Overall, “Carter’s message was sacrifice and pain,” Eizenstat writes. “When he faced Reagan’s message of hope and optimism amid soaring inflation and interest rates, the very contrast itself was painful.”
Indeed, his fatal flaw was captured in his infamous “malaise speech,” in which Carter lectured the nation on its poor morale (although he never actually used the word that would come to define it in history). After the speech and subsequent cabinet firings, Vice President Walter F. Mondale grew so despondent that he contemplated resigning.
This was reported before, in a 1997 book by a former Carter adviser, and Mondale disputed it then. Eizenstat, however, is a firsthand witness. In a phone call, Mondale told me that he was just venting and would never have followed through. “I just had a spasm there but I kept right on going,” he told me. “I was just depressed there after that meeting.” Still, a president who demoralizes his own vice president invariably has trouble inspiring a nation.
The crushing finale of Carter’s presidency, the 444 days when American diplomats were held hostage in Iran, demonstrated his essential humanity even as it cemented an image of fecklessness.
Alone among his team, Carter had anticipated what would happen if he allowed the deposed Shah of Iran into the United States for medical treatment. “What are you guys going to advise me to do when they overrun our embassy now and take our people hostage?” he asked. Yet he granted the request anyway, triggering the rage that led to the storming of the embassy in 1979.
Much like Carter’s critics, Eizenstat believes the president erred by holing up in the White House consumed by the impasse while taking even the theoretical threat of military force off the table. Carter looked incapable of commanding events, and the long standoff undercut American stature.
But Carter’s laser focus did, at last, secure the release of the 52 hostages, at the cost of his presidency. The final indignity came when Iran barred the plane with the hostages from taking off until minutes after Reagan was inaugurated.
For the following 37 years, Carter’s presidency has been held hostage in a way, too — to the string of missteps, the missed opportunities and the two-dimensional image. He has Eizenstat to thank for seeking to free him from the chains of history and provide a fuller picture.