On April 30, 1977, President Jimmy Carter will complete his First Hundred Days in office.
That will be when his honeymoon with the press and Congress officially ends. And that will be when the nation takes stock of the man historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. calls "the mystery guest in the White House."
Why is there such a thing as a First Hundred Days, and what will it mean to the Carter Administration?
Although he never reached the White House, Napoleon Bonaparte had the first First Hundred Days - the exact time between his escape from Elba and his defeat at Waterloo. An obsequious official welcoming back King Louis XVIII commented on the king's "100 days vacation."
The phrase lay dormant for over a century until picked up by FDR Brain Trust chief Raymond Moley (the man who gave us "All we have to fear is fear itself" and "This generation has a rendezvous with destiny"), who used it to describe the initial period when FDR saved the banks and pushed through Congress much of the major New Deal legislation.
Moley apparently noticed that Napoleon's triumphant return to France and FDR's inauguration occurred on the same day (March 1). Perhaps fearing jokes about a Rooseveltian Waterloo, Moley never made it clear at the time where he got the idea.
Despite the popularity of his phrase, Presidents have never liked having a First Hundred Days.
Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon each rejected the notion that something dramatic should be done. According to aides, neither wanted to make a "grand splash."
John F. Kennedy repeatedly complained that the country expected a First Hundred Days for him, and he felt forced to say at the conclusion of his inaugural address, "All this will not be finished in the first hundred days."
Lyndon B. Johnson told aides over and over again that he didn't want to have "a . . . first hundred days."
Jimmy Carter has been extraordinarily careful not to raise expectations. But at his first-post-election news conference he was asked, in part, if he planned "anything like a First Hundred Days of the Roosevelt Administration," and he responded, in part, "I intend to have that . . ."
Moley himself, writing in the mid-1960s, called the notion "an infection that, like a malignacy, grows as the years pass."
Nonetheless, it has entered our political lexicon, serving as the most popular measures of a new President.
Aides close to former presidents, men who have gone through at least one First Hundred Days, have the following advice for President-elect Carter and his staff as they embark upon theirs:
Remember just how new you are. You have less power than you think you have and you know less than you think you know.
Strange things happen to new people in the White House.
"Things come too easy during those first months," remembers former LBJ aide George Reedy. "Congress treats you well and reporters seem to act as though you can walk on water. You get to believe that life's going to be awful soft and awful easy. People are going to be so nice to President Carter that he's not going to be prepared for what follows."
Another LBJ aide, Jack Valenti, describes how new White House staffers suddenly posses "toxic power which is terrifying, like handling bottles of nitroglycerine. You put on new garments and suddenly you're a different person. It's hard to remember that you're not sought after just because you have blue eyes and charm."
"A new President looks in the mirror and begins to believe that he's Thor," says Brye Harlow, who served closely with Eisenhower and Nixon. "Suddenly you're Number One Boy and you like it. You think you can take charge of any situation."
With this happening, it's not surprising that major mistakes occur during the First Hundred Days. The prototye is John F. Kennedy's handling of the Bay of Pigs invasion, which occurred just eighty-nine days after he took office.
"Kennedy never would have gone along with the plan if he'd had more time in the White House," speechwriter Ted Sorensen now says. "We were all too new. We just believed what the experts told us. It takes time to learn who tells the truth and it takes time to learn what can and cannot be done."
In addition to the Bay of Pigs, a partial list of mistakes made by new Presidents would include cancellation of Lend Lease, unleashing Chiang kai-shek (Eisenhower soon discovered that he had to be "releashed" for his own protection), the Vietnam build-up, and the Nixon pardon.
Is it possible to avoid mistakes borne of inexperience by having around the White House men who have been through it all before? The former aides think not.
"There's no way to avoid the initial mistakes," says Reedy. "No matter who's around, the President is going to listen to peopl who've been with him for a long time." Says Sorensen, "we couldn't have avoided that initial period. The feeling of headiness is not minimizable."
The former aides agree that President-elect Carter has probably studies past Presidents' mistakes better than any of his predecessors did before assuming office, and that he will move more cautiously than they did.
