Carter ‘ideal candidate,’ Eizenstat says

Washington attorney Stuart Eizenstat has written a biography of the presidency of Jimmy Carter. Eizenstat, a fellow Georgian, served as Carter’s domestic policy adviser. Photo by Dan Schere

In his 50 years in public life, diplomat and attorney Stuart Eizenstat served in four Democratic administrations. He was ambassador to the European Union, an undersecretary of commerce, undersecretary of state and deputy secretary of the treasury. He is a longtime U.S. negotiator for reparations for Holocaust victims.

But Eizenstat, 75, may be best known as an adviser to fellow Georgian, President Jimmy Carter. He remembers meeting Carter in 1969. Eizenstat was a young attorney in his 20s and Carter a 45-year-old Georgia state senator who was running for governor. Eizenstat was impressed with Carter’s focus on civil rights, education reform and other urban problems. But he was surprised by Carter’s informality.

“There was a folding table and two chairs and he was wearing work boots and overalls,” Eizenstat said in an interview last week.

Eizenstat became policy director for Carter’s successful gubernatorial run in 1970, and then policy director in his 1976 campaign. As president, Carter accomplished more than he gets credit for, Eizenstat argues in his new book, “President Carter: The White House Years.”

Eizenstat emphasizes that aspects of Carter’s single term — such as his policies on energy and the environment, the Middle East peace process, and the Panama Canal Treaty — were key in shaping future American foreign and domestic policy. The book is based on more than 5,000 pages of notes Eizenstat took during the four years and 350 interviews, including several with Carter.

What follows is an edited version of the interview, held in his Washington office.

When did Carter tell you he was running for president?
I took him to lunch in October 1974. I said, “I think because of Watergate there’s going to be an overwhelming Democratic landslide in the off-year elections. You’ll get some credit for it, and anyone wanting to run in 1976 will probably want a Southerner on the ticket to balance it out. And if you win a couple of Southern primaries, maybe you’ll be a vice presidential candidate.”

How did he react?
He gave me that toothy grin and said, “I am going to run in 1976 but I don’t want to be vice president. I intend to be president. Will you join my presidential campaign?”

Stuart Eizenstat, left, meets with President Jimmy Carter.
Photo courtesy of Stuart Eizenstat

Carter used his interpersonal skills to great effect during the Camp David Accords. Why was that important?
Because the negotiations were a huge risk. If he failed, it would be a catastrophe for his administration, and for [Israeli Prime Minister Menachem] Begin and [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat. He took them on the first Sunday to Gettysburg, Pa., and to show them the battlefield, and implicitly to say, “You fought five wars. No more wars.”

On the last Sunday, the 13th day, we had gotten very close [to an agreement], but we weren’t quite there. Begin said, “Mr. President, I can’t make any more concessions. I’m going home.” It was not a bluff. He had a plane waiting for him to take him back to Israel.

Carter had learned from studying the intelligence reports that Begin had a great love for his eight grandchildren. So he found out their names and handwrote inscriptions on eight photos of himself, Sadat and Begin at Camp David. He walked them over to the cabin where Begin was with his bags packed.

As Begin was going through the photos, Carter saw his lips quiver and his eyes tear up. And Begin said, “Mr. President, I’ll make one last try.” He put his bags down, and the rest is history.

How did the administration get along with AIPAC?
My own personal relationships with AIPAC were good. [Carter’s] were difficult at first. The Jewish community in general and even AIPAC eventually came around to be very positive of Carter because of the Egyptian-Israel treaty, because he had signed the first anti-Arab boycott bill, because he was the father of the Holocaust museum and because he had reached out to the Soviet Jewish community and [Prisoner of Zion Anatoly] Sharansky.

But the Jewish community later abandoned him during the 1980 election.
We won the Illinois primary [in 1980] against Sen. Ted Kennedy with 70 percent of the Jewish vote. The New York primary was two weeks later. Carter had promised Begin at Camp David that he would never support any U.N. resolution that mentioned Jerusalem. This was crucial for Begin to sign the Camp David Accords. U.N. Resolution 465 was proposed by Egypt as a declaration against Israeli settlements, but in six references throughout that resolution, it mentioned Jerusalem as occupied territory.

Now, Carter says in an interview, that he told [Secretary of State] Cy Vance to get rid of all the references to Jerusalem and thought they had been removed. In the end they were not removed because there was a miscommunication between him, Vance and U.N. Ambassador Don McHenry. All hell broke loose. People started leaving our campaign offices in New York in droves. We lost the Jewish vote in New York and ultimately we lost a lot of the Jewish vote against [Ronald] Reagan [in the general election].

Stuart Eizenstat, right, was an adviser to President Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981. Photo courtesy of Stuart Eizenstat

Carter has been accused by some in the Jewish community for being too harsh toward Israel, and too sympathetic toward the Palestinians. Do you agree?
After the presidency he wrote a number of books. I was at Hofstra University on a panel with Canadian Minister of Justice Irwin Cotler and [Harvard law professor] Alan Dershowitz. Before we went on, Alan came to me and said, “Stu, I’ve been asked by the New York Times to review your former boss’ new book [“Peace Not Apartheid”]. Should I do it?” I said. “Why not?” He said, “You don’t know about his book? Have you seen the apartheid reference in the title?” I was shocked. This was the one nonfiction book that he had not run by myself, Ham Jordan or any of his former aides.

Yes, he has sympathy for the Palestinians. He doesn’t see it as antithetical to Israeli security. He wants a two-state solution. But using that kind of inflammatory language is devastating.

Is his critical view of Israel a reflection of his honest personality?
It’s not pulling punches. But not using nuanced language got him into trouble, and if you ask most people in the Jewish community today, that’s the one thing they remember.

Could Carter be elected today?
I think it would be very difficult. We spent $20 million in the general election campaign. The billions that have to be amassed by candidates today would make it difficult. But can the type of president be elected? Yes. He was fiscally conservative. He was socially progressive on race, poverty and women’s rights. He was a liberal internationalist and a mild populist. That’s, to me, an ideal candidate.

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