President Carter: The White House Years
by Stuart E. Eizenstat
Thomas Dunne Books, 2018
Ordinarily, 1000-page tomes written by party apparatchiks are like enormous boulders in the road: potentially interesting in the broader context, but unenlightening in direct conversation. There are occasional exceptions – George Shultz's Turmoil and Triumph come to mind – but the general rule is that such books will be extraordinarily dull exercises in self-justification and reputation-rehabilitation, of interest only to a handful of resentful relatives and discarded personal attorneys. They're virtually never interesting to read and tend to be visited only in passing, by biographers in search of accidentally-dropped nuggets of historical interest.
It would be natural to regard Stuart Eizenstat's new book, President Carter: The White House Years, in just this way. It's a 1000-page tome by President Carter's Chief White House Domestic Policy Adviser, and so it should be not only unreliable but radically unreadable. But Eizenstat delivers not only an exception but a stunning one: by far the best account of the Carter White House that's ever been written.
In any book about President Carter, a reader wanting to gauge the author's objectivity can save some time and look up one name: John Anderson. He was the third-party independent candidate in the 1980 Presidential election, and Carter apologists at the time tended to view him as the Great Spoiler, the vote-siphoning trickster who threw the election to Ronald Reagan. And on this point, Eizenstat passes with flying colors; he's bluntly honest: “Anderson got only 5.7 million votes, while Reagan's margin of victory was 8.4 million. Even in the unlikely event that every Anderson voter had switched to Carter, Reagan would still have won by almost 3 million votes.”
“Let me be clear,” Eizenstat writes, “I am not nominating Jimmy Carter for a place on Mount Rushmore. He was not a great president, but he was a good and productive one.” Our author opens his long book with a contention that the country's thirty-ninth President was an almost deceptively consequential figure in late 20th century America, someone who left behind “concrete reforms and long-lasting benefits to the people of the United States as well as the international order.”
Eizenstat was a close adviser to the president, who frequently and vocally referred to him as the “brains” of the operation, an indispensable policy thinker (an opinion shared by 1968 presidential candidate – and superb though understated judge of character – Hubert Humphrey, who was proud of their association), and one wonderful side-benefit of this 35 years on is that Eizenstat usually had a close-up seat for the major events of the Carter administration.
He was not only a careful note-taker, but he's also a conscientious researcher; his copious notes include extensive use of contemporary news accounts, wide-ranging use of contemporary memoirs (including, of course, those of the Boss), and, best and most skillfully-marshaled of all, interviews with all of the key players about all of the key events. Every future history of the Carter administration will find Eizenstat's book invaluable.
It's also mighty fine reading on a simple chapter-by-chapter level; this is the kind of narrative fluency Carter himself has always most prized, and readers expecting a long slog will be pleasantly surprised. The key events of Carter's years in office – particularly the Camp David peace talks, which Eizenstat covers with dramatic and careful attention – are vividly brought to life in what is surely the most scrupulous reconstruction they're ever likely to receive. And our author likewise shows considerable skill at personality portraits of the key players of the Carter era, most especially the flamboyant Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O'Neill, whose running commentary of quips on the politics of his day is often the highlight of any recounted incident.
Naturally, Eizenstat isn't completely able to divest himself of his team colors – no reader should expect him to. That's what later historians are for, scholars dealing only with records, researchers who have no direct personal connection to their subjects. The full scope – and political damage – of Carter's policy naivete, which Eizenstat surely knew better than anybody alive, is discreetly blurred in these pages, as is the President's occasional lapses into a priggish, almost priestly rectitude. Eizenstat's Carter still has plenty of flaws, but the sense of bedrock (albeit embattled) decency feels all the stronger for these. This is surely the last of the first-hand histories of the Carter White House, and thanks to Eizenstat's skill and mammoth industry, it's also a landmark in how such histories should be written.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com