Still Jimmy Carter and his young aides are known for their confidence and arrogance. They pride themselves on being winners. This may make them mistake-prone.
"I can remember how all of the young men were at the time of FDR's first inauguration in 1932, and I can remember how it was when the Kennedy people came into town," says lawyer-lobbyist and friend to Presidents James Rowe. "They were extremely arrogant and sure of themselves. It may be the same way with the Carter people. Then after a few months they'll come around. But they need time."
Probably the single most important cause of serious mistakes during this initial period is listening to advice from so-called experts. "Expert" advice got Kennedy into the Bay of Pigs and Johnson into Vietnam. "For all that he knew about Congress," says an aide who doesn't wish to be identified, "Johnson got suckered because he knew next to nothing about foreign affairs. Carter really doesn't have solid experience with either Congress or foreign affairs and he'd better be very careful."
There will be plenty of opportunities for the Carter White House to make its first major mistakes. If this occurs during the First Hundred Days, it'll probably be an error in foreign affairs, because international crises often appear to demand instant decisions made upon the "experts" advice.
Potential trouble spots include the upcoming OPEC meeting, Cyprus, renegotiating the anti-skyjacking treaty with Cuba, and the future of the Panama Canal. A good general rule for handling these situations during the First Hundred Days would be, "When in doubt, do nothing." The mistakes listed above could have been avoided had the White House simply waited for more time to pass. II
The most important thing you will do during your First Hundred Days in establish an image. The country's first impression of you as President will be a lasting one. Try to come across as a responsible, responsive hardworking activist .
FDR was probably the first President to worry about image immediately after his inauguration. He quickly established a highly visible reputation for endless energy and personal attention to the most minute detail.
This had a far greater impact than did the NRA, CCC, TVA or any of his more concrete First Hundred Days accomplishments.
"It would be an exaggeration to say that they [the American people] understood him by the end of the Hundred Days," writes FDR Brains Truster Rexford Tugwell. "They rather simply had concluded that by and large they had a man in the White House who was for them and against their enemies."
JFK did the same thing. "Far more effective than any specific substantive achievement, a new President has the opportunity to set a tone and to set a standards," says Ted Sorensen.
According to statistics gathered by author William Manchester, JFK held seven press conferences, delivered twelve major speechs and issued twenty-two "executive orders and proclamations" during his first two months in office. Manchester quotes James Reston's comment at the time that, "He did everything . . . except shinny up the Washington Monument." Ambassador Charles E. Bohlen complained during this period that, "The deadline for everything is day before yesterday."
Aides to all the Presidents agree, in the words of Jack Valenti, that "myth-making is absolutely essential."
The two recent Presidents who acceded to office during times of national crisis, LBJ after the Kennedy assassination and Gerald Ford after the Nixon resignation, are best remembered for their conduct during the first few months when the nation first got to know them.
Surprisingly, aides to both Presidents say they can't remember discussions in which the importance of this first image was discussed; they say it just happened naturaly.
"LBJ didn't try to change himself after Dallas," remembers Johnson intimate Horace Busby. "His performance all came from instinct. There was not one person advising him on how to act. It was all without deliberate thought of the media. And it succeded where later more contrived things failed." Ford aides cite the same naturalness in his First Hundred Days, when he created an image of decency which almost carried him to victory last November.
The former White House aides believe that Jimmy Carter must turn to something imaginative in his dealings with the mass media. FDR introduced fireside radio chats and JFK conducted the first televised news conference, both of which contributed irreplacebly to their positive images. Jack Valenti suggests that Carter appear before joint sessions of Congress to answer questions put to him by members. In a memorandum to Carter quoted in the press, Valenti argues that this "will surely show you an innovative chief executive, unafraid to discuss the people's business with the people's representatives."
Such appearances would be little more than a self-serving gimmick to be magnified by the press, much like that devised by French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing when he began to pay surprise dinner visits to "typical" French families. Some commentators smirked, but it gave him a close-to-the-people image.
None of the former aides argues that Jimmy Carter should show up at a different McDonald's every Thursday, but they do note that Rosalynn Carter has already promised to invite ordinary folks over to the White House for dinner.
