Only Hamilton Jordan truly liked the president's plan.
The rest of the inner circle, which had drawn tight inside the Oval Office a week ago today, began ticking off all of the possible pitfalls to the president's sudden idea.
President Carter had awakened that Saturday morning and convened his top advisers. He had announced to them that he wanted to embark on the sort of summitry that just was not done: He wanted to go to Egypt and Israel to try to bring peace -- even though he did not have the slightest guarantee that he could pull off what he had in mind.
In fact, according to the president's highest advisers, it was not even clear just what Carter had in mind. Because at this point, just last Saturday, Carter's reason for going was not that the opportunity looked promising for an agreement. It was that things were at their very darkest -- that Camp David had fallen apart over what he felt were minor issues. Carter felt things were so bad that he was not sure what if anything could be done.
But he wanted to go.
The inner circle, this day, consisted of Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, press secretary Jody Powell, presidential assistant Hamilton Jordan and Vice President Walter Mondale. Jordan and Mondale missed the morning session -- they were flying back from speeches in Atlanta and Los Angeles -- but they were there when the circle formed again in the afternoon.
Of those in the Oval Office, only Jody Powell knew just how dispirited the president was. Powell had been with Carter late the night before. It had been about 10 p.m. Friday when the Carters left their Sabbath dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at Blair House and walked alone across Pennsylvania Avenue, where they saw Powell and deputy, Jerrold Schecter, leaving White House.
Carter beckoned to them and the two aides walked with the president and first lady up the dark driveway toward the tall, floodlit columns of the presidential mansion.
Absently, Carter began to discuss routine business. But his mind seemed elsewhere. "He was quiet and he seemed very preoccupied," Powell recalls.
The talks with Begin had begun poorly. The Israeli prime minister had sounded a hard public line at the airport, talking about a "crisis" situation and how the proposed draft treaty could become a "sham."
Privately, administration sources say, Begin was just as unyielding. He had held firm to his old positions and even toughened his stance on guarantees for oil from the Sinai, blaming the new position -- rightly so, Carter men concede -- on the fact that the new Iranian government had shut off Israel's prime oil supply. Begin had even taken to lecturing Carter one more time about the Holocaust, that infuriated the American president.
There seemed to be little cause for hope, Carter felt. Something had to be done. The president went into the mansion after about 10 minutes that Friday night. But he stayed up, working -- and thinking -- for an hour or so. And, before he went to bed, he came to a decision.
Saturday, the Oval Office.
Carter told his advisers he thought he ought to go to Egypt and Israel. Apparently nothing was going to come of his talks with Begin. He felt that the United States could come up with still another proposal, trying to find a middle ground between Israel and Egypt on the narrow issues remaining. But Carter was not confident that Begin would come around even then.
Once Carter and his advisers had expected that Sadat would come to Washington to join Carter and Begin in a rekindling of the spirit of Camp David.But Sadat did not want to come. So Carter made his case for going to Egypt.
Sadat would have been in a difficult position, and unlikely to make concessions, if he had to come to the United States, where Begin had just met with Carter.He would be able psychology to be more flexible on the proposals if Carter came to Sadat. The Egyptian leader would be able to show his people that it was not all give and no take.
Hamilton Jordan was the only adviser in either session who spoke up immediately and without reservation in favol of Carter's idea. "Ham, like the president, just felt instinctively in his guts that it was the right thing to do," recalls one participant.
Others, in varying degrees, raised concerns. And the most skeptical of all, according to two of these in the room was Jody Powell -- an example of just how wrong the public perception is that Powell and Jordan are just a matched set of Georgia bookends.
The major concern was simply that the Carter mission could end in failure -- some thought it probably would. That result would be catastrophic, the argument went, since Carter merely would have dramatized that it had become a make-or-break situation that had rapidly deteriorated to a point of no return.
Carter answered that the peace negotiations were at this point anyway.
