ALFRED — Insight into the mind and workings of America's 39th president took to a local stage on Wednesday, when Alfred University welcomed a distinguished guest to headline the annual Leonard and Saradona Lefkowitz lecture in Jewish Studies.
Stuart E. Eizenstat has served for decades as a top advisor to presidential administrations. He served as United States Ambassador to the European Union from 1993 to 1996 and as the United States Deputy Secretary of the Treasury from 1999 to 2001. In 1998, he organized the Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets, resulting in the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art. He has also served as co-chairman of the European-American Business Council (EABC).
However, the focus of his lecture was from 1977 to 1981, when he was President Jimmy Carter's Chief Domestic Policy Adviser and Executive Director of the White House Domestic Policy Staff. His recent book, President Carter: The White House Years, covers the subject, and has received unanimous acclaim from writers across the political spectrum.
Perhaps with a shade of personal affinity for the president, Eizenstat made a nuts and bolts, political science appeal for the legacy of Carter's presidency in the 900-plus page manuscript.
"I believe that he is the most underappreciated and underrated modern president and the most consequential one-term president in American history," he said during the lecture.
The book offers an examination aided by more than 350 interviews (five with Carter) with internal and external players and personal verbatim notes.
According to Eizenstat, the 1970s were a "time of epic change," seeing the global consensus formed after WWII fall by the wayside as fallout from Vietnam, urban violence, economic stagflation, new social and political movements and continued Soviet challenges made for an uncertain atmosphere for the President to operate in.
Carter however, tackled the trying times with a simple accountability and faith-driven philosophy, that was rooted in fairness.
The president idolized Harry Truman, and had his famous quote "The buck stops here" on his Oval Office Desk, speaking volumes to daily visitors like Eizenstat.
Carter had a deep respect for co-equal branches of government, going so far as to not resist investigations into his own chief of staff.
The former aide offered stark contrast in Carter's approach to the office versus that of the current administration, which faces similar social and political upheaval. "We told the truth, we obeyed the law and we kept the peace," he said, paraphrasing then Vice President Walter Mondale.
In order to understand Carter's philosophy, according to Eizenstat, you have to know his mother "Miss Lillian."
"As a registered nurse in the 1930s and 40s, she tends equally to both black and white patients, gets paid in chickens and vegetables, and at age 68 goes into the Peace Corps in India. She infused in him his belief in human rights and serving humanity," the author said.
Eizenstat first pointed to unparalleled domestic achievements, that included energy independence from Middle East sources, which he called "the most significant and long lasting" accomplishment — achieved by stimulating native production with three legislative actions.
The administration also struck a balance, pushing conservation, by growing national parks in Alaska; instituting the first vehicle emission standards; and calling on the nation to invest in clean energy sources by installing solar panels on the White House roof.
"On Alaska, he did it in typical Carter fashion, taking a giant map, putting it on the Oval Office rug, and getting on his hands and knees," Eizenstat recalled.
Carter invited consumer advocacy at his White House, with the ending of industry monopolies in air travel and others.
Eizenstat also lauded the president's unwavering stance on ethics.
"In an ethically challenged Washington, we won the 1976 election against Ford as a reaction to Watergate on Carter's pledge as an outsider 'I will never lie to you'," he said.
Carter backed that up by instituting the 1978 Ethics Act, requiring new conflict of interest disclosures for federal offices, civil service reform, meritorious selection of judges, lobbying restrictions, gift restrictions and created the Office of Special Council and Inspector General's Offices for each agency.
On the global stage, Carter sought to make peace wherever possible. Measures included recognizing the People's Republic of China as a legitimate government for the first time, as well as making Middle East Peace a priority despite many other challenges around the world.
"He made the Middle East a priority for a mixture of reasons: his deep Baptist faith, the ability to try and bring peace to the Holy Land; we were in the midst of the Cold War, and... to achieve peace in the Middle East we would solidify US support in the region against the Soviets; and the partial withdrawal of Israel negotiated in the Nixon and Ford Administrations had reached its end ...," the aide detailed.
Eizenstat revealed that a planned Middle East Peace Conference in Geneva that never materialized actually helped bring Egypt's Anwar Sadat to the negotiating table with Israel, and set the table for the historic Camp David Accord and following treaty between the two countries, secured by Carter.
At Camp David, turbulent negotiations succeeded through overtures of "deep study" and "personal diplomacy" by Carter, that included taking Sadat on a touching trip to the Gettysburg Battlefield, and learning names of Israel Prime Minister Menachem Begin's grandchildren.
"The rest is history, and the treaty was never violated," he said.
Peace however, was backed by hard power during the Carter years, with the authorization of new weapons systems that included the stealth bomber and cruise missile systems, among others.
Despite those "vast domestic achievements" and lasting peace for Israel — many of which have shaped today's political and social landscape, Carter's administration was dogged by the "Four I's" — Inflation, Iran, Inexperience and Inter-party warfare.
"These are all legitimate criticisms," Eizenstat acknowledged. "But these totally obscure the mammoth achievements at home and abroad, which President Carter put in place and have a lasting impact."
Iran proved to be the foreign thorn in the side of Carter's presidency. The country's Islamic Revolution resulted in the taking of American hostages at the US Embassy for "444 days of humiliation," according to the trusted advisor.
Eizenstat rebuffed criticism that Carter provoked the revolution, calling it instead, "One of the biggest intelligence failures in American history ... There are certain forces we can't control from thousands of miles away."
On a positive note, Eizenstat said that 50,000 Iranian Jews were spared from slaughter when they were allowed to stay in the United States, resulting from a foreign policy that valued human rights and sought to "win the hearts and minds of the third world." An agreement to release the hostages was achieved prior to the end of Carter's presidency, however, they were not released until his successor Ronald Reagan was sworn in.
Additionally, inflation especially sunk Carter's hopes for re-election in 1980. Eizenstat called it "Our domestic Achilles heal." Having bedeviled both Ford and Nixon, the mix of slow job and wage growth accompanied by high prices for consumer goods, haunted the Carter administration.
During his reelection campaign, Carter decided to shoulder the political weight of unpopular austerity measures, and appointed Paul Volcker chairman of the Federal Reserve, knowing that he planned to restrict the flow of capital and raise interest rates.
"He said, 'I'm going to take the stiffest medicine that the economy can tolerate, even if it means my re-election,'" Eizenstat recalled. "Never once did he point to Volcker and say 'he's the guy.' We took our medicine."
"We got all of the pain with none of the gain. This was emblematic of his presidency, putting into place policies the benefits of which only became obvious after he left office," the author said, summing up the 39th Presidency of the United States.
Following a question and answer session, Eizenstat signed free copies of his book at a reception.
These and more in-depth insights can be read in President Carter: The White House Years. The book is available on Amazon and Google Books, as well as at retail stores.