February 22, 2019

Capturing the Mind and Heart of Jimmy Carter

There has been a spate of White House memoirs in recent months, many intended to settle scores; publicize gossip, accusations and rumors to score points in ongoing battles; to get even or to pull ahead. They titillate and torment. Seldom do they reflect and inform.

Thirty-eight years in the making, “President Carter: The White House Years” (Thomas Dunne Books) is part memoir and part history. Written by Stuart Eizenstat, then Carter’s chief of domestic policy, the book has the immediacy of a participant who was in the room and close to the action, shaped by the contemporaneous notes Eizenstat took, documents he examined and scores of interviews he conducted over the past 40 years with those who worked in the Carter White House, his cabinet, members of Congress and leaders of industry, government, labor, politics and the diplomatic corps who fought with or against White House initiatives.

Eizenstat came to Washington, D.C., with Carter’s Georgia team, stayed in Washington and served in the Clinton and Obama administrations in departments as varied as State, Commerce and Treasury. He also was U.S. Ambassador to the European Union (EU), where he took on the additional assignment of Holocaust restitution, a role that he has performed inside and outside of government as the lead negotiator for the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. 

A Washington veteran who has learned much of how the government functions and how to use all the levers of power in his decades of public service, he conveys the voice of experience knowing well what was done wrong, out of ignorance or oversight, stubbornness or misjudgment. There is not a word of malice in the book — not even for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who challenged Carter in the Democratic primaries of 1980 and weakened him.

When Eizenstat served as ambassador to the EU, for the first time in American history an ambassadorial residence was kosher. He was among a new generation of American-Jewish public servants whose children went to Jewish day school and who, when an emergency did not beckon, could be found in synagogue at Sabbath morning services. He was a Jew who felt comfortable being a Jew at home and in public, comfortable in bringing Jewish values and Jewish interests to his work, and he was respected for it. Today, this is commonplace. Before the Carter years, it wasn’t.

“Today, as we debate whether character counts in political leadership and if honesty is important in politics, we remember Jimmy Carter as a man of unblemished character.”

Full disclosure: I have known Eizenstat since I came to Washington in 1979 to work on the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, a Carter initiative, spearheaded by Eizenstat and his staff. Our work resulted in the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, which led to the establishment of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on the Mall. We went to the same synagogue; on Shabbat afternoons, I studied with his oldest son and we have been friends ever since — socializing and sharing Shabbat and festivals from time to time. So reader be aware, I am not neutral about the man, yet I can read his work most objectively.

Eizenstat sets out to reconsider the conventional assessment of Carter as an ineffectual, unsuccessful, one-term president, the worst since Herbert Hoover. After all, those who were alive during his administration from 1977-81 recall high inflation and high interest rates, long gas lines, the Iran hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. We can also recall the so-called “malaise speech,” which soon became counteracted by Ronald Reagan’s sunny disposition and cemented into national consciousness with his campaign question: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” With Reagan, it became “Morning in America” or so it seemed.

Eizenstat argues that Carter’s initiatives on energy policy and the environment have stood the test of time, innovating and sensitizing Americans — initiatives that may even withstand the efforts to dismantle them and all subsequent initiatives by the current administration. His efforts on the economy included saving Chrysler and New York City from bankruptcy. He appointed Paul Volker as chairman of the Federal Reserve, setting him lose to tackle inflation and stagflation, the twin plagues of the 1970s. He also had to deal with the aftermath of the Vietnam conflict and Lyndon Johnson’s domestic agenda without paying for them. Carter appointed Volker because it was good policy. Volker remained independent of White House pressures although he understood that the Fed’s policies to crush inflation would hurt him politically. On foreign policy, Carter is remembered for the fall of a shah and the Iran hostage crisis, yet Eizenstat reminds us about the Panama Canal treaty, Salt II and the openings to China and the Soviet Union. 

There are multiple narratives as to why the Soviet Union fell. Surely, one reason is that the focus on human rights, so central to the Carter administration, highlighted the tyranny of the Soviet Union. Andrei Sakharov and Anatoly [now Natan] Sharansky deserve some of the credit, along with Pope John Paul II, whose visit to Poland undermined communism and Jimmy Carter.

