Carter’s “White House Diary” Should Resonate With Obama

by James M. Wall

Jimmy Carter kept a diary during his White House years.

His original diary notes and dictated daily personal observations were later typed by his personal secretary (Susan Clough) and filed in large binders.

In February, 1981, as the former president and Rosalynn began their post-White House life back home in Plains, Georgia, they were surprised to find that the large binders had become twenty-one large volumes.

The original copy of these twenty-one volumes remains in Plains, where the Carters have continued to live since leaving the White House. Another copy is “sequestered” in the Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta.

Carter began his book-writing career with a pre-presidential campaign book, Why Not the Best?, published in 1975. In September, 2010, a week before his 86th birthday, Carter went on a book tour to introduce his 24th published volume, White House Diary

Carter got the idea of keeping the diary from an offhand comment by Richard Nixon. He opens his book this way:

Rosalynn and I first met Nixon when we attended the National Governors’ Conference in 1971.  The president walked up to us at a White House reception, turned to Rosalynn, and asked, “Young lady, do you keep a diary?”

Rosalynn replied, “No sir.” Nixon then said, “You’ll be sorry!” Since this was our first conversation with a president, it made a lasting impact.”

The Carters have traveled extensively since they left the White House, operating out of the Carter Center to address health care problem in the developing world, conflict resolution within and between nations, monitoring voting in new democracies, and the building of houses, oftentimes with hammer and nails in hand.

In between these trips there have been frequent book tours since both Carters have been prolific authors. Jimmy Carter’s latest book tour was interrupted after he complained of not feeling well on a flight into Columbus, Ohio.

Doctors determined that he had a viral infection. After a two day hospital visit, the former president continued his book tour.

White House Diary is very much in the style of Jimmy Carter’s earlier books, Carter unvarnished. He writes like he talks, directly, without pretense. His only regret regarding his latest book, he says, is that he had to “omit three-fourths of the diary”.

Until now, none of the diary entries have been revealed except when snippets have been used in museum exhibits or when I have quoted brief excerpts in some of the books I’ve written about official matters.

Despite a temptation to conceal my errors, misjudgments of people, or lack of foresight, I decided when preparing this book not to revise the original transcript, but just to use the unchanged excerpts from the diaries that I consider to be the most revealing and interesting.

Carter chose to focus on “a few general themes that are still pertinent, especially Middle East peace negotiations, nuclear weaponry, US-China relations, energy policy anti-inflation efforts, health policy and my relationships with Congress.”

One afternoon, while reading Carter’s diaries and his annotations that put the entries in context, I put the book down and made a quick calculation.

Barack Obama was 15-years-old when Carter was elected president, 20 years-old when the Carters moved back to Plains.  Four presidents, three Republicans and one Democrat, have served as the nation’s president since Carter.  It is our loss that Obama did not have Carter’s diary entries to read before he entered the White House in 2009.

He has them now in this new book. Obama should certainly benefit from Carter’s March 21-22, 1978 entries, written during a visit in the White House with Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Israel’s newly-elected Prime Minister, Menachem Begin.

Begin’s attitude toward his Palestinian neighbors were fully understood by Carter 32 years ago. Israel’s plans for its own expansion, at Palestinian expense, have remained consistent since 1978.  Most of the time they have remained hidden behind diplomatic double-talk negotiations.

They have also been increasingly embraced by an Israeli-friendly Congress and influential White House staff aides, the latest of whom, by the way, Rahm Emanuel, has just left his White House job to return to Chicago to run for mayor.

This excerpt from the Carter diaries in 1978, is especially revealing about Israel’s long-range goals:

March 20: When I returned to Washington Monday evening, we had a meeting on the enhanced radiation weapons. A lot of momentum had been generated to produce and deploy these neutron bombs. My cautionary words since last summer have pretty well been ignored, and I was aggravated. The general sense is that it protects buildings and kills people. That’s a gross oversimplification, but I decided to work out a way to cancel the idea without giving an image of weakness to our European allies, who don’t want it anyhow.

I talked to Arthur Goldberg about his interpretation of UN 242, which is the same as ours, and completely contrary to the Israelis, who have been trying to get him to certify falsely that it doesn’t necessarily apply to the West Bank

March 21: The response was excellent regarding our resolution calling for Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. As Goldberg pointed out last night, this is the first Security Council resolution the U.S. has successfully sponsored in more than ten years. The Israelis did their best to prevent our sponsor-ship of the resolution. They grossly overreacted in Lebanon to the terrorist attack on some Israeli citizens, destroying hundreds of villages, killing many people, and making two hundred thousand Lebanese homeless.

I met with Begin [and Dayan] and had an intense discussion of all the issues.

