Magazine | May 14, 2018, Issue

Carter from the Inside

President Jimmy Carter (right) with Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, March 1978 (Chuck Fishman/Getty Images)
President Carter: The White House Years, by Stuart E. Eizenstat (Thomas Dunne, 1,024 pp., $40)

The reputation of Jimmy Carter is an odd thing. Conservatives tend to view him as a left-wing flake. While he was president, the Left tended to despise him as a conservative. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. often said that Carter was the most conservative Democratic president since Grover Cleveland. He did not mean that as a compliment. In 1980, Senator Ted Kennedy challenged President Carter for the Democratic nomination — from the left, of course. The big issue was national health care. It was Kennedy’s dream; Carter balked.

Carter was president for four years. He has been an ex-president for 37 years, and counting. When people opine on Carter, they are usually opining on the ex-president. Presenting the Nobel Peace Prize to Carter in 2002, the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Gunnar Berge, said, “Most of us become more conservative as we grow older. With Jimmy Carter, the opposite seems to be the case. In this respect, he is an atypical pensioner, growing with the years more and more radical and critical of society.” That is entirely true.

Stuart E. Eizenstat is explicit in his title: “President Carter.” It is with Carter from 1977 to 1981 — the White House years — that he is concerned. Eizenstat was Carter’s chief domestic-policy adviser. He also had a substantial hand in foreign affairs. For this mammoth, exhaustive study, he interviewed some 325 people, including Carter himself (five times). He began his research in 1981, as soon as the Carter presidency was over. What took him so long to complete his book? Well, he has been doing other things, too. Under President Clinton, for example, he was the U.S. ambassador to the European Union. He is also the head of international practice at the law firm of Covington & Burling.

Ideally, you would want a mammoth, exhaustive study to be written by an independent analyst, such as Robert A. Caro (who has been working on LBJ for decades). Eizenstat is an insider and fan. But he is hardly blind to Carter’s flaws. He is even cheeky, occasionally. Speaking of Israel’s prime minister, he writes, “Rabin had been so cool and reserved that he made Carter look warm — no small feat.”

Carter is often thought of as weak and hapless, and that he could be. But he was also tough as nails — even hard. Eizenstat quotes Jody Powell, Carter’s press secretary, who once quipped, “He’s a hard-headed little son-of-a-bitch.” He said this with admiration.

In his introduction, Eizenstat says, “Let me be clear: I am not nominating Jimmy Carter for a place on Mount Rushmore. He was not a great president, but he was a good and productive one. He delivered results, many of which were realized only after he left office.” He further says that he is advancing “what is admittedly a revisionist view of the Carter presidency.” Readers will have their own views, of course. Those who strongly dislike Carter will have their dislike confirmed; those who warmly admire him will have their admiration confirmed. Others may find Carter startling, hard to pin down. An interesting man, an interesting president, with a streak of tragedy in him, and a streak of nobility (and a streak of insufferability).

Studying Carter, a person necessarily studies the 1970s: Watergate; defeat in Vietnam; the oil crisis; “stagflation”; the Panama Canal treaties; the death of Mao and the rise of Deng Xiaoping; environmentalism; women’s rights; the “refuseniks” of the Soviet Union; the fall of the Shah of Iran; Khomeini’s Islamic revolution; the hostage crisis. The sheer difficulty of the problems Carter faced is staggering. President Trump has been lucky enough to experience almost nothing so far. And Republicans who think that the media are tough only on Republican presidents — can consider the case of Jimmy Carter.

It is Eizenstat’s contention that Carter began what his successor, Ronald Reagan, would get credit for. My fellow Reaganites will gag on this, but Eizenstat has a case, when it comes to the taming of inflation, the rebuilding of the military, a liberating deregulation, and more.

Through it all, you get a big and colorful cast of characters, not all of them southern, but with the accent on the South. Consider the first lady, Rosalynn Carter (born in Plains, like Jimmy). Nancy Reagan was a participant in the Reagan presidency, or a meddler, if you like. Mrs. Carter was at least an equal participant-meddler-partner. The vice president, Walter Mondale, was a Minnesotan. His voice, in quotations by Eizenstat, is a delight throughout. He once advises the president that America must not be pushed around by “these twerps,” meaning the Iranian revolutionaries.

Charles Krauthammer, the conservative columnist, once worked for Mondale, in less conservative days. “I loved him,” he once told me. I can see why.

Eizenstat is from Georgia, like his president. He first met Carter in 1969. When Carter ran for governor in 1970, Eizenstat was his policy adviser. Carter ran a “populist, anti-establishment campaign,” as Eizenstat says. He would do the same in 1976, when he ran for president. Eizenstat cites two aides on the ’76 campaign, who came from national Democratic politics: Ted Van Dyk and Robert Shrum. Both of them quit when they realized how conservative Carter was. Late in his book, Eizenstat writes, “At the most profound level Carter was a moderately conservative Democrat heading a party dominated by outspoken liberal interest groups.”

