Before the Buck Gets to Carter, It Stops at Stu Eizenstat, His Man for All Domestic Issues
Within a few minutes Eizenstat, 36, has summoned to order the weekly meeting of the council of 30 top aides who help him deal with hundreds of issues as President Carter's chief domestic affairs adviser. Before the hour-long session is over, the somber young lawyer has demonstrated a running knowledge of such diverse matters as the federal budget, regulatory reform, the growing traffic in opium from Afghanistan and Pakistan, strip mining, solar energy, Indochinese refugees, the windfall profits tax and the importance of an upcoming gay march on Washington. "We're going to have a meeting at the same time," he murmurs wryly during discussion of the last item. "Attendance will be taken."
Eizenstat's witticisms are as rare as they are understated. Although he is a charter member of the Georgia Mafia that accompanied Carter from Atlanta to Washington, he (a) doesn't own a bank, (b) never touches Amaretto and cream and (c) seems as thoroughly married as Carter himself. "He has," observes a member of the White House press corps, "about as much sparkle as a pet rock." Whatever he may lack in vivacity, however, Eizenstat more than makes up for in power. As the domestic counterpart of National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, he is the man through whom all domestic policy recommendations must flow. Even more important, he enjoys the President's admiration and trust.
His influence emanates not from position alone but from an impressive combination of intellectual gifts: the ability to comprehend and assimilate huge quantities of information, to gauge the political consequences of presidential decisions and to speak fearlessly to Carter himself.
"If I wanted to change the President's mind about something, I'd go through Eizenstat," says an old Capitol Hill hand. "He is the one in the White House least worried about protecting his position. He'll tell the emperor he has no clothes if he thinks it is in the best interests of the nation." Indeed, the view is widespread in Congress that Eizenstat is the classiest act in the White House outside the Oval Office—a man of substance who manages to be knowledgeable, cordial and accessible. Yet it is in Eizenstat's domestic sphere that the Carter administration is most vulnerable. The looming showdown with Ted Kennedy seems certain to be fought on the twin battlefields of inflation and energy—areas in which Carter has absorbed scathing criticism, even though Kennedy's liberal enthusiasms might well have proved more inflationary than the President's.
"I would not sit here and say we are blameless," says Eizenstat, folding his six-foot frame into a chair in the White House office once used by John Ehrlichman. (The sole relic of the departed Nixon aide is a half-pint bottle of Kentucky bourbon in one of the cabinets.) "But I also think we've failed to get across to the public the tremendous accomplishments we've made. In the campaign, when people get to compare, I think the situation will turn around."
Eizenstat, who was research director of Hubert Humphrey's 1968 presidential campaign (he considers the Minnesotan "the greatest American of our time"), is regarded—along with Vice-President Mondale—as the Carter administration's house liberal. In that role, he was instrumental in promoting the Administration's early tilt toward expanding social programs, providing more jobs and keeping the lid on interest rates. Former Treasury Secretary Michael Blumenthal admires Eizenstat but believes the policies he favored contributed to the inflationary push. "Some people started earlier to urge the President to declare inflation public enemy No. 1," observes Blumenthal. "Stu was not one of those who led the parade."
Without apology, Eizenstat maintains that until the end of 1978, when the descent of the dollar reached crisis proportions, "There was virtual unanimity in the Administration that interest rates were in the right place." He is now in agreement—though grudgingly, perhaps—with the continuing shift to tight money policies. "We are in a period of fiscal restraint," he acknowledges.
That concept of retrenchment, including harsh questioning of the old liberal imperatives behind government spending, is shaping up as a Carter campaign strategy. It is aimed at puncturing the nostalgia for Camelot. Increasingly, and ironically, Eizenstat, the unreconstructed liberal, is sounding that discouraging theme in speeches to Carter's more left-wing constituents.
Speechmaking is merely one element in the frightfully overburdened Eizenstat schedule, which commands his attention from 5:30 a.m. until late in the evening. Obsessively dedicated to his job, he is nonetheless equally protective of his family life. Nearly every evening he rushes home by 8 to his modest Chevy Chase split-level to spend an hour with his sons, Jay, 9, and Brian, 6, before they go to bed. Friday nights are sacrosanct, reserved by Eizenstat and his social worker wife, Fran, for a formal Sabbath dinner. Eizenstat, a devout and active Jew, sings the blessings over wine and bread, and shares a Bible story with his family. On weekends he takes the kids swimming, watches Jay play soccer in the Montgomery County league, or shoots baskets with the boys in his backyard.
