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With the publication of President Carter: The White House Years, Stuart Eizenstat has rendered a comprehensive portrait of the 39th president of the United States. While serving as Jimmy Carter’s chief domestic policy advisor from 1977 to 1981, Eizenstat documented everything from negotiations between Egypt and Israel to the passing of America’s first comprehensive energy policy and the creation of the first modern vice presidency.

In advance of his book talk at the Carter Center on Thursday, May 3, Eizenstat spoke to ArtsATL about the plain-spoken man from Plains, Georgia, whose honesty and integrity are arguably his greatest legacy, and the fallout when such fundamental qualities are absent in political leadership.

ArtsATL: According to your biography, one of the most remarkable parts of Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign, and later the White House years, was the total absence of rancor and competition among his top aides. What is required of a leader to engender such civility among his advisors and support staff?

Stuart Eizenstat: I think one of the reasons the president had such consistent rapport with not only his White House staff, but his cabinet, was that he was constantly sensitive to their sensitivities. First, on the White House staff — and this was a strength and weakness — he brought with him the so-called “Georgia Mafia” of people who had been with him during his gubernatorial campaign and his term as governor, so there was already a bond and a cohesion when they came into the White House. People were used to working with each other. Each knew his or her responsibilities. There was no rancor. It was also a weakness because it meant that he did not leaven the inexperience of the so-called Georgia Mafia with Washington hands who were more experienced, but who did not know him or his White House team as much. Second, the absence of rancor with his cabinet — he essentially had only two resignations in four years — was that he treated them all fairly. He gave them all access. They all felt that when there was an issue that affected their departments, whether agriculture, trade, jobs or issues of foreign policy, that they would be given a fair opportunity to present their case. But there wasn’t the kind of government-by-tweet where people were taken by surprise, where cabinet officers are berated publicly. It was a respectful relationship, and it was returned in kind to him.

ArtsATL: When Carter ran for president, his key strategist, Hamilton Jordan, advised the candidate to assume a learning posture, be forthright when he didn’t have all the answers and listen and learn while on the campaign trail. Could this political playbook possibly work today?

Eizenstat: Well, in a way, yes . . . [Laughs] Trump made it work. Periodically, the American people have an instinct of moving away from traditional politicians and going to people who express broader values. In Jimmy Carter’s case, in 1975 to ’76, it was the whole notion of anti-Watergate, anti-Establishment, I won’t lie to you, honesty, ethics and morality. That’s what people were looking for. In a way, Trump, in a different context, also tapped into a sort of anti-Establishment tradition. Can it happen every time? No. Sometimes people are looking for continuity, they’re looking for experience, [and] they don’t want to take a risk with an outsider. So it depends very much on the cycle — on what the situation is at the time and the country and the world. Carter’s indefatigable campaigning, his habit of staying in people’s homes on the trail, all contributed to his down-to-earth-quality that people were looking for at that time.

ArtsATL: When Carter said, “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times,” during his now infamous Playboy interview, the quote threatened to explode everything he stood for in terms of morality and ethics. He later apologized, but given his insistence upon candor, did he ever regret making a true statement?

Eizenstat: The interesting thing is why the Playboy interview to begin with? His campaign aides, including Gerry [Gerald] Rafshoon, Ham Jordan and Jody Powell, I think, mistakenly, wanted to have younger people see him as not just a sort of old-fashioned, fire-breathing Baptist from the South, but a guy who really was open-minded. Having an interview with Playboy was one way of doing it. Frankly, if it had been a traditional interview, it would not have caused any damage, and it might have even been a net-positive. But what happened was after the interview was over, the reporter was walking out, and he asked Carter about his views on adultery. Carter thought his tape recorder was off and that the interview was over. His phrase became the whole interview and seemed so at odds with the profile and the man himself. I think it was a clumsy effort to try to show, “Well, I’m a regular guy.” With respect to not lying, I think he tried in every way to be candid during his administration. I’d like to share a funny story about his mother, Miss Lillian, when a reporter from New York came down to Georgia and said, “You’re Jimmy Carter’s mother. Surely, you can’t tell me that he never lied when he was growing up, and as he reached adulthood.” Miss Lillian said, “Oh, no no no! I wouldn’t say that. He told a lot of white lies.” The reporter said, “What do you mean by white lies?” And Miss Lillian said, “Well, do you remember when I said how wonderful it was to see you here down in Plains? That was a white lie.”

ArtsATL: As Gerald Ford’s outgoing domestic policy advisor, James Canon, passed the baton to you, he stressed the importance of staying grounded. Was it a challenge to maintain humility in spite of your proximity to power?