He had an allergy to budget deficits — an allergy that the Democratic party had largely dropped and that the Republican party soon would. Tip O’Neill, the speaker of the House from Cambridge, Mass., rebuked Carter for following a “Republican line.” In his 1978 State of the Union address, Carter said, “We need patience and good will, but we really need to realize that there is a limit to the role and the function of government. Government cannot solve our problems, it can’t set our goals, it cannot define our vision.” Eizenstat titles one of his chapters “The Free-Market Consumer Populist.”

The chapter on the Panama Canal is one of the more engrossing ones. In the 1976 campaign, Carter got to President Ford’s right, accusing him of trying to negotiate our canal away. After winning, Carter realized the importance of a solution to the Panama situation, increasingly volatile. He achieved the treaties. William F. Buckley Jr. had a famous debate with Reagan over them: Buckley for them, Reagan against. Buckley always said that Reagan had the best of both worlds: He opposed the treaties, rallying the Right, thus helping him win the GOP presidential nomination in 1980; and he arrived in the Oval Office with Panama already solved.

Carter brought a new emphasis on human rights to foreign policy. A lot of people thought him naïve. Not Eizenstat, who says that Carter recognized something about foreign policy: It had to be “a blend of ideals and practicalities, a marriage of the best of American values with realpolitik.” He also says that attention to human rights put the Soviets on the defensive, giving the United States “an ideological weapon” to compete with their “tired cry of international class struggle.” That is correct.

Where the military is concerned, Eizenstat says that Carter “reversed the post-Vietnam decline.” He has the numbers to back up the claim. Carter did not hollow out the military, as his conservative opponents feared (and as “his liberal supporters hoped,” Eizenstat wryly notes). Also, he pressed NATO allies to increase their own defense spending, as American presidents are still doing.

I confess that I was not looking forward to reading Eizenstat’s chapters on the Arab–Israeli conflict and the Camp David Accords. We have been reading about these things for 40 years, and what is there left to say? Yet Eizenstat’s account is fascinating: detailed, intimate, even page-turning. He confirms the judgment of Bernard Lewis, dean of Middle East historians, who says that Anwar Sadat dared a visit to Israel because he was alarmed at what Carter was doing: bringing the Soviet Union back into the Middle East in the hope of achieving a “comprehensive” agreement. Sadat had already kicked the Soviets out. In Eizenstat’s telling, Carter was initially displeased at Sadat’s unilateral boldness, having his heart set on a different peace structure.

Carter and the Israeli leader, Menachem Begin, “brought out the worst in each other,” Eizenstat writes. Oh, yes. Carter admitted, “I have a coldness in my heart toward him.” That of Carter’s national-security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was probably even colder. He and Begin were truly “Poles apart,” to borrow the old line. (A word to the young: The American national-security adviser and the Israeli prime minister both had origins in Poland.)

Reading about Iran, no one could envy Carter’s position: how to deal with the Shah, how to deal with the revolution, how to deal with the hostage crisis. It is sobering to put oneself in the president’s shoes. It is not always comfortable to be where the buck stops. (Carter had President Truman’s old sign — borrowed from the Truman Library — on his desk: “The Buck Stops Here.”) The rescue operation, popularly known as “Desert One,” was a riot of bad luck. Hearing about the result, Hamilton Jordan, Carter’s chief of staff, “rushed into the president’s bathroom and threw up.”

That is one detail you learn from Eizenstat, in a thousand pages loaded with them. He tells little-known stories, in all sorts of areas. How did Stephen Breyer wind up on the Supreme Court, in 1994? Well, it relates to a weird little collaboration between Ted Kennedy and Strom Thurmond, the arch-conservative from South Carolina, 14 years earlier . . . On the subject of Kennedy: You may remember the awkward scene between him and Carter at the 1980 Democratic convention. The president, says Eizenstat, “thought Kennedy had been drinking.” Eizenstat addresses all the Carter lore: the “killer rabbit,” the micromanagement of the White House tennis court, the “malaise speech.” Sometimes the facts spoil the lore.

Eizenstat believes that Carter will ultimately be like Truman, who was unpopular when he left office but smiled on later. Backers of George W. Bush believe the same about Bush. Bush himself likes to say, “They’re still arguing about the first George W.,” meaning Washington.

From Stuart Eizenstat, you can learn a great deal — about Carter, sure, but also about the presidency at large. He took copious notes during his time in the White House and had his eye on everything. He has done meticulous work since. He writes clearly and well. No one can endorse every jot and tittle in the book: no conservative, no liberal, no Carterite (including Carter). But that Eizenstat has contributed something valuable to literature on the presidency is certain.

In This Issue



Books, Arts & Manners


Redeeming the Miracle

Yuval Levin reviews Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics Is Destroying American Democracy, by Jonah Goldberg.




Richard Rustad responds to Yuval Levin & Ramesh Ponnuru’s article “A New Health-Care Debate.”

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