The most severe critique of Carter’s emphasis on human rights came from Reagan’s U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, who argued that authoritarian regimes could turn democratic but totalitarian regimes could not. In the early 1990s, her thesis was proved demonstrably wrong as Eastern European regimes became laboratories of democracy. Today we must worry when democratic regimes turn authoritarian!

Eizenstat is candid in depicting Carter’s failures and willing to accept responsibility for his own mistakes.

Today, as we debate whether character counts in political leadership and if honesty is important in politics, we remember Carter as a man of unblemished character. Devoutly religious, he promised the American people after the Watergate scandal that “he would never lie.” His piety was apparent during his presidency and beyond, and along with his his decency, made him one of the most consequential former presidents in history. He is a man who, even after he was diagnosed with brain cancer, got up on Sunday morning to teach Bible class in his Plains, Ga., church. A man of uncommon character and unrivaled integrity, it seemed he was ineffective.

Jews have a particular memory of the Carter years. There was pressure on Israel, the first mention of the Palestinians’ aspirations, the tension with then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the awful feeling that the U.S. might sell out Jews for barrels of oil at a reasonable price. We also remember that Carter received the lowest percentage of votes for a Democratic candidate for president since before Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. The Jewish community had split its vote between Reagan and Carter at approximately 40 percent each, with John Anderson, the third-party candidate, receiving some 20 percent.

To convince skeptics who think they remember this period well, Eizenstat had his work cut out for him. In an elegantly written book, filled with good humor and gripping anecdotes and well as policy discourses and historical insight, he proves their recollections are at odds with the evidence.

President Carter’s contributions have been underrated. He is often judged, even by those who should know better, by the title of one of his many post-presidency books, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.” Jewish critics hastened to charge him with calling Israel an apartheid state. Yet Carter saw then what was obvious since the beginning of his presidency and what many on the Israeli left still see, despite the sad state of current events in the Middle East. That is, if there is only one state between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, it cannot be both a Jewish state and a democratic state without subordinating the rights of the Palestinians. Many on the Israeli right are now confronting this issue and are fumbling into articulating diminished rights for the Arabs of Israel and even lesser rights for those in the occupied territories. Unlike Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the new Jewish state law makes no mention of respecting minority rights, and Israel has reduced the status of Arabic, the language spoken by 1 in 5 Israelis.

On Soviet Jewry, Carter’s contribution was essential. He elevated human rights to the center of American foreign policy, reversing the course that former President Richard Nixon and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger chartered before him; and once human rights took front and center, the Soviet Jewry movement became a human rights movement and massive support was forthcoming from Cold Warriors and more importantly, from human rights activists. This was a major breakthrough in the movement, which previously had lukewarm support from the Nixon White House, which had openly — and in Kissinger’s case, cravenly — opposed the Jackson-Vanik Amendment.

Jimmy Carter was essential to the resettlement of Iranian Jews in the United States, essential because Eizenstat could take a Judeo-centric concern to the president of the United States directly, unapologetically and proudly, something his predecessors with easy access to the Oval Office did not do during FDR’s administration.

The story is worth repeating. In Executive Order 12172, Carter expelled all non-resident Iranians and suspended visas for all new arrivals in retaliation for taking American Embassy officials hostage in Tehran. Eizenstat was informed of the plight of Iranian-Jewish students and their families by Mark Talisman, who was working for the Council of Jewish Federations in Washington. Iranian leaders and students, among them Moussa Kermanian, his son Sam and Isaac Moradis. He convened a meeting with all the significant officials. For the Jews attending this meeting, there was the haunting memory of the Holocaust — when entry to the United States was barred to Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. Iranian-Jewish students would be allowed to secretly file for asylum so as not to endanger their families back home. While these appeals were being adjudicated, their expulsions would be rescinded and exceptions to the Executive Order would be made for those facing religious persecution — Jews and also Baha’i and Christians as well as Zoroastrians.

President Carter’s contributions have been underrated. He is often judged, even by those who should know better, by the title of one of his many post-presidency books, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.” 

