Alter says, “was to fire a good chunk of his cabinet, also in 1979, and that went really badly and was a dumb decision for a lot of reasons.”

Domestically, however, Carter diversified the federal judiciary and signed 14 major pieces of environmental legislation, overseeing the first fuel economy standards and first toxic waste clean-up. He led by example on renewable energy, installing solar panels at the White House, only for Reagan to take them down with Trumpian spite.

Alter tantalises the reader with the thought of an alternative universe in which Carter wins a second term and gets ahead of the climate crisis – a depressing exercise in what might have been. He notes the president asked top environmental aides to produce a series of reports about the challenges the world would face in 20 years’ time.

“The final reports, which were issued in late 1980 and early 1981 just before he left, were about a problem that scientists were calling ‘carbon pollution’ or, in a few cases, ‘global warming’. The main recommendation was that the world would need to bring the rate of growth of emissions down to no more than 2C above pre-industrial levels if the planet was to not be grievously harmed by global warming. That was precisely the standard adopted in the Paris climate accords.

“So in 1980, Carter knew what had to be done. At that point he had already put in fuel economy standards that would have led to hybrid cars mandated by the late 1980s. Our entire auto industry and therefore, I think, the auto industry of the world would have shifted to hybrids in a short period of time.”

Carter would have faced opposition from car manufacturers and the fossil fuel industry, of course. Alter argues: “Would he have been able to get all of his ideas for dealing with global warming enacted? No. Would he have raised the alarm? Yes. At least we would have had a president who was interested in the science. Reagan and George HW Bush didn’t care at all about global warming. We lost a lot of time there.”

Carter’s relationship with Reagan, Bush and other successors was not in Obama-Trump territory but proved thorny all the same. A 2009 photo shows Carter back in the Oval Office with George HW Bush, Clinton, George W Bush and Obama. Perhaps most striking about the image is that Carter is awkwardly peripheral on one end, more distant from Clinton than he ought to be. According to Alter, it is no coincidence.

“He’s not a member in good standing of the ex-presidents’ club. In that picture he is standing off to the side and the others are chatting convivially. I was told by another former president that that was a perfect reflection of the actual situation. That day in general, Carter would want to be talking about his agenda and they were there to give President-elect Obama good-natured advice on what to expect, not to press their agenda.

“Carter often said whatever was on his mind and was critical of his successors. He had a very good relationship with his predecessor, Gerald Ford, but had fraught relations with his successors, especially the Democratic ones, Clinton and Obama. It boils down to Carter wanting to be a freelance secretary of state and, when you’re president, you really don’t want freelance secretaries of state.”

Alter, 63, interviewed the nonagenarian Carter more than a dozen times in his home, at his office, over meals, in transit and by email, over five years. He watched him teach Sunday school and helped him build a Habitat for Humanity house. What were his impressions of the man?

“He was and continues to be sharp as a tack,” he reflects. “He’s extremely impressive when you spend time with him because of his surpassing intelligence and his ability to charm people up close, which made him a great retail campaigner.

“But I would see flashes of the other Carter, the private Carter who might be snappish or commanding in a way that some people can find, if not offensive, at least surprising given what they know about Jimmy Carter.”

He continues: “Generally he is a person of stellar character and enormously candid and also enormously responsive. When I was dealing with him by email, I would sometimes send him him 10 questions, I’d go out for a walk, I’d come back and he would have answered all 10 of them within an hour.

“His punctuality was always there. So if I was scheduled to be with him for an hour, at one hour and 30 seconds, the interview was over. He’s an extraordinarily disciplined person. But he had trouble talking about certain family things. At one point he said, I really can only express my truest feelings in poetry.”

Carter’s post-presidency spans four decades, his marriage to Rosalynn 74 years. The couple live in Plains, a tiny town in Georgia where they met as infants, so long ago it was closer to the civil war than the present day. Carter’s record on race, as on so much else, is complicated. Alter writes that he too often stayed “silent amid the brutal abuses of civil rights in his own backyard”.

He adds by phone: “He spent the second half of his life making up for what he did or, more specifically, didn’t do and in that there’s a lesson for all of us in this post-George Floyd era. One of Carter’s statements after George Floyd’s death was that he’d learned from his travels around the world that silence equals violence. It’s never too late to speak up for racial justice and his life is a living example of that.”

Among the ex-president’s most notable legacies is the Carter Center, which since 1989 has monitored more than 110 elections in 39 countries. This year, for the first time, it designated America as a “backsliding” democracy. Trump has incessantly attacked mail-in voting and refused to commit to a smooth transition.

Having lived so long and seen so much, does Carter still have faith in the American experiment? Alter says: “Now that Trump is threatening the peaceful transfer of power, he’s very alarmed but he thinks that we’ll get past this.

“He is also very hopeful about the next generation and generally pretty optimistic. He always tries to see the good in people. He’s been criticised for trying to find the good in dictators and these thugs that he’s met with over the years. He’s just trying to keep the bullets from flying.”

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