President Carter: The White House Years, by Stuart E. Eizenstat

Nine stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Stuart E. Eizenstat, St. Martin’s Press, and Thomas Dunne Books for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

The presidency of James Earl (Jimmy) Carter has been seen by many as a flop, or so it would seem as I entered reading this book. Many would point to a few key items, namely Iran’s Revolution and the dire energy crisis, pushing Carter to the realm of lame-duck for most of his time in office. While many will remember the Camp David Accord, that seems to have been overshadowed by many of the negatives. Stuart E. Eizenstat, Carter’s Domestic Policy Chief, seeks to inject a new analysis, commenting from ‘within the tent’ to offer new insights, good and bad, about the Carter presidency and those who played key roles in the Administration. This comprehensive political biography sheds some light on Carter’s presidency in three distinct categories worthy of exploration below: domestic policy, foreign policy, and humanitarian efforts. By allowing Eizenstat to guide the reader through these categories, a new perspective may come to the surface, as historians are about ready to turn the microscope on the four years Carter spent in the Oval Office. Presidential history buffs and those who may have lived through the era may enjoy this piece, though it is quite dense in its factual presentation and by no means a swift read.

Before delving into this debate, it might serve the reader well to understand that Carter was a Washington outsider, having never served on the national level and with few friends. While he did have some strong Democratic support in Congress, Carter did not speak the language and even his closest advisors (Cabinet and otherwise) were forced to learn the intricacies of how things worked in Washington. What might have been easy to do as Georgia’s governor or running a peanut farm would not work here, where blood was shed without anyone blinking an eye. Carter would soon learn the game, or stumble trying, in an effort to create domestic policy that he could stomach and Congress would pass. This would come to be central in his single-term as president and shaped some of the major decisions that led to his defeat to Reagan in 1980, a few of which I will espouse below but many Eizenstat dissects in detail.

Jimmy Carter’s presidency saw both significant successes and resounding defeats when examining his domestic policy. The Administration will likely be forever haunted with the photos of serpentine lines at gas pumps during an energy crisis that plagued America after the OPEC fallout, as well as the president urging Americans to turn down the thermostat to save on energy. Eizenstat does not shy away from these gaffes, which turned the Carter Administration on its head and forced the POTUS to make numerous televised addresses to ‘rally the troops’. Within the White House, there were many drawn-out arguments about this and how the electorate would react, forced to pinch pennies at a time when things were already tough. Carter wanted nothing more than to provide for his people, but the numbers just did not add up. Eizenstat also explores Carter’s attempts to wrestle with the airline and transportation unions, creating a more consumer-friendly America, without the need to line the pockets of those in positions of power. As Eizenstat repeats throughout the tome, Carter had a great deal of difficulty thinking like the liberal much of the Democratic Party and its members wanted him to be. He turned his backs on unions in favour of trying to limit spending, surely not music to his Democratic backers. While energy was a major stumbling block for him, environmental issues were topics that Carter could handle with ease. Coming from rural Georgia, Carter knew the importance of nature and natural resources, including water and green space. Armed with this knowledge, Carter pushed forward to ensure that those in Congress who wanted such items in their districts could count on his support, though he was by no means blind to the need for some leveraging (even though Eizenstat explains he was not a good negotiator). Carter felt it more than simply an added bonus, more a quintessential part of the process, to have natural beauty in a country that had been forced to suffer through scandal for so long. Beauty may have been in the eye of the beholder, but Carter wanted to offer that opportunity to Americans for generations. Within the borders of the fifty states, Carter was able to offer some positive outlooks, though did stumble quite effectively when it came to domestic policy.

