Inauguration Day, 1981, was clear and sunny. All the weather forecasts agreed that the mild winter the Carter administration had prayed for had now arrived -- a year late. As the crowd began to fill the reviewing stand, the television commentators paid close attention to the sections reserved for member of the House and Senate, and concluded that there were fewer empty seats than might have been expected. The speaker of the House -- and, indeed, most of the Massachusetts delegation -- were not present.

As the senior administration officials queued up for seats, the secretary of defense found himself briefly next to the new administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Though they were from the same home state, they found little to talk about. The secretary of state, gallant as always, escorted his designated replacement; the two did not talk at all.

When the band played "Hail to the Chief," the man in whose honor the multitudes had gathered -- thousands of ordinary people who had paid their own way across the country to be there -- was greeted with exuberant cheers from the crowd, and a polite smattering of applause from the official seats. Then the quadrennial hush fell again, and the 39th president raised his right hand and said, "I, Jimmy Carter, do solemnly swear . . . "

The inaugural address touched on themes familiar to the millions of voters who handed him his razor-thin victory. "The next four years will be a unique, innately unprecedented period of competence, compassion and reform which will enhance the quality of life for every person in our beloved community," he said. "The only thing we have to fear is special-interest bureaucracy."

As he had done four years ago, Carter and his wife Rosalynn walked the mile and a half to the White House. Commentators observed that he seemed older and grayer than he had even a year before -- but added that he cut a jaunty figure, walking with a hint of the long-distance runner's rolling gait.

After the parade, Carter faced a whirlwind of receptions and balls, culminating with the promised "People's Inaugural," featuring square-dancing on the Mall and a performance by Gladys Knight and the Pips. But before setting out, the president told aides he wanted to be alone briefly, in his small study off the Oval Office. Word spread that the walk had tired him, and the ensuing rumors about his health gave Carter his first bittersweet taste of life as a lame-duck second-term president.

But, in fact, Carter felt fine. He simply wanted to sort out his thoughts. Before him on the desk were clippings from the most prestigious newspapers in the United States, explaining that the re-election of Jimmy Carter had been inevitable all along -- the fruit of political and demographic changes brewing since 1960. But, in the solitude of his office, Carter knew that it had not been inevitable -- that his re-election had been a triumph of daring, skill, and more than a touch of political madness. 'It Will Work . . . '

It had seemed far from inevitable in November 1979, with Carter's standing at an all-time low in the polls, the economy deteriorating, Sen. Edward Kennedy mounting a seemingly unstoppable insurgent bid from the left, and California Gov. Jerry Brown chipping away from all directions at once. The president, as is well known, was a man of strong religious beliefs -- a Christian faith that forebade despair as the ultimate sin.But he was close to it on November 5, 1979, as he sat alone in his office and picked up the first item in his in-box -- the now-famous memorandum from White House Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan.

"I must be frank about the dire situation we face," Jordan wrote in his blunt style. "If we compare our situation with Harry S Truman, we are closer to his position in 1951 -- when he was forced out of the race -- than 1947." But Jordan insisted that all was not lost. "The conventional wisdom says we cannot win. By its premises, we can't. But 1976 proved that the conventional wisdom does not hold. What we must do is risky, unorthodox, and, in some ways, distasteful. But it will work . . . "

Carter agonized over the memorandum for two days, prayed over it, and talked it over with Rosalynn. She settled things, saying to him, "Jimmy, you're alrady a good man. Don't worry about it any more. Do what you have to do." The next day, the memo went back to Jordan, with the handwritten notation, "Agreed. J."

During the month of December, the Kennedy forces, emboldened by their leader's long-awaited declaration of candidacy, surged ahead in organizing for the early primaries. Brown, as well, worked hard in New Hampshire, stressing his themes of "a balanced budget, a balanced diet, and solar energy." Carter ignored calls for his withdrawal or even his resignation. In a secret room in the White House basement, a special task force worked with Jordan and Carter on draft after draft of the State of the Union address.

In previous speeches, Carter had adopted a conciliatory tone. But this time, he pugnacisouly challenged the Congress to enact a "unique, inherently unprecedented program" -- a sweeping wish list.

Many were variations on a familiar theme: standby gasoline rationing authority, a $100 billion synthetic fuels program, sweeping new powers for the Energy Mobilization Board, a Gasohol Bank, an almost confiscatory "windfall profits" tax to encourage energy production.

Some were turnabouts: to cope with deepening recession and soaring inflation, Carter proposed a tax cut which would give the ordinary family of four $200 -- and standby authority to impose madatory wage-and-price controls. "The chairman of the Federal Reserve Board was helped from th gallery at this point.)

There was a plan for regulatory reform, which would give Carter broad "anti-inflationary" power to delay or set aside rulings of regulatory agencies. And there was a congressional ethics package that caused angry muttering even while the president was speaking. All contacts between congressmen and lobbyists -- even a five-minute conversation in the hall -- were to be reported to the Senate clerk's office. No outside income, except from the sale of a home, would be allowed at all. Corporate political action committees (PACs) would be outlawed. No former congressman would register as a lobbyist or become a member of the District of Columbia Bar for five years after leaving office. No present member of Congress could accept anything -- even a social dinner -- from registered lobbyists or their "associates."

