September 7, 2014


The Lion's Den : a review of Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David By Lawrence Wright (Steve Donoghue, Open Letters)

"The actors by now were playing out their roles in a trance," he tells us, a "spell of enchantment that had taken over the Middle East, in which violence could only be answered by greater violence."

That spell was abruptly broken in November 1977 when Anwar Sadat, Egypt's charismatic and autocratic ruler (and, as Wright aptly puts it, "a master of the unexpected"), decided to risk everything - his nation, his standing in the Arab world, even his life - in order to travel to Israel, meet Prime Minister Begin, and address the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, and to try the inimitable one-two trick of both admonishing Israel for its land-greed in Gaza and the Sinai and extending to Israel the hand of Arab friendship. Wright is stirring on the psychological earthquake this represented:

Few Israelis had ever met an Egyptian, except for the Jews who had emigrated from there, so the shock of having Sadat himself in their midst was compounded by curiosity and wonder. The same was true for the Egyptians watching the event on television. To see Sadat staring into the faces of the enemy - until now, figures of legend - suddenly and unsettlingly humanized the Israelis in the Egyptian mind.

Sadat's sunny impression of his success in Israel was sharply at odds with the dark reactions of the Israelis themselves, especially Begin himself, who's portrayed in Wright's book as a kind of mirror-opposite of Sadat, the one suave and composed, the other moody and disheveled, the one bold and confident, the other cryptic and suspicious (as Wright reports, Israel's revered first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, compared Begin to Hitler: "He is a racist who is willing to kill all the Arabs in order to gain control of the entire land of Israel"). The best part of Thirteen Days in September - edging out even its breakneck pace and utterly confident narrative style - is Wright's almost Plutarchian skill at character sketches, and he returns to Begin often, telling us, "In his autobiographies, Begin comes off as intransigent, supremely sure of his great intelligence, passionate, riven with guilt, and full of rage ... His eloquence was always poised on the edge of sophistry and bombast, frequently slipping over the edge."

But the best and shrewdest character study in this book is the aforementioned honest broker in the center seat: President Carter, the Georgia peanut farmer and former nuclear submarine officer who rose from rural obscurity to become governor of his state, then Democratic national candidate, then president - but one of the strangest of all presidents, a jarring blend of Huey Long's Louisiana and Calvin's Geneva. Carter was a born-again Christian evangelical who carried his own bags even as President, installed solar heating panels on the roof of the White House, and knew his Bible backwards and forwards, and Wright is always at his most evocative when describing the man:

He was intelligent but impersonal, with a kind of mechanical affect that made it difficult for people to like him. He frequently displayed a huge toothy smile - the subject of countless caricatures - but rather than warmth or humor the effect was often goofy, or insincere, or even menacing to people who saw the wrath behind it. Carter was by nature cool and reticent, but he turned icy when he was angry. His voice would go quiet, his eyes hardened into bullets, and he would smile inappropriately in what looked like a rictus. People who encountered him in this state rarely forgot it.

loomingtowerIt was these three men who came together in September of 1978 at Camp David to build on the unprecedented moment of Sadat before the Knesset, and as its title implies, Thirteen Days in September is a day-by-day and at times hour-by-hour account of that summit, which most of the three staffs involved (to say nothing of the entire political establishments in all three countries) considered a waste of time. Wright has read all the memoirs and private accounts of those staff members and key players (his end notes are very pleasingly weighted toward these kinds of primary sources, although it's possible Hillary Clinton would be dismayed by how many of these books are titled some close variation of "Hard Choices"), and he brings these men and women to life again for the members of his audience who know Carter and his people only from the history books...

If it's half as good as Looming Tower it'll be must-reading.

Posted by at September 7, 2014 6:24 AM

blog comments powered by Disqus