Carter also saw many successes and significant shortfalls when it came to the foreign policies he led throughout his time in office. Two immediately come to mind—the Camp David Accords and the Iran Revolution—which show the reader just how difficult such policies can be to enact. Carter worked to create a set of policies that would help other countries with what resources he had on offer, but also tried to remove the tarnish that had been left with the abject failure of Vietnam. America was still seething with that military disaster and needed a new image, combined with Carter’s desire to be a player on the world stage and help where he could. Eizenstat explores Carter’s ongoing efforts to shape the Cold War and push the Soviets off their perch as a superpower. Carter’s policy to stop shipments of grain to the Soviets after they invaded Afghanistan proved to be a policy that led to an international boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Carter has been seen to make a knee-jerk reaction by doing so, as Eizenstat argues effectively, but the effort to stand up to this and refuse to turn away shows that Carter had a larger agenda in mind, to push for sanctions of some sort against a country that was trying to expand its sphere in a significant and yet completely unnecessary way. One must remember that the spheres of influence at the time were created by playing international chess, with the USSR and USA being the two significant players. From a lighter perspective, Carter tried to renegotiate the Panama Canal Treaty, presenting this structure to its people and thereby removing an iron fist that Teddy Roosevelt created early in the 20th century through efforts to bait and switch with the Panamanians. Carter pushed to turn control of the Canal over to the locals, though he did receive much pushback from within Congress, who could not see the need to hand over such an essential piece of property that had done so much to aid with international trade. Eizenstat effectively argues that Carter and his administration took a hard approach and would not accept anything but complete success, creating a softer and more open-minded America when it came to its neighbours in the international community. This, in turn, may have curried some favour at a time when America was in dire need of some positive and non-aggressive outlooks with its foreign policy decisions. There were, however, times when Carter’s attempts at good foreign policy turned sour, if only because he had gone to the well too many times before. While some of the groundwork was made by the likes of Nixon and Kissinger, Carter engaged in a set of discussions to solidify a SALT II treaty, scaling back the number and type of nuclear weapons each side would possess, thereby seeking to rid the world of the potential of nuclear war. Carter found himself in the precarious position of pushing this sort of argument at a time when the USSR was on its way down, early stages of teetering before the knockout punch that would come at the hands of Reagan and Bush 41. Carter would not stand down and simply let the Soviets see his passive side, wanting a world free of such weapons, while also ensuring that the United States was not left vulnerable. This may look to be a positive decision made by the administration and the reader would be correct, but the eventual passage of such a treaty failed when Congress—specifically the US Senate—would not support the treaty. It would seem that Carter had arm-twisted too many times and called in all his favours, thereby leaving him no political capital with which to bargain. While one cannot entirely lay this failure at his feet, it does stand to reason that, as mentioned above, Carter’s lack of knowledge of the Washington game might have knocked him down to the point of not being able to push forward at an essential time, leaving the riches for Reagan to collect into the 1980s, where history can paint a much more vivid picture of the 40th POTUS. Carter’s mishandling of the diplomatic hostages in Iran is likely the largest stain left on his presidency and one that will forever be remembered in the history books. While Eizenstat does present a strong argument that Iran and its revolution does not rest on the backs of America, supporting the Shah and pushing to keep him as Iran’s rightful leader did prove to be a yoke that Carter could not toss off, leaving him in a horrible situation once Ayatollah Khomeini took control and used his significant influence to punish Carter personally until the moment he was no longer POTUS, thereby embarrassing him to no end. It goes without saying that US Foreign Policy was significantly shaped by Carter in his single term as president, though one can hope that it is the humanitarian agenda that is remembered for decades, rather than the necessary aggressive stances from 1977-1980.

Carter is best-known for his humanitarian efforts, mostly after he left office, some of which were very positive, though there were also some limitations that left him coming up short. Perhaps closely tied to his foreign policy objectives, Carter wanted nothing more than to promote human rights around the world, but more specifically to his Latin American neighbours. In an era when Nixon and Ford had done little to help push for true human rights, Eizenstat argues that Carter sought to look past the desire to rid the region of communism and focus on their rights of the people. Dictatorships (albeit not Communist) in Argentina and Peru had horrible human rights records and Carter could not abide by this. Rather than going in with guns blazing or CIA operatives ready to kill for peaceful results, Carter and his emissaries sought to turn favour by promoting a softer approach and using carrots over sticks to show just how effective it could be. This was a key approach that the reader can see developing throughout the book, as Carter was sandwiched between two significant administrations—Nixon/Ford and Reagan—who were less than interested in human rights and more for the push to annihilate leftist regimes in the region. While there were surely some less than admirable results, Carter and his administration did not stop their efforts to shape the region as one where human rights could be promoted, ushering in a more peaceful world by the time he left office. One could argue that Carter’s humanitarian efforts in the Middle East were not entirely successful, on a larger scale. Eizenstat spends much time focussing on the lead-up to the Camp David Accords by showing the Israeli and Egyptian delegations trying to forge a peace that would last, especially for the Palestinian peoples. The attentive reader will realise that while Carter tried to create a lasting peace, it did not work effectively, nor did peace with other regional players, but there has not been a significant war in the region since 1973, pitting Israel against its Arab foes, which is something. Humanitarian efforts are much harder to push, as it does not always encapsulate the American agenda in a lasting manner. Carter tried to step away from the norm and offer his own flavour, pushing for openness and the rights for all—likely influences by his Christian values—while many other politicians pushed for hard-line results, no matter the cost. Still, Carter’s humanitarian efforts are likely some of the greatest positives that historians will take away from his presidency and life, when that, too, comes to an end.

