PRESIDENT CARTER The White House Years
Shortly before Ronald Reagan was inaugurated in January 1981, one of his aides drafted a memo recommending that he invite his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, for a meal at the White House. “Ultimately, while the American people overwhelmingly rejected President Carter,” the memo said, “they continue to like Jimmy Carter personally.”
I found the memo during archival research recently, a reminder of a time when Carter loomed large in our national life. He was the down-home, jeans-wearing peanut farmer with the infectious grin who promised to heal the country after Watergate only to be brought down by a miserable economy and a hostage crisis that overwhelmed him. He was a populist outsider promising to make America great again long before someone else claimed that mantle. The memo got it right: Americans did reject him, but they also liked him personally.
Today, most Americans are too young to remember Carter’s presidency firsthand and know him more for his active post-presidency, appreciating his energetic, Nobel Prize-winning efforts to help the downtrodden, monitor elections and search for peace in the darkest corners of the planet. He has gone too far for some, particularly with his criticism of Israel. But while many in both parties consider Carter a failed president, they generally view him as a model former president.
Stuart E. Eizenstat argues that it is time to re-evaluate his four years in the White House too. Carter may seem like a transitional figure between scandal-tarred Richard M. Nixon and venerated Reagan, but in “President Carter: The White House Years,” Eizenstat makes the case that the 39th president changed the course of the country for the better.
“He has more than redeemed himself as an admired public figure by his post-presidential role,” Eizenstat writes. “Now it is time to redeem his presidency.”
Eizenstat is no neutral arbiter. A fellow Georgian, he joined Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign and became his White House domestic policy adviser. He is an unabashed admirer who in judging Carter against his presidential peers deems him “one of the most consequential in modern history.”
Indeed, he opens with a burst of excess, contending that Carter’s accomplishments outpace not just those of fellow one-term presidents like Herbert Hoover and Warren G. Harding but also the more highly regarded John F. Kennedy and George H. W. Bush. He goes further, asserting that Carter’s record outshines those of two-termers like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Few historians would go so far.
But for those who resist the temptation to put the book down there, what follows is not the hagiography the opening lines suggest. Instead, relying in part on more than 5,000 pages of his own contemporaneous notes and 350 interviews, including five with his former boss, Eizenstat has produced a thoughtful, measured and compelling account that bemoans Carter’s weaknesses even as it extols his strengths. If readers are not convinced that Carter was the second coming of Kennedy, they will come away with a three-dimensional portrait.
Coming in at nearly 900 pages, Eizenstat’s book requires an investment, and it may explain more about, say, energy policy than anyone really wants to know. But overall it proves a surprisingly good read and fills a gaping void on the presidential bookshelf.
While Carter himself is a prolific author and writers like Douglas Brinkley, Mark Bowden and Lawrence Wright have examined specific periods of his life, until now there has never been a satisfying full-length history of his presidency. Eizenstat closes that gap, evidently on the leading edge of a wave of new books about Carter currently being worked on by Jonathan Alter and Kai Bird.
In Eizenstat’s rendering, Carter was a thoroughly decent, well-intentioned idealist who tackled tough issues like energy, wrestled with economic troubles and advanced human rights, all with drive and determination. He made peace between Israel and Egypt, ratified the Panama Canal treaty and started the military buildup in response to Soviet aggression that Reagan would accelerate. Despite punishing inflation and unemployment, economic growth under Carter was nearly as high as it was under Reagan, and he added less to the national debt as a percentage than either Reagan or the two Bushes.
Yet by Eizenstat’s own description, Carter was also priggish and pedantic, correcting grammar in memos “as if he were my elementary schoolteacher” and immersing himself too deeply in details, as when he requested world oil reserve estimates in square miles instead of barrels.
He stood by his unseasoned “Georgia mafia” too long and should have appointed a strong chief of staff from the start. He tried to do too much at once, as even his wife, Rosalynn, warned. He had a moralistic streak, striking a congressman off a Camp David invitation list because he was living with a woman outside marriage.
More broadly, he “did not like politicians and felt uncomfortable with the normal byplay of political compromise” — and he was a downer for a country whose spirits needed lifting. His Inaugural Address was “a tone poem, but with a downbeat note.” He opened an energy speech to the nation by saying, “Tonight I want to have an unpleasant talk with you about a problem that is unprecedented in our history.” In celebrating the creation of the Department of Education, he told a joyful crowd, “This thing won’t work as well as you think it will.”
Overall, “Carter’s message was sacrifice and pain,” Eizenstat writes. “When he faced Reagan’s message of hope and optimism amid soaring inflation and interest rates, the very contrast itself was painful.”
Indeed, his fatal flaw was captured in his infamous “malaise speech,” in which Carter lectured the nation on its poor morale (although he never actually used the word that would come to define it in history). After the speech and subsequent cabinet firings, Vice President Walter F. Mondale grew so despondent that he contemplated resigning.
This was reported before, in a 1997 book by a former Carter adviser, and Mondale disputed it then. Eizenstat, however, is a firsthand witness. In a phone call, Mondale told me that he was just venting and would never have followed through. “I just had a spasm there but I kept right on going,” he told me. “I was just depressed there after that meeting.” Still, a president who demoralizes his own vice president invariably has trouble inspiring a nation.
The crushing finale of Carter’s presidency, the 444 days when American diplomats were held hostage in Iran, demonstrated his essential humanity even as it cemented an image of fecklessness.
Alone among his team, Carter had anticipated what would happen if he allowed the deposed Shah of Iran into the United States for medical treatment. “What are you guys going to advise me to do when they overrun our embassy now and take our people hostage?” he asked. Yet he granted the request anyway, triggering the rage that led to the storming of the embassy in 1979.
Much like Carter’s critics, Eizenstat believes the president erred by holing up in the White House consumed by the impasse while taking even the theoretical threat of military force off the table. Carter looked incapable of commanding events, and the long standoff undercut American stature.
But Carter’s laser focus did, at last, secure the release of the 52 hostages, at the cost of his presidency. The final indignity came when Iran barred the plane with the hostages from taking off until after minutes after Reagan was inaugurated.
For the following 37 years, Carter’s presidency has been held hostage in a way, too — to the string of missteps, the missed opportunities and the two-dimensional image. He has Eizenstat to thank for seeking to free him from the chains of history and provide a fuller picture.
Peter Baker is the chief White House correspondent for The Times. An updated edition of his latest book, “Obama: The Call of History,” will be reissued this fall.
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