by Anna Mills Russell, Associate Director of Marketing
Meet Gerald Rafshoon, the “architect” of Camp David. He was the White House Communications Director during the President Jimmy Carter’s Administration and has had a long, successful career in communications and the entertainment industries. Having been an insider during those 13 tumultuous days at Camp David in 1978 inspired his personal journey to tell this story in a whole new way. 35 years later it’s coming to life for him again.
How did the historic events at Camp David come to pass?
President Carter had vowed to do something about the crisis in the Middle East because he knew that things had become almost impossible. He decided if he could get those two leaders into Camp David – a place he had come to love as a refuge, somewhere to think and relax – that he would be able to help work out their differences. So he announced that he was going to take them to Camp David and stay there until he had a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel.
Every foreign policy expert told him this was a big mistake – including Henry Kissinger, who said a head-of-state should never do a negotiation unless he knows how it’s going to turn out. But Carter was determined; he felt “If I don’t do anything, there will be a war; if I do something and it fails, there’ll be a war anyway; but what if I do something and I succeed? What if I can get them to agree not to kill each other? That would be a great step.” And you couldn’t argue with that. So we went ahead and brought them up there.
What happened once everyone was on site?
It was a roller coaster ride all the way through. One day we had an agreement, the next day we didn’t. Or one day it would fall apart and look like people were going to leave… As you’ll see in the play, after about two or three days of negotiating with the three of them in one room, the President realized that the two leaders could not be in a room together.
One would say something, the other would simply respond with stock talking points, and they weren’t getting anywhere. So Carter decided he would separate them, but asked both Sadat and Begin to designate a negotiator from their side to work directly with him (President Carter); then, he’d work with the negotiators each day, and at the end of the day, he’d go to each leader personally to review what had been discussed and they could continue to move forward from there. And that’s the way it went, on and on.
During this time, I realized that this was what we were elected to do. Instead of getting into the nitty-gritty of less important things, we were doing something that meant the difference between war and peace. And I always knew that those people were never going to leave Camp David until Jimmy Carter had gotten something out of them.
How did the play Camp David come into being?
After my time in the White house I started making films – I’ve done about 25 movies and mini-series – and I’ve always wanted to make a movie of those days at Camp David. Maybe it was too heavy for the movies at the time, so I decided that the best thing to do was a play. It took 35 years for me to get it going and I knew the best place to get it started was in Washington, rather than in New York. I knew if we did it in Washington we’d get more attention for this issue than any place else and we’d get an audience here that really knows about this.
I had conversations with Rocco Landesman, the former Chair of the NEA, who then approached Molly Smith at Arena Stage and in one meeting she said yes. I was so thrilled when she said she’d direct it! After she came aboard we went to Larry [Lawrence] Wright, who is the perfect writer for this. He had written and won the Pulitzer Prize for The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 and really understands the issues in the Middle East. He went at this subject with a vengeance. It was important to get as many firsthand accounts from all three sides as possible. He had access to President Carter and we even went on a research trip to Israel and Egypt to meet with all the survivors of Camp David.
When we decided to do the play, President Carter gave me access to all his diaries. He had kept a diary every day at the White House. He’d talk into an audio-cassette recorder about what he did, every day, and that became 3,000 pages when transcribed. A good portion of that, about 120 pages, are those days that took place at Camp David, but the issue was discussed all the way through. Only about 25% was ever published, but we were able to have access to the other 75% that was never released.
Do you think most people are aware of just how great an impact this event had?
Yes, people understand. They remember what happened at Camp David. It has been the model for bi-lateral negotiations ever since. You’ve got to remember what happened here is that these three people took enormous risks. This was not a popular issue at home for any of them. For President Carter, it was a big political gamble. With Anwar Sadat, it was also a tremendous gamble. Remember, he lost his life because one of his countrymen killed him afterwards. And for Prime Minister Begin it was also a courageous move because there was a lot of opposition to it back home. But they all knew it had to be done in order to have peace between those two countries.
These were three men with three unique personalities and one thing in common: they were all religious and they all wanted to do the right thing. We learn that political leaders have got to take risks in order to do the right thing. Not to worry about your re-election, not worry about anything but making progress on important issues. And too often that’s neglected. You have to be willing to risk everything in order to make the big things happen. So yes, I think people realize that when you talk about Camp David that it was a monumental achievement.
(Photo: Lawrence Wright and Gerald Rafshoon at first rehearsal for Camp David.)