"He said there just was not the option of letting things slowly drag out," recalls one adviser. "It would soon be too obvious that it had fallen apart totally."
One participant said that the Carter trip would build logistic difficulties into the negotiating process -- "Because unlike Camp David. this sort of thing builds its own deadlines. You can't get into the position of having a president shuttle back and forth. So a deadline could crop up artificially."
Another turned this point around, noting that the result could make Carter appear rather unpresidential.
"There is the prospect of a president running all over the place without any certainty of success or even an assurance of what will happen next," he said. And in the end, several noted, Carter could suffer severe political damage at home, where he is already scoring low in the polls, including on questions of his competence in handling foreign policy.
Carter responded that the personal political damage would be there whether he went to the Middle East or just sat at home while the Camp David framework fell apart. "Either way it collapses -- and then the thing splatters all over you either way," said one adviser, summarizing Carter's position.
Carter's mind was clearly made up and one by one, the others were said to have come around to support his position -- with Powell being the last to agree.
Vance and his team of technicians worked out language of a new proposal for Carter to submit to Begin. The United States decided to move away from the position that it had shared with Egypt on matters such as whether there should be a "target date" for elections for autonomy in the Palestinian regions of Gaza and the West Bank as Egypt demands. The Americans suggested wording that there be a "target date" for completing arrangements for the elections, which will not make execution of the treaty contingent on whether the Palestinians can prevent elections from being held, which is what the Israelis fear.
Also, the United States would slide away from its support of the Egyptian position, specified after Camp David, that the Israeli-Egyptian treaty does not take precedence over Egyptian mutual defense pacts with other Arab countries.
Saturday night. The Carters and the Begins dined in the family quarters of the White House and then the two leaders retired to the study to talk. But Carter did not come forth with his new proposals. He instead asked Begin if he had anything new to suggest. Begin talked about the whole situation, but offered nothing new.
Sunday, at 1 p.m., Carter called his advisers to the Oval Office to get the signals straight. The president said that Vance would put the new proposals to Begin at the 2 p.m. meeting. He was unsure how the Israelis would respond.
"But I'm going to the Middle East anyway," he said. At 2 p.m., Carter, Begin and their advisers met in the Cabinet room, just around the corridor from the Oval Office. Vance said he wanted to put some new laguage on the table, which is the way diplomats talk when it gets down to a compromise.
Begin said he could recommend one of the points right away, and this pleased the Carter men. Then he saw he must refer the other two to the Israele Cabinet, which did not please the Carter men.
The President told the prime minister about how, at Camp David, they made more important decisions than this without Begin ever invoking the Cabinet.
"I've got five generals in this Cabinet," Begin said. "And they are used to giving orders, not taking them."
Carter replied that was nothing compared to his difficulties in getting action out of Congress. "I've got 15 guys up there who think they should be president and another 15 who think they will be president."
They all laughed about that. Then Carter and Begin adjourned to the Oval Office, where they worked out language for a statement to the press. Begin wanted to say that the matters are serious and will be referred to the members of his Cabinet, but he mixed up his words and said that "the matters will be referred to the serious members of the Cabinet."
And when they walked out of the Oval Office, they were all aughing about that again. The Carter men were relieved by this lighter upbeat tone. And the next day they were pleasantly surprised when Begin told them the Israeli Cabinet approved Carter's proposals.
Carter then let all parties know that he was going to the Middle East. The tone of why he was going now was up, rather than down. He sent his proposals down to Sadat in Cairo and he carefully selected his emissary: Brzezinski, who is viewed with suspicion by the Israelis and therefore was believed to be a good choice to send to talk to Sadat.
Today Carter is in the midst of doing diplomacy the wrong way. It is not the way that all of his predecessors did it, all six of them -- the right way, the carefully planned way, to make peace between Israel and its neighbors -- and failed. So he is doing it all wrong. When the experts think about it, it makes no sense, but he just might succeed where others have not.