The line between determination and delusion can be obscure. Sometimes, the distinction emerges only in retrospect, like a Polaroid image slowly appearing. In other instances, the difference between productive grit and self-defeating obsession is an artifact of chance, like the lucky bounce of a tennis ball at match point.
Sometimes, perhaps in the hardest cases, both phenomena operate simultaneously. Only hindsight will tell whether an effort was quixotic or brilliant; only good fortune can make it happen. Those are the twin takeaways — mine, anyway — from “Camp David,” the gripping new play at Arena Stage about the 1978 peace accord between Israel and Egypt.
“Camp David” tells the story of a 13-day summit that took place 36 years ago, but its lessons resonate today. Indeed, when I went to see “Camp David,” Secretary of State John Kerry had just endured a tongue-lashing from his former Senate colleague, Arizona Republican John McCain, on what he dismissed as Kerry’s pie-in-the-sky quest for an Israeli-Palestinian deal.
“It’s stopped. It is stopped. Recognize reality,” McCain lectured.
“Your friend Teddy Roosevelt . . . said that the credit belongs to the people who are in the arena, who are trying to get things done,” Kerry retorted. “And we’re trying to get something done. . . . Sure, we may fail. You want to dump it on me? I may fail. I don’t care. It’s worth doing. It’s worth the effort, and the United States has a responsibility to lead, not always to find the pessimism and negativity that’s so easily prevalent in the world today.”
People who know a lot more about the Mideast than I do agree with McCain’s dismissive assessment; people who know a lot more about the Middle East disagree with it as well. My colleague Jackson Diehl, who covered the region, has used the word “delusional” to describe Kerry’s quest for a deal. Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg asserts that Kerry “is not delusional” and “not wrong to keep trying.”
I see this all the time in politics, on matters less tantalizing than Middle East peace but still seemingly unattainable, from rewriting a broken tax code to fixing a shattered campaign finance system. I often wonder how politicians or the activists working on these Sisyphean tasks manage to haul themselves out of bed.
This may encapsulate the difference between journalists and politicians: The former are inclined to see the glass half-empty, and report accordingly; the latter cannot function without at least imagining it half-full. That optimism is built into the political DNA: Politicians don’t get elected to offices for which they don’t run.
Which brings me back to “Camp David,” written by Lawrence Wright and produced by Gerald Rafshoon, President Carter’s communications director. In the opening scene, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter discuss the summit, called despite the objections of his advisers and the warnings of wise men that sober presidents don’t host summits that might fail.
“You really do think it’s a fool’s errand like all the rest, don’t you?” Jimmy asks his more practical wife, who wants to know his contingency plan. “We go back to the peanut business,” Jimmy says.
But nine days in, with the parties at loggerheads, Rosalynn bucks him up: “Just remember, you’re the one who told me you can always guarantee that you’ll never fail if you never try — but you’ll also guarantee you never succeed.”
“Yeah,” Jimmy replies. “I used to love saying things like that.”
In the final, most affecting scene, the summit has collapsed. Carter arrives at the cabin of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin with inscribed photographs for his grandchildren.
Begin recites their names. “Ayelet, Osnat, Orit, Mayrav. . .”
“I had hoped to write, ‘This is where your grandfather and I made peace in the Middle East,’ ” Carter says.
“It is not a failure,” Begin replies, weeping. “We will sign.”
Determination prevails. The tennis ball skims the net. History records the Carter presidency differently. When Carter decided to bring the leaders to Camp David, “Everybody told him what McCain said: ‘Don’t do it,’ ” Rafshoon told me. Carter’s attitude, he said, was “like what Lyndon Johnson said about civil rights: ‘What the hell’s the presidency for?’ ”
Rafshoon would take the lesson of “Camp David” to its obvious conclusion: Only presidential leadership can accomplish the monumental feat. I’m less certain that the moment calls for intensive presidential involvement.
But to revisit “Camp David” is to be reminded that history is both unknowable and malleable, and to recall the essential role of, as Kerry so diplomatically put it, the person in the arena.