Former Jimmy Carter policy advisor speaks on administration’s legacy
The John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics hosted former Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat to speak on his recent biography of President Jimmy Carter, “President Carter: The White House Years” in Edison Theatre Dec. 5.
Eizenstat served under Presidents Johnson, Carter and Clinton, serving as chief White House domestic policy advisor, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, undersecretary of Commerce for International Trade, as well as numerous other key positions.
Provost Holden Thorp, who previously presided over the Stuart Eizenstat Distinguished Professorship in Jewish History and Culture as chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, invited Eizenstat to campus on behalf of the Danforth Center.
Eizenstat’s biography relied on his extensive handwritten notes, which he took over the course of his political career.
“This book is extraordinary: He has 5000 pages of his own personal notes to work with from his years in the White House,” director of the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics Professor Marie Griffith said. “He conducted 350 interviews, five of them with Carter himself, and so much else.”
Eizenstat hopes to change the narrative of the Carter administration as a failed presidency, highlighting Carter’s integrity and bipartisanship, which helped restore public trust in the presidency.
“[Certain] mistakes and failures have obscured an enormous array of achievements and accomplishments both at home and abroad which continue to have lasting impact,” Eizenstat said. “So, my determination was to write this book while there were still living eyewitnesses, and before history’s verdict was somehow indelibly sealed that the Carter presidency was a failed presidency.”
Eizenstat’s speech left listeners with an understanding of the many times Carter chose to make difficult choices at the expense of his personal career.
“Trying to do the right thing at the right time became more difficult in that environment, and I guess by making the right decision in that situation, you get hit from a lot of different sides of the aisle at once,” attendee Neil Harris said.
According to Eizenstat, one of those difficult choices took place in 1979 when Carter decided to appoint Paul Volcker as the chair of the Federal Reserve in order to curb inflation despite the fact that the short term effects of Volcker’s policies would tighten the money supply, curb economic growth and effectively ruin Carter’s chances of re-election.
“Many of us said, ‘This is going to be your election. Don’t do it,’” Eizenstat said. “And he said, ‘I don’t want my legacy to be this high inflation, even if it means my election.’ And not once during the entire re-election campaign in 1980 did Carter ever say, ‘We need lower interest rates.’ Never once…Inflation dropped like a rock, and it has been low ever since…We planted the seeds which flowered after we left.”
Eizenstat argued that another overlooked accomplishment of the Carter administration took place over a 13-day period in 1978 when Carter avoided a potentially disastrous international incident by convincing Egyptian and Israeli leaders Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin to agree on a framework for peace between their nations.
“Carter, over the opposition of almost everyone in his administration, takes a chance. He invites them to the presidential retreat at Camp David…bars the press and sees that he can bridge what seems to be unbridgeable gaps between the two countries” Eizenstat said. “He studies intensely Sadat and Begin. Where were their red lines? What was important to them? What could they not go beyond? And then for thirteen agonizing days and nights with virtually no sleep, he, the president, drafts 22 separate peace agreements”
However, Eizenstat also devoted sufficient time to discussing Carter’s failure to confront issues, such as the Iranian hostage crisis, internal conflict inside the Democratic party and his “Achilles’ heel” of inflation.
“Having that insider’s view is really valuable, but he really doesn’t whitewash things as he keeps saying” Griffith said. “He really points out errors, what he considers weaknesses, mistakes, failure; and so, that makes it feel more real.”
However, despite these mistakes, Eizenstat hopes to leave the Carter administration with a legacy of integrity, bipartisanship and making the right choice instead of the easy choice.
“He honored the office; he respected the independence of the justice department and the FBI, freedom of the press and a free society, even when it was brutal to him,” Eizenstat said. “Walter Mondale, his vice president, said, ‘We obeyed the law; we told the truth; and we kept the peace.’”