Two-pound tomes by political insiders usually fall flat, even if they don’t tumble off the nightstand. Truth is sanitized by the author to make sure old friends don’t become new enemies.
Stuart Eizenstat does better than most in his 898-page book President Carter: The White House Years. Eizenstat, who was Carter’s chief adviser on domestic policy, took more than 5,000 pages of notes while working for Carter. He combines these details with hundreds of interviews to provide snapshots of the towering highs and depressing lows of Carter’s presidency.
Endure the double negatives and Eizenstat’s style is readable enough. He doesn’t write like a lawyer, though he is one. That’s a plus when a book is this long and has been in the making for 40 years.
As for his conclusions, one central theme seems implausible. He paints Carter as a Jekyll and Hyde character, a man so principled in separating politics from public service that he would not blur the lines to champion himself.
Most politicians claim credit for anything good. Carter, though, would not celebrate partial victories on legislation or policy matters, according to Eizenstat.
“He was not good at compromise,” Eizenstat told me in a phone interview. “Carter would always focus on what wasn’t done. He would tend to look on the negative.”
Based on Eizenstat’s colorful anecdotes about how ferocious a campaigner Carter was, it’s hard to believe he could block out political considerations at every turn.
Within the first 30 pages, Eizenstat made me forget about Carter’s gentle image, that of a Sunday school teacher who found his calling in politics.
Carter burned with the ambition to be president, and any path to the White House would suit him.
As the rookie governor of Georgia, Carter led the movement to stop George McGovern from becoming the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972. After McGovern prevailed, Carter devised a new plan. He maneuvered to become McGovern’s running mate. Maybe then he would be a breath away from the office he coveted.
Carter got lucky. McGovern passed him over. This spared Carter from being part of the Democratic ticket that lost 49 states to Richard Nixon.
In 1976, after the Watergate scandal had driven Nixon from office, Carter presented himself as the stable outsider who could restore trust in Washington.
It worked. The obscure governor from a midsize state in the Deep South won the presidency.
Perhaps no one had ever come so far, so fast in American politics. As Eizenstat put it, Carter began life in a gnat-infested Georgia town of 500 people and climbed to the most powerful office in the world through force of will.
It didn’t last. Ronald Reagan crushed Carter in 1980, taking 44 states. Carter became the first incumbent president since Herbert Hoover in the Depression year of 1932 to lose an election.
Eizenstat said he wrote the book because Carter, now 94, is an underrated president. He made human rights a central part of every discussion and led the way on the historic peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.
On the homefront, Eizenstat calls Carter “the greatest environmental president since Teddy Roosevelt,” who was an outspoken creator and protector of national parks.
In federal courthouses, Carter’s impact was just as strong. By Eizenstat’s count, Carter appointed more women and ethnic minorities as judges than all 38 previous presidents combined.
So why were voters ready to be done with Carter after one term?
Eizenstat says “the four I’s” defeated him. They were the Iranian hostage crisis, inflation, inexperience and internal warfare in the Democratic Party.
Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts challenged Carter for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1980. Carter had won the presidency by running to the center. Kennedy, though stained forever by the Chappaquiddick scandal of 1969, hoped he could unseat Carter by appealing to his party’s liberal wing.
Carter defeated Kennedy. Eizenstat believes Carter also would have beaten Reagan but for the hostage crisis.
Iranian students overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November 1979, taking more than 60 people hostage. Fifty-two were held captive for 444 days, a period when American frustration with Carter escalated.
He did not immediately respond to the abductors with military action. Some in his inner circle argued for a blockade to halt Iran’s oil exports. Carter rejected this idea, opting for a trade embargo on Iranian oil.
In April 1980, during his reelection campaign, Carter authorized a military mission to rescue the hostages. It failed when a helicopter and transport plane collided. Eight U.S. servicemen died in the Iranian desert.
The sweep of Eizenstat’s book covers all this ground and much more. I took special interest in the sections regarding Carter’s call for a boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. He wanted to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
“In retrospect, it was the right thing to do,” Eizenstat said.
Not to me. Like so much of Carter’s presidency, his insistence on a boycott was a poorly reasoned decision.
He hurt innocents, killing off opportunity for world-class athletes in 1980 and diminishing the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Eastern bloc countries boycotted those games in retaliation for what Carter had done.
You’ll have a chance of your own to speak with Eizenstat. He will be at Collected Works Bookstore & Coffeehouse, 202 Galisteo St., at 6 p.m. Tuesday.
In Eizenstat’s view, Carter was a good president, not a great one. I wouldn’t go that far.
But, after reading what Eizenstat had to say, I suspect history will be kinder to Carter than the voters were in 1980.
Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at email@example.com or 505-986-3080.
If you go
Who: Stuart Eizenstat, author of President Carter: The White House Years
Where: Collected Works Bookstore & Coffeehouse, 202 Galisteo St.
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday