Every so often, Americans seem to rethink the legacy of some important figure — Alexander Hamilton, for example, or Harry Truman. In “President Carter: The White House Years,” a penetrating account of his time working for the nation’s 39th president, Stuart Eizenstat argues that it’s time to reassess Jimmy Carter.
Ignore the cynics and consider the achievements: Carter was the first president to champion energy conservation; he enacted the nation’s first fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks; he created the first federal subsidies for solar and wind power; he lifted price controls on domestic oil and gas and began the first sustained drop in oil consumption in American history.
Carter was the first president to challenge apartheid in South Africa and the military dictatorships of Chile, Peru and Argentina; by emphasizing human rights in American foreign policy, he helped launch the global democracy wave of the 1980s and 1990s. He negotiated peace between Egypt and Israel, to this day the most significant diplomatic accord in the Middle East. He deregulated airlines and trucking — dreary steps that produced astonishing gains in American economic efficiency for the next three decades. And of course, in partnership with Walter Mondale, he reinvented the vice presidency, turning a constitutional afterthought into a job that renders real service to the nation.
Eizenstat, a Washington, D.C., attorney and avowed Democrat, is not a disinterested observer in this story: He served as Carter’s top domestic policy adviser for four years and clearly admires his fellow Georgian. But he has written a tough-minded and meticulous history; in fact, Carter’s stumbles make some of the more absorbing chapters, such as Eizenstat’s riveting account of the “malaise’’ debate at Camp David.
Carter is remembered as an indecisive and ineffectual leader, a president who could never surmount stagflation, oil embargoes and the Iran hostage crisis. There is much truth in that narrative, and Eizenstat doesn’t shrink from it. Interestingly, he quotes Carter acknowledging that by disdaining politics as a tool to win votes, he neglected the importance of politics in rallying citizens, passing legislation and helping a nation embrace new values.
It’s possible that Carter, with his Baptist sobriety and technocratic mien, was the wrong leader for the time. Rattled by Vietnam, riots, assassinations and Watergate, Americans seemed to want a president who would govern with sunny optimism and restore their national self-confidence. Ronald Reagan, in other words.
Instead, Carter offered moral integrity, human decency, respect for the truth and humility before nature.
Which, in retrospect, seem worth a reassessment.