On the 13th day of negotiations at Camp David, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin had enough. “Okay my friends, let’s pack and go,” he said to his delegation. U.S. President Jimmy Carter knew that if Begin left, it would completely undercut Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and possibly inflame the entire Middle East. Knowing Begin’s love for his eight grandchildren, Carter sat down and autographed eight photographs of himself, Begin and Sadat together as souvenirs, addressing each grandchild by name. When Begin saw this, the former Irgun commander became emotional and a few minutes later indicated he would return to the negotiating table for one last try.
This revealing anecdote is just one of many found in President Carter: The White House Years, Stuart Eizenstat’s new book on the 39th president. Eizenstat served as policy director during Carter’s 1976 campaign and then as chief domestic policy advisor from 1977 to 1981. Eizenstat’s main thesis, that Jimmy Carter’s presidency was one of the most consequential in modern history, might raise a few eyebrows. But Eizenstat backs up his assertions, drawing from the 5,000 pages of notes he took during his time in the administration as well as 350 interviews he conducted afterward. He notes that Carter championed our current energy policy, deregulated airlines and even ended Prohibition-era regulations that blocked the flow of local craft beer. “So every time you have a local craft beer, you can toast Carter,” says Eizenstat. More immediately relevant, he created the Office of Special Counsel currently held by Robert Mueller. On the foreign policy front, Carter championed the Panama Canal treaties, established formal diplomatic relations with China and placed human rights at the center of America’s foreign policy agenda.
This book, however, isn’t a hagiography, and Eizenstat is pretty frank in his discussion of Carter’s mistakes and missteps, what he terms the “four I’s”: Inflation, Iran, Inexperience—his and the so-called Georgia Mafia’s—and Inter-party warfare with Senator Ted Kennedy and the liberal wing of the Democratic party. Moment speaks with Eizenstat about his new book, Carter’s legacy and why Carter, despite brokering the Camp David Accords and establishing the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, has such a bad reputation in the Jewish community.
You’ve said that this book is an attempt to redeem Carter’s presidency. What does redemption look like?
It doesn’t mean that he’s going to have a place on Mount Rushmore. It does mean that he’s somewhere in the foothills with other presidents. That he, with his faults, will be recognized as a consequential president whose accomplishments had lasting benefits for the country and the world. Does that make him a great president? No. Does it make him a near-great president? No. But it does make him a good president, and one who was very much a net positive for the country. I have not whitewashed his mistakes, but what’s happened is that the mistakes have totally obscured the achievements. It’s time for a balanced assessment. I compare him to Harry Truman, who was actually Carter’s political idol: Both presidents left office very unpopular. Truman is now remembered much more for his achievements than for his failures, and I’m hopeful that Carter, through my book, will also be seen in a more rounded way.
How was Carter as a politician?
Now, here was one real fault. He had a very odd view of politics. He was a ferocious campaigner. He spent 100 days campaigning for the Iowa caucuses, and he had a great sense of the public mood at the time, which was not for a new burst of social spending or a new Great Society. It was for honesty, integrity, morality. But despite being a ferocious campaigner, he believed in parking politics at the Oval Office door and then doing what was the quote-unquote “right thing” to do, regardless of the consequences. That was a strength and a weakness. The strength is that it enabled him to take on issues which were political landmines, and over which a lot of political blood was shed. It was a weakness because the president forgot that the president is not only the commander-in-chief; he’s also the politician-in-chief. He has to constantly nurture a winning coalition to stay behind him in good times and in bad. President Donald Trump is a master at this. Whatever one thinks about him, he’s constantly nurturing the base in one way or another, and Carter didn’t do that.
Both Trump and Carter ran on populist platforms and as Washington outsiders. Do you see any parallels between the two?
Both Trump and Carter ran as anti-establishment, anti-Washington. But there’s a huge difference: Carter came to Washington to reform government, to make it more transparent, to make it more honest and ethical, to create more competition. Not to destroy government, not to degrade the institution of government. He tried to bring people together, to empower women, to empower minorities, not to stoke grievances and set one element of society after another. We got 500,000 Vietnamese “boat people” into the United States. We got other countries to take their quota. Contrast that with immigration policy today. Carter respected our alliances. He built on NATO. He used the G7 summits to rally support, not degrading and denigrating our allies. Trump and Carter were elected, in a sense, for similar reasons, but with very different intentions of what to do in office. Carter wanted to unite the country, not divide it.
At the time, did you realize how intertwined the Iran hostage crisis would become with Carter’s legacy?
I don’t think it’s fair to blame Carter for the Iranian radical revolution any more than one should blame Eisenhower for the Cuban Revolution that occurred 90 miles from our shore. But we made huge mistakes: The CIA didn’t know that the Shah’s domestic support rested on quicksand. They didn’t know that for five years he was getting treatments for an incurable form of cancer. They didn’t know the extent to which Ayatollah Khomeini, who was in his exile outside of Paris, was stirring up revolutionary fervor. It was the single worst intelligence failure in American history. Another mistake: After the hostages were taken, instead of military actions such as blockading the harbors where all of Iran’s oil came in from, Carter met with the hostages’ families and promised that his number-one priority was getting their loved ones out. He did this at a huge cost to the reputation of himself and of the country. He then compounded that error by holing himself up in the White House to show that he was concentrating solely on this. That, in effect, made him the hostage. It gave the Iranians more leverage. Walter Cronkite, who was the dean of reporting at CBS at the time, would end every 30-minute news broadcast, “Day 105, day 207, day 310.” It was absolutely devastating and humiliating. The final coup de grace came with the failed rescue mission. It occurred because there were four military services who had not ever coordinated and practiced as a unit. There was no joint command. We created one afterward, as, for example the one that took out Osama bin Laden. When the helicopter rotor hit the C-130 cargo plane at Desert One Air Force base and consumed eight military servicemen in flames, it engulfed our administration as well. The only positive things to come out of that are, first, we did get the hostages out, and second, a story about Iranian Jews which I tell for the first time in the book. Through some creative interpretation of the visa laws we managed to get 50,000 Iranian Jews, Christians and Baha’i out before Iran’s doors shut and into the United States, as well as letting countless Iranian students in the U.S. stay.