March 22: I got a scratch pad and wrote down the specific points for discussion with Begin. I then read to Begin and his group my understanding of their position:

they’re not willing to withdraw politically or militarily from any part of the West Bank; not willing to stop the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements; not willing to withdraw Israeli settlers from the Sinai, nor if they stay to permit UN or Egyptian protection for them; not willing to acknowledge that UN Resolution 242 applies to the West Bank/Gaza Strip area; and not willing to grant Palestinians a voice in the determination of their own future.

Begin said this was a negative way to express their position, but didn’t deny the accuracy of any of it. For the first time, over their strenuous objections, the true position of the Israeli government was revealed. Dayan tried to put the best face on the Israeli position. That they did not want to have any political control over the Arab population. He went as far as he could to leave some hope open without being disloyal to Begin.

Barack Obama inherited this hard line Israeli stance, now supported strongly in US ruling circles, just as much as he inherited the economic disaster that eight years under President George W. Bush brought to the American people.

The challenge now facing Obama is how to confront these two disasters, economic disaster at home and two wars abroad, both of which were largely precipitated by Israel’s refusal to reach a just agreement on how to live as neighbors with Palestinians.

After reading White House Diary, I turned to another new book, also just published, Obama’s Wars, written not by a participant, like a sitting president, but by Washington Post journalist, Bob Woodward, who has developed an ability to convince participants in White House power struggles to tell Woodward their version of what happened behind closed doors of rooms where White House decision-making occurs.

As MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell said recently in a television interview with Woodward, those participants are eager to tell their version of what has happened to Woodward, knowing that their opponents in the power struggles will be doing the same.  O’Donnell should know; he was once the staff director of the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance, and a legislative aide to New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

The value of  all this behind-the-scenes research by Woodward is that what he turns up, will enable us to anticipate what might happen next in Washington. For example, now that Pete Rouse has been named to succeed Emanuel as Obama’s Chief of Staff, who will replace Rouse, a question that must be asked since Rouse has insisted he only wants the COS job on a temporary basis?

One possibility is Tom Donilon, currently Obama’s Deputy National Security Adviser, under General James Jones, Obama’s NSA Director.  Jones has indicated he wants out after the mid-term elections. If he has any say in his successor, which as Woodward writes, has been the case in previous military positions he has held, it won’t be Tom Donilon, currently one name high up on the lists of most DC pundits to succeed Jones.

Donilon was recommended to Jones in 2008 by Rahm Emanuel to serve as Jones’ Deputy.  Donilon came with a strong resume.

The Daily Politics website writes about Donilon:

From 1999 to 2005 he was a registered lobbyist working for Fannie Mae. Donilon has also spent time inside the White House, serving President Clinton as the assistant secretary of state for public affairs and as chief of staff for Secretary of State Warren Christopher. As such, Donilon oversaw foreign policy initiatives, including the Balkan peace negotiations and the expansion of the NATO relationship between the US and China.

In his book, Woodward writes that Donilon was the “in-house counsel to Fannie Mae, the federally chartered mortgage giant that had nearly gone bust in the financial crisis, costing tax-payers billions of dollars.”

Jones’ successor does not need to undergo Senate consideration, which would help Donilon, since Senate questioning  could be a problem for a Fannie Mae graduate. Nevertheless, according to Woodward, Jones developed a dislike for his deputy, who, while a skilled diplomat and hard worker, has never served in the military, and again, according to Woodward, Jones did not like the fact that Donilon has never visited either Iraq or Afghanistan.

Which suggests, perhaps, given the fact that Emanuel and Donilon are close friends, a friendship that led Emanuel to relate more directly to Donilon than he did to Jones, Donilon could be named as Obama’s Chief of Staff, a position that does not require Senate conformation.

Which brings us back to the White House Dairy. I was the Carter campaign delegate chair for the Illinois delegation at the 1980 Democratic Nominating Convention. I had worked closely with a young Tom Donilon, then 24 years old,  who was President Carter’s national delegate director, to select candidates for Carter delegates in Illinois.

Tom was the campaign’s final arbitrator on who could run as a Carter delegate. We spent many hours at night and on the weekends (I had a day job, which was not political) arguing over which Illinois party chairman and which Carter loyalist could run as a delegate and which had to be dropped. It was a touchy job.

When all the elected delegates assembled at the 1980 Convention, Donilon was the chief of operations for all Carter delegate voting

Ted Kennedy was still trying to unseat a sitting Democratic president, right up to and including the convention, a fight that some observers feel had a negative impact on Carter’s general election run against Ronald Reagan.

The Kennedy delegates, under the direction of Harold Ickes, Jr., the same advisor who, 28 years later, managed Hillary Clinton’s 2008 delegate strategy against Barack Obama, took the 1980 Democratic Convention down to the final vote on a delegate rules battle, the “loyal delegate” issue.