Eizenstat: I think there were times when it was difficult to remain humble, but it was always tempered by two things. First, my wife Fran never would have permitted it. She had grown up in a working-class neighborhood in Everett, Massachusetts, and was very grounded. And, this is really important, the friends she insisted we make — who are friends to this day, though she has passed away, in fact, I’m going over to one for Shabbat dinner tonight —  were all people who were not connected to government or the administration. She made sure that I was not enveloped in this sycophantic environment. Having said that, it does take a lot of resistance because you have the kind of environment where limousines take you to and from Capitol Hill; Secret Service is following you; you go to Camp David; dine at the White House mess with Filipino Navy waiters; never wait in line for anything; and have your hair cut at a barber shop in the White House, so it’s very difficult. In the very last days of the administration, Fran and I were going to take a trip abroad, and I needed to update my diplomatic passport for a regular passport. Fran picked me up at the White House, we went to 14th Street & K where the passport office was, and I instinctively said, “Just circle the block and wait for me.” Which is what I had always said to the White House drivers. And she said, “Buster, you’re on your own! Find your way home.” [Laughs]

Jimmy Carter and Stuart Eizenstat

ArtsATL: You say that President Carter created the modern vice presidency. How so?

Eizenstat: The vice presidency up to this point was an office that was disparaged. It was in disrepute. FDR’s vice president, John Nance Garner, said it was not worth a bucket of warm spit. Truman, when he was FDR’s vice president, did not know about the atomic bomb project. Johnson, when he was Kennedy’s vice president, was kept out of meetings and out of the flow of things. Mondale, when he decided to join the ticket before the convention, said, “I don’t want to leave the Senate, which I love, for a nothing job.” Carter promised he’d be a real partner. After the election, Mondale’s chief of staff presented a five-page memo with 15 or 20 requests: everything from seeing all classified documents to being able to walk in on any meeting and weekly lunches. Carter approved every single one and threw in one he did not request: moving Mondale’s office from the old executive office building. As in real estate, all that matters is “location, location, location.” In government, all that matters is proximity to the Oval Office and the president. Having that was an immediate signal and sign that this was going to be a meaningful relationship.

ArtsATL: Rosalynn Carter evolved from a reluctant political spouse to a politically active partner to her husband. What were her primary concerns as First Lady?

Eizenstat: What this shows is how beautifully she blossomed. She admitted to me that when he first ran for political office, she couldn’t speak. She was so shy that she simply could not get up to speak. Here, she blossomed into only the second First Lady, after Eleanor Roosevelt, to testify in Congress. She became the first First Lady to have her own office in the East Wing and her own staff; the first to work on a legislation with Congress on community health; the first to do a very serious foreign policy tour in Latin America in the first weeks of the Administration, not to see other first ladies, but to deliver a stern message to the military dictatorships that Carter was serious about human rights and was going to hold up their military aid unless they improved. She became so interested, she would pepper him with questions when he came home. He finally said, “Look, why don’t you just sit in on the Cabinet meetings and then you’ll know what’s happening.” So, she became the first First Lady to sit in on Cabinet meetings. And in some ways, she was a more practical politician than he was.

ArtsATL: Hamilton Jordan used to joke that the worst argument to make to President Carter to dissuade him from action was that it would hurt him politically. How do you explain a politician whose decisions were not motivated by political expediency?

Eizenstat: It’s a very good question and one that, I find, still a mystery as well as I know him. He was a ferocious campaigner and would make the kind of compromise at times that you have to make to get elected. Once he got elected, first as governor and then as president, he sort of parked politics at the Oval Office door . . . not realizing that the president is not just commander-in-chief. He is politician-in-chief. That means constantly supporting your base; being sensitive to the politics and decisions; constantly reaching out to them and stroking and so forth. That’s one of the things Trump does well. I don’t agree with his base and his policies, but he is constantly trying to make sure that they are on his side. Carter’s feeling was I’ll park my politics here; I’m going to do the right thing and will be rewarded with reelection.  

ArtsATL: President Carter criticized America as “the most wasteful nation on earth,” revolutionized our approach to energy conservation with three major bills and believed it was everyone’s duty to be responsible stewards of the planet. What inspired his outlook?