The linked ideals of service and family were apparently bred in Eizenstat early. The only child of an Atlanta shoe wholesaler and his wife, Stu was ever the hard-working straight arrow, a compulsive student-athlete who shunned all the usual adolescent digressions. "Even in grammar school," says his father, Leo, "he'd lock himself in his room for six to eight hours at a time studying, without even going to the bathroom." At Henry Grady High School, Stu took up basketball with the same determination, staying home from camp one year to practice his shooting all summer long. It paid off in stardom (one national magazine listed him among the top 500 high school players in the U.S. in 1960), but Stu, painfully shy, would flee the court at the end of every game. Afterward he would refuel with his favorite "chili pickle steak" (hamburger, pickle, relish and barbecue sauce) at the Varsity drive-in near Georgia Tech.
Grounded in the Jewish ethic by his father, a devoted Bible scholar, Eizenstat was a committed liberal by the time he left home. Later, at the University of North Carolina, he ventured into politics, becoming active in student government. Moving on to Harvard Law School, he was introduced at a party to Fran Taylor, a young graduate student at Boston College. They courted for two years, married in 1967 and moved to Washington, where Eizenstat went to work as a researcher and speech writer in the Johnson administration.
After Hubert Humphrey's hairbreadth defeat in the 1968 election ("I felt despair that a man like Richard Nixon could defeat Hubert Humphrey"), Eizenstat returned to Atlanta, where he joined the law firm of Powell, Goldstein, Frazer and Murphy. "When he came here," recalls senior partner Ed Dorsey, "he said, 'I'm going to be the first person in and the last person out of this office every day.' What he was known for around here was pure, brutal diligence." Then, in 1970, Eizenstat was introduced to a soft-spoken peanut farmer who was running for governor.
"I remember quite clearly being struck by his intelligence and how articulate he was," Eizenstat recalls of Jimmy Carter. "I saw in him a person who could bridge the gap between urban and rural interests." Thus began a relationship whose closeness is based on intellectual affinity and mutual respect rather than on the father-and-son chumminess that exists between Carter and Ham Jordan and Jody Powell. To this day Eizenstat treats the President with scrupulous formality, though their families occasionally socialize. (Last spring Jimmy and Rosalynn attended a Passover seder at the Eizenstats.)
Following Carter's election to succeed Lester Maddox, Eizenstat served as issues director for Andrew Young's congressional race in 1972 and May-nard Jackson's campaign for mayor of Atlanta in 1973. When Carter decided to run for President, Eizenstat signed on early and enthusiastically. One reason, perhaps, is that he sees in the President many of the qualities others see in himself. "He's got a lot of habits I admire," says Eizenstat, "including organization and perseverance." At the White House, Eizenstat's influence has increased as his expertise has made itself felt. On Capitol Hill, his modesty and lack of presumption have often seemed in welcome contrast to the perceived arrogance of some of his fellow Georgians.
Eizenstat's passion for anonymity, however, has not concealed his willingness to be direct—even blunt. "Stu can be very charming when he's not in a position that requires output, output, output," says presidential assistant Jack Watson, "but he doesn't mince words or waste time." A case in point is the rigorously candid OPEC memo that surfaced at the height of the fuel crisis last summer. In it, Eizenstat frankly appraised the political damage Carter was suffering and urged him to pin the blame for the crisis on the oil cartel. "My relationship with the President has always been one where he does not look for false reassurance," says Eizenstat. "He is a strong man who reacts best when he's given constructive advice. In our private communications, we're always candid. I think that's good for him, good for me, good for the country." Eizenstat was unhappy, however, when the confidential memo was leaked. "I'm always upset when anything I say privately to the President is treated anyway other than privately," he says quietly. "I wouldn't have done it myself."
Despite Eizenstat's demonstrated leverage, he avoids most of the perquisites that attach to life in the White House and a $58,800 salary. He drives one of his own aging cars to the office and flies commercially when he travels out of town. He did, however, exercise the prerogative of an Administration insider when he invited his parents to a dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin the day the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty was signed last March. "He's the same old Stu," says his mother, Sylvia, fondly. "He still greets his father with a kiss, even at the White House."
Away from the job, Eizenstat is astonishingly unspectacular. He watches sports on television, sees an occasional movie and reads—mostly periodicals and government reports. He rarely drinks ("I may have had three beers in the last year") and doesn't smoke or take coffee. When he and Fran entertain, they prefer to do it at home. "We enjoy the prestige of what Stu is doing," says Mrs. Eizenstat, "and to an extent we're in awe of it. It's like being on a moving escalator. We're part of it, but it's going to keep moving. It's not ours to keep."
Eizenstat himself views his role with an idealism that would seem ingenuous in someone less sophisticated. "I feel I have an obligation to repay this country for the benefits it bestowed on me and my family," he says over lunch at his desk. "My grandfather came from Europe and a background of discrimination. He was able to raise a family, scrape through and make a living. My father in turn had the opportunity to raise his son in a context of minimum discrimination. This country has afforded a great measure of freedom and economic opportunity, and each generation has an obligation to continue that."