Ever sensitive to religion, Carter agreed, and one can see the results daily in Los Angeles, with its thriving Persian-Jewish community. In 1979, unlike 1933-44, pressure from establishment Jewish institutions, in cooperation with Jewish White House staff, was able to secure the president’s immediate consent to rescue Jews.

Camp David

The Camp David Accords would have never happened without Jimmy Carter. It began, Eizenstat admits, with Carter’s mistake. Carter invited the Soviet Union into the peace process, not recognizing that then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had expelled the Soviet presence from Egypt and was so frightened at the prospect of the Soviets returning, that Jerusalem became preferable to Moscow.

At a meeting in Cairo attended by a mid-level Carter administration official, Sadat said that he was willing to go to Jerusalem. The State Department was slow on the uptake because that move didn’t fit in with its Mideast policy. Yet soon the breakthrough spiraled out of State’s control. Sadat went to Jerusalem and the U.S. administration stood idly by.

When it became clear that the parties could not achieve peace on their own, Carter’s most basic values projected the process forward. A religious Christian, he relished the task of making peace between Muslims and Jews. Throughout the book, Eizenstat, with the wisdom of hindsight, faults Carter for his radical separation between policy and politics and his refusal to pay the usual Washington game of advancing policies as a tool of politics and using politics to advance policy. Yet for Camp David to happen, such a separation was essential, as there was little political upside required to make peace between Egypt and Israel.

Carter risked it all in inviting the parties to Camp David. The full prestige of his office and his presidency were at stake; their failure would become his failure and unlike most summits where every moment, even the final statement is carefully orchestrated, nothing was certain. The chance of failure was real.

Carter was trusted by Sadat and distrusted by Begin, both because Begin distrusted Carter himself and because Begin distrusted Sadat’s trust in Carter. The rural presidential setting in Maryland isolated and insulated the parties, and Carter deftly handled Sadat and Begin’s outbursts. Both were prima donnas, both strong willed. Sadat was facing pressure from his delegation that he was giving too much, and Begin faced pressure from his that he was offering too little. To the very end, success was uncertain and Carter was at his finest during the negotiations.

It was during these negotiations that the breach between Carter and Begin developed. Carter thought that Begin had agreed to a suspension of settlements while Begin believed that he had merely agreed to suspend settlements during the final negotiations for the Camp David Accords. When, months later, settlement building resumed on the West Bank,
Carter felt betrayed and Begin felt betrayed by Carter’s feelings of betrayal. Nevertheless, Carter continued to invest his prestige in the peace process and, without that pressure, no accords would have
been reached.  

Carter incentivized the peace accords with a multifold increase in foreign aid to Israel to be spent in the United States on military purchases, with a lesser amount for Egypt, tying both countries to American equipment for the past four decades.

Israel resented the pressure, yet without that pressure, there would have been no agreement. In the years since, the pattern has repeated itself as Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama pressured Israel and paid a political price by losing Jewish political support; Presidents Reagan, George W. Bush and Donald Trump haven’t pressured Israel, and therefore reaped the political benefits. Carter’s was the first to attack American dependence on non-renewable energy sources and sought to limit Arab power. Yet Jews were silent when, soon after he left office, solar panels were removed from the White House roof. American dependence on Arab countries for energy enriches them, emboldens them, enables them to be more reckless and weakens Israel and the United States.

Eizenstat is not reticent to admit error and is not hesitant to criticize Carter, but never does so with anger or disrespect. He does it by appreciating Carter’s strengths and weaknesses, something that ripens with time. Every leader has his/her limitations, every leader makes mistakes. Every leader who comes to Washington from the outside to shake things up must learn the ways of Washington without becoming a captive of the town. And while, in principle, good policies should be good politics, Carter’s radical separation of the two limited what he could achieve and led him to expend his early political capital without seeing benefits for it.

White House memoirs usually have a short shelf life; they are readable for weeks and perhaps, if quite good, for months. Eizenstat’s memoir took four decades to write but will be worth reading four decades from now as the definitive memoir/history of a consequential, if not successful, presidential administration.


Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute and a professor of Jewish Studies at American Jewish University.