There are many things Carter could do to establish an image of responsible activism. For example, he has already promised to have his budget completed by February 15 (Kennedy publicy set himself an April 15 deadline and missed it). Carter could meet this deadline amidst a great deal of fanfare about re-established priorties. He could also push Congress for an immediate extension of the Executive Reorganization Act of 1949, something which would be without substantive meaning, but which would give solid headlines to his highly-touted reorganization plans.
As part of your effort to achieve an activist image, move quickly on specific campaign promises. They need not be important promises, but they should be highly visible. At the same time, use the First Hundred Days to break any campaign promises you have to break. Don't apologize. Just go ahead and do it.
After his election, Jimmy Carter told the press that, "I don't feel timid or cautious or reticent about moving aggressively to carry out my campaign commitments." Carter soon let it be known that during his first week in office he would honour his campaign pledge to pardon Vietnam draft resisters.
"Maybe this shows that he understands the need for quick action," says a former LBJ aide. If he's smart he'll start to move now on other specific things, just to let folks out there know that he's getting things done."
Larry O'Brien, who conducted Congressional liaison for JFK, agrees that Carter should do what Kennedy and LBJ did when they first took office: find legislation pending on Capitol Hill which is close to his beliefs and campaign rhetoric, adopt it as his own, see that it gets passed and taken take credit for what he has achieved.
"If you can structure things that way, it's an obvious approach," O'Brien says.
The notion that a new President will do something right away is one of the most intoxicating in American politics. Aides to George McGovern, during the early days when they had to convince liberals that he was better than Ed Muskie, often gave an argument that went like this: "As soon as he finishes taking the oath of office he'll pick up the telephone and as Commander-in-Chief order that the bombers in Vietnam stop dropping bombs. If he does that two hours or two weeks or two months earlier than Ed Muskie would, that's enough of a difference." Although melo-dramatic, the argument of- ten worked.
Breaking campaign pledges can be easier than keeping them, as shown by FDR's classic example.
Piling up more and more deficit spending, FDR called in advisor Sam Rosenman and asked him how best to explain a campaign speech in which he had promised to balance the Federal budget. Rosenman studied the situation and came back with the advice, "Mr. President, there is one way to explain this speech. Deny you ever made it."
Although they lack Rosenman's candor, other Presidents have followed his advice, acting swiftly and boldly to break their word. Examples include LBJ and his pledge not to send "American boys" to Vietnam and Gerald Ford and his commitment to cooperate with Congress.
Jimmy Carter has already demonstrated that he may not need a Rosenman. One minor example: during the campaign, Carter pledged not to leave the United States during in his first year in office. A few weeks after the election, press secretary Jody Powell told reporters that Carter would leave the country if it becomes necessary.
He could use the same quick reversal technique for major campaign promises. For example, if Carter intends to back off from his campaign pledge to cut $5 billion to $7 billion from the defense budget, the best time to do it may be on February 1 when he must decide what to do about the highly-controversial B-1 bomber. He could keep the pledge simply by canceling the bomber - or he could endorse the bomber's development and explain that as Commander-in-Chief he does not feel that any significant defense cuts are appropriate. If he moves quickly, he'll probably get away with either decision at a relatively cheap price.
Be especially careful with Congress. First impressions may be lasting. Be polite. Making your intentions known. About all, never, never underestimate Congress.
"A new President's first dealings with Congress are a head you might win, tails you definetely lose situation," explains George Reedy. "If a President gets along well with Congress in the beginning, he may be able to carry this over past the initial period. But if he gets off on the wrong foot, he'll never be able to shake this no matter how well he does later."
Several Presidents initiated major fights with Congress during their First Hundred Days - Kennedy succesfully enlarged the House Rules Committee and Nixon forced Senate approval of the ABM - but at the expense of abruptly ending their honeymoons.
Gerald Ford also began to fight soon after moving to the Oval Office, prompting his assistant for legislative affairs, Max Friedersdorf, to conclude that "enemies and mistakes made in the first week will dog a President throughout his term in office." Borrowing an analogy made famous by H. R. Haldeman during the Watergate coverup, Friedsdorf compared Congressional egos to tubes of toothpaste. "Once they get bent out of shape," he discovered, "it's difficult to get them back in shape."
