PRESIDENT CARTER: THE WHITE HOUSE YEARS
By Stuart Eizenstat
Thomas Dunne Books, $40, 999 pages
On the evening of Nov. 4, 1980, President Jimmy Carter got some very bad news. He was to be a one-term president, a damning indictment of his tenure. Not only that, but he won only six states and barely scratched 40 percent of the popular vote.
Ronald Reagan, the former governor of California and “that actor,” pounded Mr. Carter into the ground. Mr. Reagan won 44 million votes to Mr. Carter’s 35.5 million votes. In the Electoral College, Mr. Reagan took 489 electoral votes to Mr. Carter’s paltry 49 electoral votes.
It was a stunning defeat in a more-than-usual historic election. What little legacy President Carter hoped for was swept away by the epic-sounding “Age of Reagan.”
It is just as striking, though, that Stuart Eizenstat, White House domestic affairs adviser under Mr. Carter, managed to get that wrong.
His new book, “President Carter: The White House Years,” is a large book, totaling 999 pages, including footnotes and index. For four years of an overall-failed presidency, we looked at this book with earnest. Here, we believed, would be a grand biography, detailing everything that went wrong (lots and lots) or right (very little) from 1977 to 1981.
To be fair, Mr. Eizenstat does go into some of the failures, albeit gently and often full of excuses. “A full sense of crisis gripped the White House after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan,” he writes. Perhaps that is a deliberate understatement, as that was but one of many things that pummeled the Carter re-election campaign. Mr. Eizenstat does mention it and does go into it. Good for him. But he portrays Mr. Carter as often a victim of circumstance, rather than a master of his and the country’s fate.
There is a fatal flaw here in how he portrays Ronald Wilson Reagan. He flat out admits he was naive in underestimating Mr. Reagan. “Reagan also frequently exaggerated facts and had stories that turned out to be myths created by his fertile imagination,” Mr. Eizenstat, the out-of-touch insider, condescendingly says. In today’s political climate, it’s pretty clear what he was wanting to parallel. And he provides no examples of Mr. Reagan exaggerating even as Mr. Reagan sometimes did.
Then there are the flat-out falsehoods about the Gipper. Look no further than the sub-chapter titled “Debategate.” Fake liberal history says that the Reagan campaign personally obtained stolen briefing books from Mr. Carter before the crucial presidential debate. Mr. Reagan, then, used the stolen books to his advantage, essentially cheating.
“Nixon was not the only one to employ dirty tricks,” Mr. Eizenstat writes. In reality, it was a Democrat, Paul Corbin, angry at Ted Kennedy’s failed primary challenge to the incompetent Mr. Carter, who stole the briefing books.
Now, Mr. Eizenstat mentions Mr. Corbin, and even mentions my book’s own work on the investigation (“Rendezvous with Destiny” (2009)), but it leaves a bad taste in the reader’s mouth. It heavily implies that Mr. Reagan flat out cheated in the election, and that is how he won.
Utterly and completely untrue. The briefing books were worthless — simply a recitation of Mr. Reagan’s quotes, speeches and radio addresses — and Mr. Reagan never knew of the books. Mr. Reagan’s debate briefers told me the books were worthless.
To be fair, the sources are immense as the book — if only they were easy to look through. There is a section of notes, but no bibliography. This is almost anathema for any historical work.
Nonetheless, interviews with the author included Jimmy Carter himself, National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Council member Gary Sick (author of the sicko “October Surprise,” which falsely alleged the Reagan campaign maneuvered to keep the American hostages kept in Iran) among others; Mr. Eizenstat also used his personal notes from the Carter presidency; newspapers and diaries are also featured, including Jimmy Carter’s own published works. It is heavily footnoted, showing an intent by Mr. Eizenstat to make it serious.
There is no difficult writing here, and that is perhaps expected. You won’t expect poetry when going into a historical biography, especially about a miserably failed presidency, unless you are Edgar Allan Poe. But still, there’s something to be said for its simplicity:
“James Earl Carter, Jr., was born on October 1, 1924, in Plains, Georgia, a town of some 550 people in the deeply segregated South,” the book opens. Easy to understand, sure, but the plainness of language gets tiring. Maybe the plain language is appropriate for a biography of a man born in Plains, Georgia But “it was a dark and stormy night ” is also easy to understand, if also banal.
Overall, it’s a big book, good for Carterites but not for Reaganites, nor for deep history. It’s a good book of a Carter aide’s opinion and perception on the Carter years, not on a history of the Carter years or the pre-Reagan years. Yet you don’t see many people calling themselves Carter Democrats, and you see many calling themselves Reagan Republicans, so perhaps Stuart Eizenstat’s focus should shift less from opinion to history.
• Craig Shirley is a Reagan biographer and presidential historian. Scott Mauer is his researcher.