To the Editor:
While I do not usually comment on reviews of my book, President Carter: The White House Years, I do so for the review by Fred Siegel (“Less Mush from the Wimp,” September), because it contains material factual misstatements. I have long read Commentary and know that you prize accuracy; and Norman Podhoretz, a previous editor of Commentary, is a significant figure in my book, but this is not even discussed.
The reviewer incorrectly states that my book “bypasses the 1976 primaries” when Carter defeated both Jerry Brown, then governor of California, and George Wallace. In fact, I discuss this at length as part of 12 pages devoted to the 1976 primaries in the chapter entitled “The 1976 Campaign.” Likewise, Mr. Siegel states that “Strangely, for such an extended and comprehensive tome, President Carter misses one of the salient events of the 1970s—the 1978 Democratic Party midterm monvention (since abolished).” It is your reviewer who missed my lengthy, vivid discussion of the midterm convention in Chapter 28, under a clearly marked subchapter “Sail Against the Wind” (pages 829–831), in which I mention that Senator Ted Kennedy’s speech there on December 9, 1978, with me on the podium, was the opening gun to his eventual challenge to President Carter in his reelection bid. I describe how having to follow Senator Kennedy’s rousing speech made me feel like “a pinch-hitter fresh from the minors batting right after Ted Williams hit a grand slam.”
I am also confounded that the review fails to mention the important meeting of January 31, 1980, in the White House, between President Carter and the leadership of the Coalition for a Democratic Majority (CDM), including Norman Podhoretz, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Ben Wattenberg, and others to “avert the leftward drift of Democratic foreign policy.” Several of the attendees eventually worked for Ronald Reagan.
Nor are other salient features of the Carter administration mentioned. There is no reference to any of the foreign-policy issues that were important to CDM and to Commentary during Carter’s term in office—the successes, such as Camp David and the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty; the struggle to deal with an aggressive Soviet Union, with both soft power (human rights) and hard power (the military buildup and tough response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan) on which President Reagan built; or the failures, such as Iran, which I candidly describe.
Stuart E. Eizenstat
Fred Siegel writes:
In his massive book, Stuart E. Eizenstat devotes all of a half sentence to Jerry Brown’s impact on the 1976 presidential primary and the Carter presidency. Brown is mentioned again only once, briefly. The then 38-year-old Californian, then in his first stint as California’s governor, entered the race too late to win. Nonetheless he defeated Carter in several late contests. Brown, like another Carter rival, George Wallace, was a master at mocking the pretenses of “experts.” George Wallace’s biographer Marshall Frady described the Californian, the first to call for a “leaner life-style,” as having “shadowed the Carter presidency.” Carter’s political adviser Pat Cadell saw Brown, who had been described as the “thinking man’s George Wallace,” as the biggest threat to the Georgian’s renomination.
Although Brown ran again in 1980, it was Ted Kennedy who most threatened Carter’s renomination. Mr. Eizenstat does a good job of describing the powerful effect of Ted Kennedy’s stem-winder speech at the now defunct midterm convention held in 1978. But he misses the opportunity to describe the context of Kennedy’s speech.
The Democratic Socialists of America, once known as DSOC, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, are today experiencing their second “flowering” as an organization. In the 1970s, led by the writer, journalist, intellectual Michael Harrington, DSOC scooped up the remnants of the so-called New Left that had swallowed its once revolutionary pride and turned to electoral politics. More important, the unions such as AFSCME that had supported McGovern had side by side with DSOC played a substantial role in writing the 1976 Democratic Party program; this was the platform that Carter had at least nominally run on against Gerald Ford. The platform had called for a labor-law reform that would have made it easier for unions to organize. This was an urgent matter for labor, which was losing members daily. But Carter was lukewarm on the idea, prompting Harrington admirer Doug Fraser, president of the UAW (United Auto Workers), to quip that business was “waging a one-sided class war.” But led by Michael Harrington, who had good ties to both Ted Kennedy and left-wing labor leaders, Fraser and the president of the machinists, DSOC member William Winpisinger, used the midterm convention to maximum advantage. They showed their clout, and their willingness to lead a class war. It was much more than a matter of a single speech.
When the midterm convention ended, Hedrick Smith, writing on the front page of the New York Times, declared that the message of the convention was that there was a schism in the Democratic Party. Using Kennedy as his vehicle, Harrington seemed to be on his way to making the Democrats an openly left-wing party. “Socialism,” reported Business Week in 1979, was “no longer a dirty word” for trade unionists. Still, Carter held his ground, Kennedy mercifully self-destructed, and Reagan saved the day.