I am no fan of Jimmy Carter’s. My father, a student of American history, has pounded home the idea that Carter was the worst U.S. president, and I led a yearlong campaign against Carter’s 2006 book, “Palestine Peace not Apartheid,” in the pages of this newspaper.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that the man from Plains has steadfastly refused to be interviewed by anyone representing the AJT. It’s definitely no surprise that I was less than eager to open Atlanta native Stuart Eizenstat’s magnum opus about the Carter presidency, “President Carter: The White House Years.”
So here’s a surprise: I enjoyed the book. It’s clearly, even entertainingly written and worth reading even if you’re not a Carter fan or a student of modern American history or political science.
Eizenstat, who ran the policy operation for the 1976 Carter campaign and served as Carter’s chief domestic policy adviser, delivers the ultimate insider’s-eye view of the administration, including the 1976 and 1980 presidential campaigns.
To say “President Carter” is the definitive history of the administration is an understatement. Eizenstat took more than 5,000 pages of detailed notes from 1977 to 1981, recording every meeting and every phone call, then conducted 350 interviews, including five with Carter. He began organizing his notes in preparation for writing the book while at the Brookings Institution in 1981.
If anything, Eizenstat has too much information. Forty years later, some details — Vice President Walter Mondale considered resigning or not running again in 1980 — are more interesting and more important than others, such as the daily ebbs and flows of efforts to get votes behind an energy bill or the Panama Canal Treaty. I can only imagine what tedium was cut during the book’s four-decade path to publication.
To his credit, Eizenstat organizes all those details into major themes rather than tell the story strictly chronologically. While a chronological narrative would have demonstrated the complexity of being president — imagine dealing with Ted Kennedy, Menachem Begin, Leonid Brezhnev and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini at the same time — it would have made understanding much more difficult.
Instead, Eizenstat makes it easy to read about only the elements of the Carter administration that interest you. You can see how an emphasis on a more equitable relationship with Latin America resulted in Panama taking control of the canal. You can watch Kennedy’s shift from ally to enemy, largely over health care. You can study the frustrations of a Washington outsider who tried to avoid having a chief of staff while also refusing to engage in D.C. politics.
Among the half-dozen distinct narratives, two are crucial for anyone who cares about Israel and the Middle East.
The first covers the Camp David Accords. Eizenstat is clear in his belief that Carter was essential to the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, just as he’s clear that Carter made mistakes during and after the process, most significantly in his interpretation of what Begin promised about settlements.
The second concerns Iran, from the shah’s decline and fall to the hostage crisis, including the botched rescue attempt. If nothing else, there’s an invaluable lesson about the importance of good intelligence.
If you don’t like Carter, you’ll find yourself silently arguing with Eizenstat. Although he frequently points out presidential mistakes, they are almost always things that Carter ultimately overcame, as in the two-year fight to get Congress to enact an energy policy that Carter promised to deliver in three months.
Eizenstat tends to downplay short-term problems or present them as inevitable — no one could have avoided or better handled the toxic mix of high inflation and high unemployment, for example — while making questionable claims that Carter deserves credit for good things that happened years or even decades later, such as the fall of the Soviet empire and the low-inflation, low-interest-rate era we live in now.
But at a time when rational political and historical debate seems impossible, it’s a good thing to find an intelligently written, fact-packed book with which to carry on a dialogue. You might not change your mind about anything, but you’ll be better informed and better armed the next time you get into an argument.