Stuart Eizenstat’s been a part of five presidential administrations, but he focused on President Jimmy Carter during his address on April 28 at Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El.
In it, Eizenstat, who published President Carter: The White House Years in 2018, drew from more than 5,000 pages of notes and 350 interviews to give a comprehensive history of the president. He writes of various moments in Carter’s presidency, such as giving a behind-the-scenes view of what led to the return of the Panama Canal in 1977, the negotiations behind the Israel-Egypt peace talks in 1979 and Carter’s handling of the Iran hostage crisis that same year. The text serves to summarizes Carter’s successes, failures and his legacy.
Eizenstat started off his talk by comparing the public perception of Carter to President Harry S. Truman. He said both were unpopular in their time, but today Truman is more remembered for his achievements than his failures, unlike Carter. The book was devised as a means to reassess Carter.
Eizenstat said the president was able to pass major legislation and had a respect for the office. He summarized the Carter presidency with four Is: inflation, Iran, inexperience and interparty warfare.
“In the book, I don’t in any way obscure or whitewash those problems,” Eizenstat said. “I wanted to write a book before all the eyewitnesses were gone, before history’s verdict was indelibly sealed in people’s minds that this was a failed presidency, and to give a complete assessment, positive and negative, about the 39th president of the United States.”
Eizenstat was the speaker for the congregation’s second annual Lewis Lisman Distinguished Lecture Series. The program is made possible by an endowment fund created by Jean Lisman in memory of her late husband, Lewis, who made a career for himself as a history teacher and passed away in 2016 at the age of 79.
Rabbi Charles Sherman said the idea behind the speaker series was to promote historical interest by bringing in experts.
“It’s really gracious and generous for him to give up his time to be with us,” Sherman said. “Everybody would like to be a fly on the wall in these little private conversations that take place in the White House. He was there, he interacted with the characters, and even after the White House, he continued interacting with that community. Everybody likes to hear those kinds of stories.”
Eizenstat’s background includes having worked as ambassador to the European Union; undersecretary of commerce for international trade; undersecretary of state for economic, business and agricultural affairs; and deputy secretary of the Treasury. Today, he serves as a partner at Covington and Burling law firm in Washington, D.C., a senior strategist at APCO Worldwide and as the first-ever Special Adviser on Holocaust Issues, established under the Obama administration in 2013.
Aside from his work in D.C., Eizenstat’s other accomplishments include reparations for Holocaust survivors. He successfully negotiated major agreements worth $8 billion with Swiss, German, Austrian French and other European governments covering the restitution of property, payment for slave and forced labor, recovery of looted bank accounts, payment of insurance policies and the return of Nazi looted art through his negotiation of the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art.
Ronald Goldman, president of the congregation, said he looked forward to hearing a new perspective on Carter.
“I’m old enough to remember the Carter presidency and all those times. It’s interesting to be able to hear people of that stature — that’s what I’m looking forward to personally,” Goldman said.
Eizenstat’s visit was made possible due to a connection with congregation members Rachel Black and her husband, Andy. Rachel said she grew up in D.C. where her mother ran a school and was instrumental in helping one of Eizenstat’s sons with learning challenges.
“It’s very emotional for me because Andy Black and Rachel are almost lifetime friends. I saw Rachel growing up,” Eizenstat said. “It’s a major synagogue and I think it’s a terrific opportunity to address the Jewish community at an important time.”