Julian E. Zelizer is a political historian at Princeton University and a CNN political analyst. He is the author of “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” Most recently, he edited the book “The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment.”
During the debate over his landmark energy policy proposal, President Jimmy Carter failed to consult one of the most powerful senators, Louisiana’s Russell Long, who would have a big say over whether the legislation moved through the upper chamber. This was classic Carter. With a strong distaste for congressional politics, the president simply refused to do what most other presidents would consider routine, such as courting key senators. Long became so irate with the president that when he was finally invited to a White House dinner, he stood up to ask a question and, before doing so, proceeded to sarcastically introduce himself: “I’m Russell Long, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.”
This interaction is a revealing moment in Stuart E. Eizenstat’s fascinating new history of Carter’s presidency. The former peanut farmer from Georgia was a president who, according to conventional wisdom, didn’t care much for party politics; nonetheless, in Eizenstat’s view, Carter’s legacy on domestic and foreign policy has been vastly underappreciated. The author paints Carter as a “bold and determined” leader who bravely attacked the challenges of his time. Eizenstat goes so far as to argue that Carter might very well be the most successful one-term president in American history.
The author is well positioned to provide an insider’s account of the period between the election of 1976, when Carter defeated President Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory in November 1980. Eizenstat arrived in Washington as part of Carter’s Southern cabal and saw what happened in the Oval Office as Carter’s chief domestic policy adviser and executive director of the White House domestic policy staff. He later worked in the Clinton administration. When working for Carter, Eizenstat kept elaborate handwritten notes on more than 100 yellow legal pads. For this book, Eizenstat also consulted the voluminous records at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and conducted 350 interviews with top participants from those years. The result is a comprehensive and persuasive account of Carter’s presidency that stands far above the familiar confessional and reveal-all accounts by former White House officials we are accustomed to reading.
The book offers convincing case studies of Carter’s progress on environmental policy, where the president’s aversion to politics did not prevent him from achieving pathbreaking victories. The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which protected more than 100 million acres of land in that state from development, Eizenstat rightly argues, “is one of the most important pieces of environmental legislation in the nation’s history.”
Though readers may find the nearly 900 pages of text overwhelming, Eizenstat offers a compelling narrative filled with colorful stories about events such as the Camp David Accords. Often derided for focusing too much on details, Carter succeeded in brokering a deal between Egypt and Israel through his “remarkably detailed preparation,” Eizenstat writes. “He involved himself in minutiae and negotiated directly with second-level officials, not only his senior counterparts, unprecedented for a major political leader.”
Eizenstat makes a convincing case that in foreign affairs, Carter possessed the kind of acumen and love for give-and-take that was lacking in politics at home. A provocative claim in the book is Eizenstat’s assertion that Carter’s innovative human rights agenda, combined with what the author sees as a forgotten record of robust defense spending, was as central to the end of the Cold War as Reagan’s negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev.
One of the most fascinating personalities is Vice President Walter Mondale. We see how Carter revolutionized the office of the vice president, allowing Mondale to play a formative political and policymaking role.
Eizenstat is at his best when we get the inside story of the president’s rough-and-tumble relations with Congress. He offers fly-on-the-wall accounts of how the big battles of these years unfolded. While he has a tendency to explain Carter’s failures as a result of the president doing the right thing rather than making the politically attractive decision, we also watch as Carter moves his ideas forward in a surprisingly ruthless fashion. Eizenstat does a good job knocking down certain familiar claims, such as the notion that Carter was unfriendly to American Jews: The author catalogues Carter’s achievments that complemented the Camp David Accords — working to free Soviet Jewry, endorsing the creation of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and favoring legislation prohibiting American companies from participating in the Arab boycott of Israel.
The book is very much an inside-the-Beltway account; indeed, Eizentat provides a deep inside-the-White House perspective. We get very little of the context usually provided by a professional historian. The book does not offer much on the rising power of the conservative movement in the 1970s or the news media transformations underway at the time — such as the proliferation of conservative talk radio — that made it difficult for Carter to gain political traction for his accomplishments.
Political junkies and presidential-history buffs will love this book. Eizenstat has succeeded in showing that the Carter presidency had a huge impact on American political life. But part of policy success entails building a political coalition that will outlast a presidency and protect its policies. Without that, a legacy is endangered. As the historian Laura Kalman argued, Carter’s failures set up the path to the Reagan Revolution, which established a political coalition and ideology that have continued to batter every tradition and accomplishment that Carter and his party put into place.
Regardless of what readers think of Carter’s legacy, the book will interest anyone who wants to learn about a president who took the job of governance seriously. For all his political failures and controversial decisions, one thing is clear: Carter immersed himself in the policy challenges of the period, he worked extraordinarily hard to find solutions to problems that seemed intractable, and he gave everything he had to restore Americans’ faith in the potential for government to do good. At a moment when we have a president who shows little interest in the particulars of policy and spends much of his time watching television, the history of Carter might seem like a lost world — but one that we desperately need to find again.
By Stuart E. Eizenstat
Thomas Dunne. 999 pp. $40