Anwar el-Sadat, Jimmy Carter, and Menachem Begin at the signing of the Camp David Peace Treaty in 1979.

When I list the countries I have visited, I don’t include Egypt. In a certain sense, though, I have been to what is now Egypt, and under unique circumstances. My visit, which was unplanned, occurred while I was on a tour of Israel with a group of American journalists. The trip was planned well in advance, so it was a coincidence that I was in Tel Aviv on March 26, 1979, the day the Camp David peace treaty was concluded between Israel and Egypt.

ANWAR el-SADAT

The itinerary for our trip included a stop at Yamit, a town the Israelis had built in the Sinai Peninsula, which had been seized from Egypt during the Six-Day War in 1967. One of the provisions of the treaty was that Israel would return the Sinai to Egypt, and Egypt would leave it demilitarized. Another result of that treaty – seemly lost in the clamor surrounding the popular uprising in Egypt – was U.S. political and military support for Egypt. On the day we were supposed to go to Yamit, our guides told us the trip was cancelled because the residents of the town – who objected to the treaty, and especially to the withdrawal of settlers from the Sinai – had blockaded the highway. We were surprised that we had to explain this, but we told the guides that if the settlers were blockading the highway, that was where we wanted to be.

MENACHEM BEGIN

So the bus took us as far as we could go, and we got out and talked to the angry settlers, who had piled furniture and tires and other obstructions across the highway. We talked to the settlers about their determination to stay in Yamit; when we returned to the bus, the driver told us he knew how to get to the town without using that highway. That turned out to be true, although the bus got stuck in the desert sand at one point, and we all had to get out and push. Yamit was virtually deserted, and it was an odd experience to walk through that town with virtually no human life in sight. We did encounter one elderly, gregarious man who identified himself as the “unofficial mayor” and explained the layout of the town and his own disappointment about Israel’s decision. Yamit was still in Israeli hands on that day. It was evacuated in April 1982, and some of the settlers had to be routed from their homes and carried away by the Israeli Defense Forces. The town, which was a beautiful little settlement of about 2,500 people, was demolished before the peninsula was ceded to Egypt.

JIMMY CARTER

The Camp David Treaty was brokered by President Jimmy Carter and signed by Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Sadat and Begin both were excoriated in some quarters, and the treaty certainly was a factor in the murder of Sadat in 1981. Egypt was also suspended from the Arab League for a while.

 Whatever else one may think of the treaty, it has prevented hostilities between Israel and Egypt for more than 30 years, during most of which Hosni Mubarek has been president of Egypt. The future of that treaty – and the likelihood of renewed belligerence between the two countries – is one of the many things at stake in the uprising against Mubarek’s regime.

Anwar el-Sadat with Ronald Reagan in 1981

When the treaty was signed in Washington, D.C., the ritual was televised live on an oversized screen in a public square in Tel Aviv. There were lights and music and dancing, but the joy seemed largely orchestrated. When my colleagues and I wandered just a few blocks from that square, the city was quiet. A couple of us stopped in a bar operated by a Yemeni woman named Chanita Madmoni. We sat next to two old Israelis – one Greek, the other Rumanian. We told them they didn’t seem excited about the “shalom.” They’d rather have peace than war, they said, but they weren’t convinced it would last. Judging by their ages, I’d venture that it lasted longer than they did.

billy carter

BILLY CARTER

Dan and I were talking the other day about a time when you could look under the hood of your car and see the macadam of the street or driveway. That was when cars were mechanical devices, not automatons with minds of their own.

Dan said his dad told him that it was possible with some vehicles to stand in the engine compartment, with your feet on the ground, to pull the plugs or change the air filter. The kid who works in Dan’s garage looked incredulous, so I backed up Dan’s dad, even though I had never seen anyone do that.

I did see a guy named Sonny mount an engine as though it were a race horse so he could clean the carburetor. That happened at Frank DeMore’s garage, where I used to hang out with a lot of guys who probably could have been doing something more productive if their wives or mothers only knew where to find them. The era before cell phones had its advantages.

billy carter1

BILLY CARTER

I was sitting in my ’56 Chevy in the parking lot of that garage when I heard — on the radio — Bill Mazeroski’s home run that beat the Yankees in the 1960 World Series. That was the only Game Seven walk-off home run in World Series history, and I heard it in the parking lot of Frank DeMore’s garage. I was afraid to go home, what with my dad’s theory that the Yankees had proprietary rights to the world championship and all, but probably I wouldn’t have gone home even if the Yankees had won.

Frank’s garage and everything in it — including Frank — was covered with a film of grease. The grease was an animate thing, and it would migrate. When my mother laundered my clothes she used to wonder how a person could get so dirty by being idle, but my mother had never been to Frank’s garage.

10_1_billy_carter_348

JIMMY CARTER

Frank’s garage is gone now, and I regret that whenever I drive through that town. That place accounted for the lack of purpose in the lives of uncounted men and boys, and such things are not lightly lost.

I suppose if I had amounted to something, Congress might have considered appropriating money to convert Frank’s garage into an historic site — possibly one element in a tour that would include Pappy’s hot dog restaurant, the Kozy Korner soda shop, and the Hollywood Diner. Something similar is in the legislative hopper with respect to Billy Carter’s old gas station in Plains, Ga., but, of course, Billy’s sibling was sort of a president of the United States.

Some citizens who insist on looking at the big picture question the wisdom of spending money for such a purpose when the nation is broke. Others say the gas station is an irreplaceable remnant of the early life of James Earl Carter and ought to be preserved so that future generations can understand the president better — and so that tourists will continue to visit Plains once it is no longer possible to run across the Carters themselves. Well, at least they’re honest.

jimmy and billy carter

JIMMY and BILLY CARTER

PRESIDENT REAGAN

PRESIDENT REAGAN

Back in the days when I was somebody, I had lunch a couple of times at the White House. Well, in the interest of full disclosure I should admit that I had lunch at the White House precisely because I was nobody. I don’t know if this is still true, but for a couple of administrations anyway the White House would invite “out-of-town” editors to stop in for a day — “out of town” editors meaning those whose publications were not significant enough to have regular representation in the capital.

One of my visits occurred during the Reagan administration. It consisted of a series of individual briefings by the top cabinet members and by George H. W. Bush, who was then vice president. I took some great pictures of Jeane Kirkpatrick, giving no thought to what I would do with them.

At lunch time, we out-of-towners were ushered into the East Room, which had been done up for a banquet. A Marine chamber group played and we lunchers were served by the liveried staff as though we … well, as though we were somebody. There were other guests there — no doubt a little more influential than any of us — and Ronald Reagan gave a talk. That was our contact with the president.

PRESIDENT CARTER

PRESIDENT CARTER

My first visit was during the Carter administration. There were morning briefings similar to those in the Reagan era and a discussion in the Cabinet Room in which we and Jimmy Carter were the only participants. Between the briefings and the meeting with the president, we were ushered into a large mundane business office whose occupants apparently had been shooed away. On one of the desks were trays of sandwiches and canned soda. This, we were told, was “a Carter lunch.” Presumably there were messages in all this about access to the president and about care for the public’s money.

I see by the papers that the Obama administration has taken the second part of that message a little further and is requiring some visitors, and even some staff members, to pay for what they eat when they are chatting with his excellency. Calvin Coolidge would have liked that.

The story, from the Christian Science Monitor, is at this link:

http://features.csmonitor.com/politics/2009/07/31/with-barack-obama-no-free-lunch-for-visitors-or-staff/