Stuart E. Eizenstat Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Politics, Law, and the
Search for 'Imperfect Justice': Conversation with Stuart E. Eizenstat, former
Deputy Secretary of the Treasury; April 30, 2003, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 3 of 6

Working in the White House

You were chief domestic advisor in the Carter administration. What surprised you most when you got into government? You're in the White House; you must have come with a great deal of idealism about all the things that you could change. What, then, surprised you?

The biggest surprise when you work in the White House is the conflicting forces that make it so difficult for you to achieve your objective -- conflicting interest groups, congressional pressures, budget restraints, the realities of elected politics. All of these constrain what you can do. What you have to do, Harry, is not be deterred by that, to realize that you're going to face conflict every day, that there's no policy that everyone is going to like, that conflict is a part of our whole system of government. But to keep your eye on your objective and with great determination fight through those interests groups, fight through the barriers, overcome the challenges, and get as much as you can get of what you're trying to do, knowing that you're not going to get it all.

If you're an idealist who insists on getting the whole cake, then government is the wrong place for you, and politics is the wrong place, because you'll never get it. On the other hand, if you're so discouraged that you simply give up because of all the conflicting factors which you see in the White House, you're also in the wrong place. So I think you need [to be] someone who has ideals, who has values, but who recognizes that under our system of government, you're never going to get the whole loaf, that you try to get as much as you can and then come back later for more.

I guess you also must have to have a long-term commitment, a long-term view of what you're trying to accomplish. What comes to mind is that during the Carter administration it was your idea to do something in the way of a memorial to the Holocaust. That didn't really reach fruition until many years after the Carter administration had left. Tell us a little about that process of working to achieve an idea amidst all this conflict, keeping at it to get a long-term result, like the Holocaust Museum.

Well, Harry, I'll give you two examples.That experience during the Humphrey campaign, with Arthur Morse and his statement to me about how President Roosevelt had acquiesced in the slaughter of people and not intervened, led me to two things. The first was, I recommended to President Carter the creation of a presidential commission, headed by Eli Weisel , to suggest a permanent memorial for Holocaust victims. Yes, as you say, it took fifteen years for that to come to fruition. But the recommendation was made. It was accepted by President Carter. It was then accepted by the Congress. It took fifteen years to get the money and to implement it. But patience is also important. We had the agreement in principle to do it. It was then a question of implementation.

The second example is very current today, Harry, as we're looking at Iraq and al Qaeda and Islamic fundamentalism. In 1979 when I was President Carter's chief domestic advisor, we faced the first Islamic revolution, when Ayatollah Khomeini came out of exile and went back to Tehran, the Shah abdicated, and we had the first radical Islamic republic. There were at that time 100,000 Jews, Bahais, and Christian believers whose lives were threatened by this new revolution, and who were fleeing to our American embassies throughout Europe trying to get visas, and were unable to get them from our consul offices. I remembered from Arthur Morse what had happened during World War II, when refugees from Eastern Europe couldn't get visas to come to the United States. And we were able, through President Carter's good offices, to issue a special visitor's visa, so that over 50,000 Iranians were able to come in under so-called temporary visitor's visas, but which would expire only if the Shah got back into power, which, of course, he never did. They're now American citizens.

So, you can use your experiences in creative ways. Sometimes it takes us, as in the Holocaust Museum, ten or fifteen years to come to fruition. Sometimes, as in the case of the Iranian Jews, Bahais, and Christian believers, it can be done in a matter of months.

It's said of President Carter that he's been a much better ex-president than president, which may be, and probably is, an unfair judgment. I'm curious as to your assessment of him in those two roles, and the piece that his fine sense of justice and morality plays in all that he tries to do, because one can almost say that he was too good for politics. That his sense of justice is much more practical for an ex-president trying to find alternative solutions to the problems we face.

That's a very good question. First, let me say that my own interest in human rights, which I carried out in the Clinton administration in the Holocaust areas, was, in a significant part, catalyzed by his own interest in human rights. That was a lasting influence on me.

President Carter's?

President Carter's, absolutely, President Carter's own interest.

Second, although the critique you've mentioned of President Carter is one that one hears, I tend to reject that. He has been a great post-president, but I think his presidency hasn't gotten the credit it deserves. For example, when you say was he, in effect, too good to be president? President Carter, first of all, was able to compromise. He knew the political system; he had been a governor. But second, he put human rights at the center of his foreign policy. I think it's one of his most lasting legacies. You can ask any person in Latin America who is a democrat (with a small "d") and in elected office now, and they will tell you that it was his advocacy of human rights against the military dictatorships throughout Latin America at the time that helped cause the transformation. His help for dissidents in the Soviet Union -- all of this put foreign policy and human rights together in ways they never had been during the Kissinger and Nixon administration, when realpolitik was the issue. And may I suggest to you that the emphasis that he put on democracy-building and on human rights continues to this day, during presidents who had very different ideologies in other ways -- Reagan and even President Bush. So I think that he helped institutionalized human rights as a significant element in foreign policy.

So he was ahead of his time, because he still had to fight the Cold War, and these two goals may have interfered with each other. They were also helpful. But the baggage of the Cold War had to be cleared before human rights [could become] a policy goal.

Yes, in a way, I think you're right. And, yet, in another way, I think it was the elevation of human rights which pointed out the fundamental problem of communism, which was its denial of human rights. I remember very well, Harry, in the very early weeks of the Carter White House, getting a letter from Andrei Sakharov, the great dissident, to President Carter, asking President Carter to help the dissidents and to speak out for them. And there was a great debate. Was this going to exacerbate the Cold War, anger the Soviets? Was this an intrusion into their sovereignty? And the president made a very seminal decision: it might anger them, but human rights had a supervening responsibility. He spoke out and responded with a letter to Sakharov, yes, angering the Soviet Union but perhaps eventually bringing the Soviet Union's demise, because it pointed out the fundamental core problem with communism, what was really rotten about the system.

So when President Carter went back to Georgia, you went back to the law?

I didn't go back to Georgia, but I went back to law.

But then came another administration a decade or so later, and you came back to Washington. I can't help asking, how would you compare these two very different Democratic presidents, Clinton and Carter?

On the surface, Harry, they had much in common -- both Southerners, both Baptists, both raised in rural environments, both very committed to civil rights because of the wrongs they had seen growing up -- but they were very, very different. President Clinton is a fantastic politician. One of the most naturally gifted politicians I've ever met in my life. Both are very bright, very analytic. But President Clinton had a political touch and a political skill that was quite remarkable. President Carter did not have that. He had other attributes. I think that Clinton's ability to articulate both publicly and privately, to communicate his charisma, were certainly differences. I do think, on the other hand, that President Carter's commitment to human rights was such a fundamental core of his presidency that while it was an important element in President Clinton's foreign policy, it was not the central element that it had been for President Carter. Both had a distinct interest in helping the disadvantaged and the poor. Both were social liberals. I think President Carter was fiscally more conservative than President Clinton. But both had the same burning desire to help the disadvantaged. In essence, both were good mainstream Democrats.

Next page: The Changing U.S. Role in the World

© Copyright 2003, Regents of the University of California