Stuart Eizenstat’s “President Carter: The White House Years” was published four months ago. Eizenstat is an attorney, a former diplomat and was Jimmy Carter’s Chief Domestic Policy Adviser for four years. He previously worked as a junior aide to President Johnson and as a research director for the Humphrey presidential campaign. He later served as President Clinton’s Ambassador to the European Union and as Deputy Secretary of the Treasury.
Eizenstat’s hefty 898-page biography provides a penetrating, frequently fascinating and sometimes tediously detailed look at Carter’s life through his one-term presidency. Supported by 350 interviews, declassified documents and more than seven-thousand pages of notes he took while working in the White House, this book is composed of two distinct pieces: a relatively brief but exquisitely-written biography of Carter’s pre-presidency and a topically-structured and extremely thorough exploration of his presidency.
Skeptics might worry that Eizenstat’s admiration for his subject could tarnish the book’s probity. But while the author openly admits his fondness for Carter and argues for a reassessment of his presidency this is no hagiography. Eizenstat is often sharply critical of Carter and usually identifies his flaws with a dispassionate perspective. But make no mistake…Eizenstat clearly believes his former boss did a far better job than is widely accepted and works diligently to convince the reader.
The first 150-200 pages (through the early narrative of Carter’s presidency) is exceptional – almost as good as “efficient” biographical coverage can be. The primary focus of this book is on Carter’s years in the White House, but his childhood, early political career and campaign for the presidency are masterfully reviewed. And the book’s “Introduction” is worth reading at least twice.
Throughout the text Eizenstat is careful to introduce new topics with clever observations, one-liners or theses. And nearly every sentence – particularly in the early chapters – seems to exude insight and purpose. The discussions relating to life on the campaign trail and presidential transition planning are compelling and chapters relating to Mondale’s vice presidency, Rosalynn’s role as First Lady and the Panama Canal are particularly notable as well.
The backbone of the book consists of seven topic-focused sections comprising twenty-two chapters (and about seven-hundred pages) aimed at Carter’s presidency. Here Eizenstat analyzes the Carter administration’s activities and efforts relating to energy policy, the environment, the economy and foreign affairs (principally the Middle East, the Soviet Union and Iran).
Each of the sections proves well-organized, coherent and extremely detailed. But many of these dive far too deeply into the weeds for a general audience and, in the aggregate, require an inordinate investment of time for relatively little biographical gain. The book could have been as much as 200-300 pages shorter without losing appreciable perspective on Carter himself.
Given Eizenstat’s penchant for penetrating insight, the discussion of Carter’s cabinet choices is surprisingly perfunctory. It is also surprising that several conspicuous typos survived the editing process, suggesting a last-minute dash for the printing press. But perhaps most disappointing is that this biography ends with Carter’s presidency – leaving his remarkable retirement to be covered elsewhere.
Overall, “President Carter: The White House Years” is an excellent – but not flawless – biography of a widely unappreciated president. Although for most it may be best while covering Carter’s childhood, Naval service and early political career, it unquestionably offers unique access, insight and perspective into his presidency as well.
Overall rating: 4 stars