Carter wrote on Monday, August 11, 1980:

Monday evening, the convention began. There were heated debates on the rules question. When the vote came, we did better than we had anticipated, getting 1,935 votes–about a 700 plus vote over Kennedy. He called me shortly afterward to say he was going to withdraw his name from contention.  I asked him if he was going to to endorse and be on the platform with me Thursday night. He said that would depend on how we worked out details of the platform.

Kennedy did issue a belated endorsement, but on the final night of the convention, he embarrassed the president by stalking around the platform for an extended period before finally coming up to Carter to jointly raise their arms in the traditional victory signal.

In his Diary, Carter makes no reference to that delayed victory moment. Instead, he writes glowingly of the young 24-year-old who had orchestrated his delegate victory in the rules fight:

Tom Donilon, a young computer and delegate management expert, did a superb job. As he walked through the crowd of people in our command headquarters, I could hear them shouting, “Donilon for president!”

From delegate rules fights to searching for Middle East peace, the issues have not changed that much.  Young staffers grow older and stay on the job. I don’t know if Donilon has the same intense zeal for Israel as Rahm Emanuel, but I do know, from personal experience, that Donilon is a hard worker who learned early how to be diplomatic with Illinois Democratic party chairs.

He might be just the man to take over as Barack Obama’s Chief of Staff in 2011, just in time to help another young president prepare for his stretch run toward the 2012 election and find a way to diplomatically ease Israeli and US congressional intransigence regarding the future of the region.

The picture of the Carters above is from my personal collection, taken during a visit I made to Plains to interview the Carters during the summer of 1981.

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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6 Responses to Carter’s “White House Diary” Should Resonate With Obama

  1. Obama was 2 years old in 1963, when President JFK met with Shimon Peres, who was then Israel’s Deputy Minister of Defense.

    Kennedy told Peres, “You know that we follow very closely the discovery of any nuclear development in the region. This could create a very dangerous situation. For this reason we monitor your nuclear effort. What could you tell me about this?”

    Peres replied, “I can tell you most clearly that we will not introduce nuclear weapons to the region, and certainly we will not be the first.”

  2. Rob Prince says:

    another insightful piece.

  3. Awad Paul Sifri says:

    Thank you, Jim, for another excellent insightful article.
    By noting Israel’s early plans of acquiring ALL of Palestine, one notes their so-far successful strategy of “Take now and demand more later”.

    After “taking” Palestine (1948), it demanded from Arabs to recognize “Israel”.

    So, Arafat recognized Israel (1993) after Egypt and Jordan had done the same.

    The Zionists have taken the entirety of Palestine and all the remaining territories of Palestine by 1967. They have the recognition of 3 key players. The Arab and Islamic countries promised to do the same, if Israel returns the Territories for a 2-stae solution.

    So, Israel has “taken” all that and is now demanding that the Palestinians, the Arabs recognize the Zionist state as a “Jewish state”. A state for Jews only.

    In other words, anytime Israel feels that the Arab minority (20%) in Israel ‘Proper’ is increasing, Israel can force them out.
    If Greater Israel (since 1967) which comprises Israel ‘Proper’ and the Palestinian Territories (of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza) feels that Palestinians attain even a slight majority, they will resort to forceful expulsions, or any other methods.

    As Israel moves the marker, knowing that the other side will not accept, it gives itself even more time to bring in settlers and build more settlements.

  4. Harris Fawell says:

    Jim: Some interesting notes from the President Carter’s diaries relative to Begin’s feelings as to Israel’s not wanting to withdraw politically or militarily from any part of the West Bank, etc. But it is not too surprising. And Obama has inherited all of this hard line Israeli stance along with our bruised economy as a gift from the Bush II administration. The question is whether Obama can break away from this hard line stance of Israel’s conservatives. I note from a story in today’s Chicago Tribune that Netanyahu is preparing to convene his Cabinet today to discuss renewing the West Bank building freeze for two months to keep Palestinians from quitting the U.S. brokered talks.Settler groups and conservative politicians are, of course, urging the prime minister not to do so. The question is whether Obama has the resolve to keep up the pressure on Netanyahu. Best wishes, Harris

  5. Patricia Pynchon says:

    It does all seem hopeless, Israel is not constrained or limited by any power or principle. They are out for themselves and will not be stopped. How will the U.S. remind them that they are above the law, and out to gain power in the world.? Why are they entitled to unlimited lawlessness, the subjugation of a powerless people, and the constant theft of land? Why does the U.S.A. not arrest them?

  6. Jean Snyder says:

    To reply to the question asked often, “why is Israel allowed to steal more and more of Palestine?” the answer is that the great majority of United States taxpayers are still ignorant of how much of their taxes are subsidizing Israel. They get most news from the channels which give bites of news and switch to entertainment. If they would get the hidden facts, then contact their Congress person with a protest at supporting one religion, very unconstitutional, change would happen, and justice be rendered to the Palestinians.

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