Eizenstat: Look at the contrast. Here we have a president, in Trump, who is ending designations of national monuments and who has appointed industry lobbyists and representatives for the Environmental Protection Agency, or for the Interior Department. Carter did just the opposite. He was the greatest conservation president since Theodore Roosevelt, and the greatest since he left office. He doubled the size of our National Parks System, and the Alaska Lands Bill was one of the great conservation efforts ever done. Why? He grew up in the fields of rural Georgia: fishing and hiking. He believed in clean water and clean streams. He was the first governor to veto a dam project in his state, which was like free federal money, but he did it with the so-called Sprewell Bluff Dam near his home because it would have endangered wetlands, diverted the Clinch water tributary and endangered boating and fishing. These were all important avocations to him. They were built in to how he grew up with a love of the land and a love of nature. And there was a religious aspect to it as well: this was God’s creation, and man had a responsibility to make sure he retained what He had created in the world in the incredible balance in nature.  

ArtsATL: What informed President Carter’s belief that it was the historical birthright of Americans to respect human rights?

Eizenstat: For him, human rights abroad were the flipside of the coin of civil rights at home. Just as he championed rights for African Americans, human rights was a natural thing for foreign policy. It was not just rhetoric. He applied human rights equally to the right and the left. He applied it for the military dictatorships in Latin America by reducing and, in some cases, cutting off their arms unless they improved their human rights records. And he applied it to the Soviet Union, where it really hit at their soft underbelly, repression, and was one of the factors in the eventual unraveling of the Soviet Union. Certainly, it was one of the major factors, along with the Panama Canal Treaty, in the creation of democracies, after he left, in Latin America and the end of the military dictators.

For his new book, Stuart Eizenstat researched through the notes he took during Carter’s administration on thousands of legal pads, now in the Library of Congress.

ArtsATL: The failed attempt to rescue the American hostages held at the US embassy in Iran has become a metaphor for a failed presidency. Is this a fair assessment?

Eizenstat: There is no question that this is the single most debilitating piece, along with double-digit inflation. Allowing the Shah to come into the United States for medical treatment is what triggered the hostage crisis. Our intelligence was so bad — I think it was one of the worst intelligence failures in American history. The CIA did not know how unpopular he was, and did not know he had deadly cancer. When he petitioned to come to the United States, every single one of Carter’s advisors, and outside people like Kissinger and David Rockefeller, lobbied heavily and said, “Sir, you’ve got to let him in; he’s been an ally for 30 years.” But Carter felt that doing so would jeopardize the security of our embassy in Iran. He foresaw that. Ultimately, he conceded. But by everyone’s admission, he was the last holdout. Once the hostages were taken . . . he made saving their lives his #1 priority. Carter pledged to the families, and he quietly said to the radical Islamic regime, “If you have show trials, if you in any way endanger the health of any hostages, then I will take military action.” They didn’t. Ham Jordan said, “I think military action will bring them all home, but in coffins.” But it was that humiliating 440 days that was so difficult. The president compounded that by staying home and not going about his regular business. And I think, in a way, it ended up making a hostage of him.

ArtsATL: President Carter kept a plaque on his desk with a slogan of his idol, Harry S. Truman: “The Buck Stops Here.” What did these men have in common?

Eizenstat: They shared many, many things in common. First, they grew up in small towns. Second, they were very common people with no high-flown airs. Third, Truman was sort of thrust into the presidency because of FDR’s death, and hadn’t been trained for it. Carter certainly campaigned for it, but had not been in Washington before. More broadly, in office, he really believed the buck stops here. Don’t blame, as our incumbent does, everybody else for your problems: your attorney general, secretary of state, national security advisor, economic advisor. When something happens in an administration, accept the responsibilities and own up to the problems yourself. Truman and Carter shared many aspects of small-town living, yet they both had a vision. Truman had a great vision for a post-war world: the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, World Bank and all the great post-WWII events. Carter also had a vision: human rights, peace in the Middle East, energy conservation and a new policy with Latin America toward the Panama Canal. In the end, though, what they shared was being a common man who could relate to the common man.

ArtsATL: Given President Carter’s achievements and service subsequent to the White House, why is his presidency viewed with such disdain by so many?

Eizenstat: He’s known as the greatest ex-president already. My book attempts to say that he was also the most accomplished one-term president we’ve ever had. If you look at all the things: energy, environment, deregulation of transportation, Camp David, the Panama Canal, Latin America, human rights, SALT II, the arms control — these were stunning achievements for even a two-term president. But they were overshadowed by two things: inflation and particularly the Iran hostage crisis. I wrote this book based on 5,000 personal pages of notes and 350 interviews — not because I wanted to ignore the problems, and I do not. It’s a candid, honest book. I don’t try to obfuscate the problems. But I try to put the presidency in a reassessed state, and I’m hopeful that my book will do for him what has been done by David McCullough and others on Truman: who also left as an unpopular president. I’ve just insisted that the very real problems we had not overshadow the remarkable accomplishments he had in so many areas.