Bryce Harlow likens dealing with Congress to "a long trek through an acid solution" which is mild at the outset and gets progressively worse. "Whether or not fight in the beginning," says Harlow, "the acid gets just as strong later on."
Harlow also believes that Congressional resentment is high during the early days of a new administration because "all the senators and representatives want you to give their constituents and friends jobs. When you don't, they just eat your ... out for it. It makes no difference whether the President is Republican or Democratic. You should have seen what they did to Larry O'Brien."
In their memoirs, several former presidential aides complain that their bosses were too deferential to Congress during this initial period. Kennedy, writes Sorenson, "felt somewhat uncomfortable and perhaps too deferential with these men." Raymond Moley reports that even in the heady days right after his first inauguration "Roosevelt's restraint when he met with Congressional leaders approached awkwardness . . . He was like a young and untried college professor who must deal with grisled and time-tested professors,"
Other former aides don't believe that there's any such thing as being too deferential. "They sure love to be called Senator, don't they," remembers a staffer with a smile. "You just have to go ahead and do it to keep them happy. It doesn't hurt anything."
"There's really no such thing as overdoing it," says Jack Valenti. "White House staffers must treats every congressman and every senator as though they, too, were President."
Fridersdorf emphasizes the need to "know all of their individual idiosyncrasies and how they think and act. You have to know when Tip O'Neill needs a cigar."
A new President must also know what he can and cannot get away with. He must learn to pull back before Congress smells blood. No matter how complacent it seems during the honeymoon period, Congress is always ready to bite. Just ten days after FDR's inauguration (a time when columnist Will Rogers wrote, "If he burned down the Capitol, we would cheer and say 'At least we got a fire started") Congress was in open revolt over Administration attempts to cut veterans' benefits. Ben V. Cohen, one of FDR's chief emissaries tothe Hill, remembers that cooperation with congressional wishes was so pervasive that, "We scarcely knew whether we were working for the President or Sam Rayburn."
Still, a President is never stronger vis-a-vis Congress than during the first few months. Using what aides explain is an old Texas poker expression, LBJ told them that, "This is the time to shove our entire stake in" - to ask as a lot from Congress during the First Hundred Days before it started acting up.
Larry O'Brien, who directed Kennedy's Capitol Hill dealings, feels that a new President "should try not to overload, but should go with the biggies early."
So far, Carter and his people have been silent about their intentions on Capitol Hill, other than to stress the need for cooperation. However, they should move quickly to present Congres with a list of goals, including a priority and timetable for each. Despite its desires to be a co-equal branch. Congress will look to the White House for an agenda during the First Hundred Days.
This list should include requests for immediate action on a number of popular bills, such as the Agency for Consumer Protection, which have been blocked during the Nixon-Ford years.
The Carter people should learn one sure lesson from those who have gone before them: very soon they will be ex-presidential aides. What's beginning now will be only a brief period in their lives. Difficult as it seems, they should attempt to keep things in perspective.
Washington has a unique subculture of people who once did what the Carter people are doing now. Some have let their lives and their intellectual development become hopelessly hinged to the past. Other have cashed in on theri White House reputations. A third group has gone on to achievements in totally unrelated fields. But all of them were changed by an exceptionally intense experience which went by so quickly that they never had time to sit back and perceive just how if fit into the flow of their own lives.
The offices of these ex-aides contain little shrines to the past. Autographes photos, framed certificates and coffee table paper weights from NATO conferences are the only physical remains of everything that seemed so important when the First Hundred Days began.
At the same time, their lives were immesureably enriched. They know they helped to shape the nation's history. They moved in a rarified atmosphere that few can imagine, let alone experience. For the rest of their lives they will look back upon the White House as "the best years." They pay for this, not with the inevitable disappointments and defeats, but with the constant tug of memories that time cannot tarnish.
So perhaps most of all, the Carter people should get everything they can out of the First Hundred Days and all that it begins. F. Scott Fitzerald's dictum that in American life there are no second acts is nowhere more ture than in the White House.