What was the atmosphere like at Camp David?
There were 13 agonizing days and nights at Camp David. Carter personally drafted 20 separate agreements, and he negotiated separately with Begin and Sadat, because except for the first day, they were like two scorpions in a bottle. They could not negotiate with each other even in his presence. As a personal touch, Carter took the two leaders to the battlefield at Gettysburg, in effect to shows the costs of war. Forty years later, the treaty has never had one violation.
After such a success why did he get the smallest percentage of Jewish votes of any Democratic president in modern history?
To achieve the peace between Egypt and Israel, there was a lot of glass broken. A lot of pressure was put on Israel. Carter also had very tense relations with Prime Minister Rabin, and then with Begin. While Rabin was in the U.S., Carter goes to Massachusetts for the first of 100 town hall meetings. He’s asked a question, unscripted, about the Palestinians. I’m sitting at the step of this open-air forum. I literally almost fell off my chair, because Carter says, “I favor a Palestinian homeland.” He didn’t say a state. He said homeland. That caused a huge uproar and hugely embarrassed the Labor Party in Israel and Rabin. They still blame it for their defeat in the next Israeli election. Then the relationship with Begin was very difficult.
Notwithstanding that, the Jewish vote had actually started to come back to Carter. In the Illinois primary in the spring of 1980, Carter against Kennedy gets 70 percent of the Jewish vote, including in Chicago. We’re 20 percent ahead of him in the polls in New York two weeks later but then the final straw broke: UN Resolution 465. At Camp David, Carter had pledged that he would not support any UN resolution on settlements in which Jerusalem was included. UN Resolution 465 had six references to Jerusalem as occupied territory, in which there shouldn’t be settlements. Carter did not read it carefully. It was a huge miscommunication. We literally saw campaign workers running, falling out of our campaign office in objection. We lost the New York primary as a result. I interviewed Kennedy’s top aides for this book, and I learned Kennedy already had his withdrawal speech written. Instead, he went through to the convention and split the party.
There’s one other underlying reason. Carter saw the Palestinians as being the African Americans of the Middle East—oppressed by the Israeli military in the same way the white police oppressed African Americans. In fact, he said, it was even worse. I strongly disagreed with that. It failed to take into account Israel’s security issues, the failure of the Palestinians to be willing to make peace, but that was his view. Now, if you ask him, he would say, “This is not at Israel’s expense.” He believes the most important thing is a two-state solution, but it was expressed in a way that was very raw, in particular in the Apartheid book. If you want to get into that.
I think we have to get into the Apartheid book.
So I’m at Hofstra University, and I’m going to be on a panel with Alan Dershowitz, who was my Harvard Law School professor and friend. Before we go on, Dershowitz says to me, “Stu, I want to see you privately. I have a personal issue. The New York Times has asked me to review your former boss’s new book, called Peace or Apartheid?” I said, “What new book?” He said, “You don’t know about it?” As soon as I got back to Washington, I wrote a long memorandum to Carter and said, “This is politically, morally, historically and legally incorrect. Apartheid is a term that is used against South Africa, who had a minority white government that totally foreclosed the blacks from any participation.” I said: “You may say there’s discrimination of some kind against Israeli Arabs, but they have free education, they vote, they’re represented in the parliament, they get health care. If you talk about the Palestinians, that is territory which is, to this day, still contested. You can be against the settlement policies. I don’t like the settlement policies either, but it’s not apartheid.” Then I called him, and I said, ” I know the book is already written. Just change the title.” He said, “I wish I had heard you before. It’s too late, they’re already in the boxes.”
What role do you think Carter’s faith played in his policies?
First of all, as a very traditional Jew, I never once felt uncomfortable with Carter, and in fact we invited him to the Passover seder following the Camp David treaty. Imagine reading about the exile of the Jews from Egypt after the treaty is signed. When we got to the place where, symbolically, you’re supposed to open the door for Elijah, I went to the front door and the Secret Service agent jumped up and said, “We’ve secured the house. You can’t open it.” I explained it was symbolic. “No, no, no. You can’t do it.” So we compromised by opening a door that led to a patio, not a street. We said, “That’s the only time that Elijah came through the back door.”
His faith undergirds several things. First, again, his liberality. Although he was fiscally conservative, in a way he was the first New Democrat; he was fiscally conservative but socially liberal on race, poverty, gender issues. Here’s a southern president who appointed more women and more minorities to judgeships and senior positions than all 38 presidents before him put together. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is quoted in my book as saying she would never have been on the Supreme Court had Jimmy Carter not opened judgeships to women.
Second, I think there were several reasons why he made the Middle East his number-one priority in the middle of the Cold War. When other presidents would have shied away, Carter decided to go for broke. I think his Baptist faith had an impact there. He had been to what he called the Holy Land. He wanted to bring peace to the Holy Land. There were other reasons, but I think there was a religious dimension.
In terms of Israel, what would a second term of Carter have looked like?
I think the commitment that Begin had made to autonomy for the Palestinians would have been filled out. Would it have led to a Palestinian state? No, I think people weren’t ready for that at that time, but I think we’d be in a very different situation on the West Bank. I don’t think we would have 350,000 settlers, and we wouldn’t have 100,000 of them east of the settlement blocs had Carter been reelected. I think we would have had something very meaningful that would have protected Israel’s security. It would have been a much more positive situation than the tensions that we have today.