American history, biographies, book reviews, Jimmy Carrter, presidential biographies, Stuart Eizenstat, US Presidents
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. Readers seeking a comprehensive review of Carter’s life should look elsewhere, but for those seeking unique access, insight and perspective into his presidency, Eizenstat’s book will hit the spot.
Overall rating: 4 stars
Thanks for reviewing this book. I’ve had my eye on it ever since I heard it was coming out. For some reason I have more interest in certain presidential administrations than the president’s life overall and Carter’s is one of them (conversely I am currently reading Truman by McCullough and it’s been a delight so far — and I’ve only gotten about a third of the way through, up to his swearing-in as president). I think this is because Carter is the first president I can remember being aware of in my life (I’m 46) and so I had a vague, peripheral understanding of what was going on at the time, which gives me today a strong desire to go back and study his administration. I think the same goes for the rest of the “modern” presidents for me — a general interest in their lives but a greater interest in the workings of their administration and their historical importance going forward. For instance, I read Jean Edward Smith’s bio on George W. Bush not too long ago, and while the examination of his life leading up to his presidency was okay, I was utterly glued to Smith’s take on W’s two terms — not just the details but an overall judgement, for better or worse. I don’t know how much you value that from a biographer of a former president, but I look for that, an honest assessment of the good and bad of an administration. Hopefully I can get that from Eizenstat’s treatment of Carter.
Fortunately when Eizenstat tosses out an opinion on Carter’s performance it is rarely disguised as fact and I can’t remember many instances where he didn’t explain himself (allowing the reader to agree or disagree based on the evidence presented). I think most folks will walk away from this appreciating what Carter was up against during his term and thinking that he certainly didn’t have the skill set of most politicians (in both good and bad ways) but did a better job than is generally remembered.
I’ve heard that JES’s bio on Bush 43 is captivating but borders on being hostile at times. Nevertheless I’m looking forward to it since I’ve never had a bad experience with his biographies 🙂
Smith certainly asserted his opinion on Bush and his administration. In fact he does so in the very opening sentences of the introduction, even to call W’s decision to invade Iraq the worst foreign policy decision of any modern presidency. But Smith does give credit to Bush on other matters where he feels it is deserved, so I don’t know if I’d call Smith biased. Looking forward to what you think.
Good review. I started this book when it first came out, and I liked the biographical section, but I eventually gave up about 1/3 of the way through the book. As you said, it just goes too deeply into the weeds on policy issues, or more specifically, the negotiations on policy issues. Maybe I’ll get back to this one sometime, though.
Christopher Saunders said:
Thanks for reviewing this one. Definitely on my to-read list.
Dan Greenhalgh said:
I agree with many of your observations about Eizenstat’s Biography on Carter. Some sections are tedious and the Author, while often critical of his subject, is clearly trying to promote the legacy of Jimmy Carter.
Eizenstat has a writing style that I found distracting. In an effort to add detail I often wondered what was the subject/point of his discussion. He tends to move from point-to-point quickly (jumpy), often without logic, leaving the reader to fill in gaps and make connections.
Eizenstat’s attempt to revise Carter’s economics successes reconciles poorly with the historical record. I think this may be because Eizenstat’s lack of understanding of basic economic principles permeates his analysis of Carter’s contributions to his presidency (and legacy). At best Eizenstat’s claims about Carter’s economic legacy are distorted and, ultimately in my opinion, fall flat.
Your comment about being able to eliminate 300 pages and not lose much, if anything at all, is spot on.