Looking back through the entire journey of this tome, the reader can see that Eizenstat not only encapsulates an effective exploration of the Carter presidency, but is able to dispel many of the myths that history has left as footnotes in its texts. Carter was not a failed president who was incapable of keeping gas in the pumps or bringing home the American hostages from Iran, he was a man with strong convictions who tried to play the Washington game without fully knowing the rules. Elected at a time when America was healing, they turned to a man without the taint of Vietnam, Watergate, or civil rights abuses and wanted to create a new beginning for themselves. Even the Democratic Party, particularly its congressional members, had to look at the president in a new light, using his compassionate side with fiscal conservatism to help build up the coffers after much expense. Might this have helped Reagan when he came in to show a new dawn to America? Yes, it is possible, but Eizenstat argues that without Carter, America would possibly have continued down its rabbit hole and been a sour country that could not shed itself of a corrupt image. Carter’s presidency was a sense of new life that was needed, if only to jumpstart things and help see that there could be hope and positive outcomes, given enough time and effort. That single term in office did much for the country and reset its vision, even if Carter was not given the chance to guide America into the 1980s. Jimmy Carter might not have been the Washington politician that many had come to expect, but he did offer a perspective that differed from many, brining his understanding of the South to the world stage and surrounding himself with strong-minded individuals. Eizenstat does not and cannot take that away from anyone, though the theme of a unique approach resonances throughout this piece. The 39th President of the United States will likely receive new recognition in this piece, and rightly so, for he did do much for the country in its time of need, even if it was not the medicine Americans thought they needed at the time.

Looking at Eizenstat’s book, it is clear that there was much to analyse and develop, even over a four-year time in office. The amount of work that went into laying out all the information and developing key themes cannot be lost on the attentive reader. Eizenstat parsed through not only his own recollections, but those of many other players to create this well-balanced tome, which offers as much praise as it does criticism. To have someone on the inside of the administration is likely a double-edged sword. Some will feel that it offers an unbalanced approach and pushes a more laudatory narrative for the reader to enjoy, though I feel it helped enrich the overall presentation. Knowing who to talk to about what did nothing but offer the reader something special and the piece worked well offering significant amounts of detail on which to chew. Eizenstat surveys much of the Carter Administration’s efforts and seeks to categorise them in a succinct manner—not always winning with brevity—to provide the reader with key themes to judge on their own. The attention to detail and backstory is without question one of Eizenstat’s key attributes throughout. I was able to take away not only the political arguments from the book, but also find interesting historical approaches to key events that I would not otherwise have known without needing to explore countless sources. Jimmy Carter has always been an elusive figure for me, sandwiched between the bumbling Ford and powerhouse Reagan. Eizenstat offers a more comprehensive and well-developed perspective of the man and his thoughts, as well as some of the influences that led to his key decisions. Carter may not have been an excellent president—as Eizenstat argues—but he was a good one and worked well with the tools he had at his disposal. Many who have sat or will one day take a place in the Oval Office could learn from him, or at least admire what he did and how he fought to make America great for all its citizens.

Kudos, Mr. Eizenstat, for your dedication to this powerful book. I did learn so very much and can see a few areas I want to explore more, thanks to some of the ideas you presented in this lengthy piece.

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