Jimmy Carter left office with a 34 percent approval rating. His average approval rating since he was defeated for re-election in 1980 averages out to the second lowest (to George W. Bush) of all living former presidents. Indeed, in Barack Obama’s White House the worst thing you can say about the 44th president is that he resembles the 39th.
There are few signs of a Carter revisionist surge in America today, but if one should develop, then Lawrence Wright’s new “Thirteen Days in September,’’ an engrossing chronicle of Carter’s marathon peace negotiations with Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat at Camp David, may well be cited as its first seed.
Meticulously pieced together from presidential records, diaries, and interviews, this book had unusual origins: “Camp David,’’ a play that Wright fashioned out of the mini-dramas that constituted the talks in the Maryland mountains in 1978 and staged in Washington last April. The volume that grew out of that production is an illuminating view of a vital event that has been all but forgotten — and of a single-minded, even messianic, president whose White House years have been denigrated and discredited.
Wright approaches the summit as an examination of the three remarkable personalities whose separate paths took them to a compound of high-altitude cabins, there alternatively to assert and abandon their positions, all in pursuit of a peace that had eluded their countries for a generation but that, once forged in the seclusion of the presidential retreat, might endure for a generation.
In examining the three, Wright is both fascinated and fair-minded, seeing men of faith and fortitude and, ultimately, of vision, with stark similarities and even starker differences. They built on the former to minimize the latter. “The presence of divine commandments that brooked no compromise still guided the thinking of men who lived partly in the modern secular world, filled with diverse perspectives and competing demands, and partly in the world of prophecy and revelation,’’ Wright says.
The phrase “Spirit of Camp David’’ dates to Dwight Eisenhower’s meeting there with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1959 but was appended to the Carter deliberations 19 Septembers later. Housed in cabins named Dogwood (Sadat), Birch (Begin), and Aspen (Carter), far from the press and from the press of special interest groups, the three leaders talked, cajoled, ate, slept, joked, argued, rode bikes, took walks, caucused, played chess — and came face to face with the difficulties their own positions posed to their larger mission as peacemakers.
The whole idea had been Carter’s, reflecting what Wright nicely describes as “an engineer’s conviction that any problem can be solved if it is attacked with conviction, intelligence, and persistence.’’ But the final result reflected Carter’s recognition, hard-won, that, as Wright puts it, “human problems have their own irrational logic, which might be more responsive to the touch of a magician or a psychiatrist than an engineer.’’
The first break in the round-robin conversations came when Sadat slipped Carter a secret memorandum containing concessions Egypt was ready to make. Yet progress came slowly, and then not at all, and Carter swiftly grew depressed. “The problems were overwhelming,’’ says Wright. “There were so few areas of agreement. He had no where to go next.’’
Under enormous stress the two Mideast leaders displayed disparate, and sometimes desperate, styles: Sadat was ‘’emotional and took any setback extremely personally’’ and Begin “implacable when his sense of Jewish honor was offended.’’ The entire affair had an air of unreality, as if time had been forced to stand still, and the world outside, too.
And as it did, Wright shows us how the two sides’ differences seemed to grow while their shared interests seemed to shrink. Several times the rivals prepared to huff out of Camp David, to pack up their maps and strategies and inflexible positions and bolt home. Over honeyed mint tea, Sadat and Israeli military hero Moshe Dayan vowed to speak only of “camels and date-palms,’’ but their conversation dissolved into a fractious debate over Sinai settlements.
All that hope had melted into hopelessness.
On Day 10 Carter told Rosalynn, “We’ve failed.’’ The president instructed aides to draft a speech explaining to Congress the collapse of the talks. Sadat ordered a helicopter.
But at the moment of greatest despair came the opening for peace, based on a Carter plan that went through 23 drafts.
Carter made several miscalculations, including the notion that the intimacy of Camp David would draw the two sides together. It didn’t, and then it did. It “amplified’’ — Wright’s word — rather than ameliorated the tensions, and yet the very setting forced a settlement.
“They were trapped,’’ Wright says of the hostages to hope. “As the days passed, isolation became a stronger incentive to reach a deal simply because they could not stand being there any longer.’’
Wright’s account is both riveting and revealing, especially so when you consider that we know how it ended. But the ending itself contains a surprise. Wright points out that the agreement has held all these years. Miracle of miracles, you might say. Wonder of wonder — and a wonderful book.
David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.