"If I could go to Cairo and Jerusalem to make peace," said President Jimmy Carter, "I guess I can come to the Washington Hilton."
Addressing 1,800 guests at the 65th annual dinner of the White House Correspondents' Association, the president brought as his peace offering a lavish stream of one-line jokes and a few thoughtful statements about the freedom and the adversary responsibilities of the press.
"I'm here substituting for Jody Powell," he said, alluding to last year's dinner when his press secretary substituted for him and Powell's jokes took on an edge of bitterness. Then, spacing his words with the sense of timing that is as useful to a politician as to a standup comedian, he said, ". . . You remember . . . Jody . . . Joyd Powell?"
They remembered, all right; some of the bitterness from the year before could still be felt at the beginning of Carter's speech Saturday night, but it dissipated gradully in laughter.
Carter also used careful timing to underline the irony in his follow-up: "His speech last year has obviously affected your treatment of me since then. I want to thank you . . . Thanks . . . a lot."
He offered an inside story on one of his most widely noted recent decisions: the change of his hair style. He said he had discovered John Connally's secret:
"I noticed a few months ago that he parts his hair on the left side, and I decided - all by myself - to remove this insidious Republican advantage with one bold stroke of the comb. You probably surmised that this shift from right to left is only for the primaries and then, for the general elections, right down the middle."
Not all of his remarks were soothing, however, particularly when the talked about the "colorful opposition within my own party." He said that California Gov. Jerry Brown's candidacy is "California's way of celebrating The Year of the Child" and provoked loud laughter when he recounted his daughter Amy's remark that, "Sen. Kennedy isn't a candidate."
"Don't laugh at her," he said. "She's only a child."
He also talked about the recent Supreme Court decision that editors must reveal what was in their minds when they made decisions that resulted in libel cases.
"They are looking into my peanut business," he said, "just as they are looking into editors' minds. But you and I know we have nothing to fear. We both know they won't find anything."
The President did not abandon the traditional rough kidding of the press that was expected of him, but he kept it in safe territory. Noting that it was the 65th dinner, he looked around the enormous International Ballroom and said "many of the founding fathers are here tonight." And insisting humorously that his talk was off the record, he told the journalists present to "put away your crayons."
One joke alluded to the old indoor swimming pool, covered over by President Nixon, that is now the site of White House press conferences. "Jody," he said, "has been trying to persuade me to reopen the White House swimming pool . . . suddenly. Any of you that survive would, of course, have permanent swimming privileges."
And his humor was even more pointed when he put them on the wrong end of a comparison between the sublime and the ridiculous. Speaking carefully, he said his daily activities often take him "from the sublime to the ridiculous." Then he mentioned that "I have just come a few minutes ago from addressing the distinguished black education leaders of our country . . . The devotion and dedication of these leaders, their purpose in life, literally approach the sublime. Now, I am addressing the White House Correspondents' Association."
Before reaching the correspondents' dinner, President Carter spoke briefly at a banquet of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, which was holding a national conference on blacks in higher education at the Washington Hilton. His remarks there were considerably more serious than his talk to the journalists. His arrival was a surprise to most people at the banquet who knew only that a "special guest" was to appear.
"If I could think of one group which is most responsible for the transformation of America from a racist and segregated society into an open and an integrated society, it is this one," the President said. Becasue of their work, he said, "I as a southerner and an ex-governor of Georgia was made aviable candidate, and could not be here if it were not for you . . . I am available to you personally, and so is Vice President Mondale, and so are all the members of my staff.
"I cannot meet all your demands," he added. "If I could, I would say that your demands are not stringent enough."
He did not solicit any more stringency from the press than he has been receiving. The new president of the correspondents' association, Ralph Harris of Reuters, is the first foreigner to hold that position. In his introductory remarks (after being introduced himself by outgoing president Aldo Beckman of the Chicago Tribune as "a legend in his own mind"), Harris described the traditional role of his office as "criticizing the President's last 12 months and advising him on the next 12 months.
"As a foreigner, I thought it would be impertinent," he said, and the rest of the sentence was drowned out be loud, prolonged appalause from one member of the audience-Presidnet Carter.
"Only a great world crisis could have kept me from being here tonight," Carter told the audience of journalists and public officials. "As a matter of fact, Dr. Brzezinski nearly got fired this afternoon because he couldn't find one."
Speaking of firing, he said he was "considering changes in the staff of the White House" and predicted that "in the near future, the population of Atlanta will increase about 2 percent."
On his own candidacy, he said, "A lot of people ask me if I'm running, and I ask them, 'Running what?'"
Reviewing his recent record, he said he was proud of his fight against inflation: "I had no trouble at all in persuading the Teamsters to consider my position before putting their guidelines into effect."
The only completely serious remarks in the President's speech came at the end, when he talked about the traditional "adversary relationship" of press and government.
"I hope we never forget that the people who founded this country planned it that way," he said. "When they wrote the Bill of Rights they made the First Amendment the lead-and may it always remain that way." CAPTION: Picture 1, Ralph Harris, President Carter; by Fred Sweets; Picture 2, President Carter, by Fred Sweets