Can One Man Redeem Jimmy Carter?

Author:Eizenstat, Stuart

On the 13th day of negotiations at Camp David, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin had 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 of Begin's love for his eight grandchildren, Carter sat down and autographed eight photographs of himself, Begin and Sadat together, addressing each grandchild by name. When Begin saw this, the former Irgun commander became emotional and 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. His main thesis, that Jimmy Carter's presidency was one of the most consequential in modern history, might raise a few eyebrows. Moment speaks with Stuart Eizenstat about Carter's legacy.--Sarah Breger

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, one who was 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.

How was Carter as a politician? 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 "right thing" to do, regardless of the consequences. That was a strength and a weakness. It enabled him to take on issues which were political land mines, and over which a lot of political blood was shed. But he forgot that the president is...

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