"These measures are harsh," Carter admitted. "but they are needed to break the unprecendented grip of special interests on our country." 'Buy That Damned Yacht'

Toward the end of the speech, Carter dropped his bombshell. "I am the president of all the American people," he said. "And I am also the leader of the Democratic Party, which holds majorities in both houses of Congress. But over the past three years I have been unable to overcome the power of special interest lobbies. The Congress has failed, time after time, to pass legislation vital to our country's interest. I pledge to you tonight that if the Congress enacts the comprehensive program I have submitted tonight, I will not be a candidate for reelection as president of the United States." i

Most State of the Union addresses are interrupted by applause dozens of times. The thundering ovation that followed was the only applause during Carter's entire address. Certainly there was none when he dropped a veiled threat in the next sentence.

"However," he said, "if the Congress cannot act on these basic, common-sense measures, I will consider it my duty to carry the fight against special interests to the poeple -- at a time and place of my choosing. I call on you now to pass this program before February 28, 1980. If you do, I will consider my work in Washington finished."

As the president made his way out among the startled lawmakers, he stopped to shake hands with Edward Kennedy, who seemed as surprised as everyone else. Carter stretched on tiptoe and whispered in Kennedy's ear, "When you get to the White House, Ted, buy that damned yacht back."

But in the next 60 days, the White House lobbying team, never potent anyway, seemed somehow to lose all its punch. Kennedy was torn between supporting Carter's proposals and his surging campaign in New Hampshire. Eager to say goodbye to Carter, Jerry Brown made one attempt to lobby for the package -- a "Brown Rice" congressional luncheon; it ended badly when 11 members of the House became ill after drinking yogurt lassi.

Carter, meanwhile, made no move to campaign in New Hamphire, Massachusetts or Vermont, though his name was officially entered. But the Carter-Mondale committee, which had raised enough money to carry it to March 1, pressed on with a drive to get the president's name on the ballot in all remaining primary states.

The House approved the Gas ohol Bank, but it died in the Senate. The Senate approved the new windfall tax, but it died in the House. Wage-and-price controls died on the floor in both houses, but before they did, nervous business leaders pushed the consumer price index up 2.7 percent in one month. The tax cut passed both houses in different form, then died in conference when Sen. Orrin Hatch attached a national "Right to Work Law" as a rider. Carter did not help by arguing that the bills must be passed precisely as written. Kennedy partisans dropped their effort to pass the package, saying Carter was finished anyway.

On Feb. 26, two days before the deadline, Carter ran a dismal third in New Hampshire. On Feb. 27, Jordan and campaign manager Tim Kraft, seemingly desperate, met with close aides to Kennedy in a motel in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. They later denied that any vice-presidential offer had been made. Fritz, I'm Proud of You'

The next day, the dealine expired, and the Carter campaign began with a press confrence in the White House East Room. Despite the reverses of the past few days, Carter looked calm and rested. By his side stood Vice President Walter F. Mondale, looking considerably more haggard; he had been summoned home from a campaign tour of the Aleutian Islands.

Carter vowed that, because of Congress' failure to act, he would run "to the last delegate and beyond." And he made an "unshakable commitment" to Mondale as his running mate. "Fritz, I'm proud of you," he said. "And I challenge Sen. Kennedy, today, to name a running mate as compassionate and competent as Fritz Mondale. The American people have a right to know." In answer to a question he added that he of course also would like Gov. Brown to name his running mate.

No one knows who in the campaign gave the blind quotes that Carter had considered asking Brown to name his First Lady as well. But the Mondale gesture -- which would be repeated endlessly in the days ahead -- deftly raised in many voters' minds the troubling fear that dogged Ted Kennedy's campaign. Would he serve out his term, if elected? And who would succeed him, if not?

The next day Carter flew to Plains to deliver the famous "blue-jeans speech." He appeared on television in dungarees and a workshirt, to give a performance that one columnist later called "a cross between the Checkers speech and William Jennings Bryan's 'Cross of Gold.'"

For the first time, the Jordan-Carter strategy became clear. In 1976 he had run as an outsider; in 1980 he would run as an outsider who had tried to change the system and who knew how evil it really was. The enemy was the Congress -- and his own party.

"I have tried my best to lead our nation," he said, as the lines at the corners of his eyes grew deeper, "but I have failed. I have failed to dent the power of the special interests and the invisible government that holds our government in its grip. I promised in 1976 to break that grip. But I underestimated its strength.

"Now the invisible governments has picked out your new president. The political power brokers, the bureaucracy. and this no-account, low down, good-for-nothing 96th Congress have decided to replace me as president with a candidate of their choosing -- a millionaire insider who has benefited from the tax laws and the inequities of power all his life. But I promise you -- the ordinary men and women who voted for me in 1976 -- that I will fight this takeover of our government by the power brokers. I will fight through the New York convention -- and beyond.

"To the party bosses and the Congress, I owe nothing. To the ordinary American, I owe everything. I am going to put on my jeans and fight for the right of ordinary people like you and me to pick own leaders, and not to have them imposed by special interests, bureaucrats and congressional power brokers. With your help, we will defeat this unholy alliance. I am fighting for my life. I don't intend to lose." 'Let's See Ted Beat My Time'

The next day Carter flew to Mississippi to unveil the "small is beautiful" campaign -- a primary strategy that concentrated on rural or conservative areas like north Florida or downstate Illinois. His only appearance in New York City, for example, came the weekend before the primary, in the special "Candidate's Six-Mile Race" which Mayor Ed Koch was persuaded to hold after a frank review of the city's finances. Carter finished first in a field of five (the others being Secret Service joggers), and his first words, after revovering his breath, were, "Let's see Ted Kennedy beat my time.

But while he ran an outsider's campaign, he turned to an insider for vital help against Kennedy. Bob Strauss denied that he had been picked as a "hatchet man" against the Massachusetts senator, but he had. No one alleged that he accepted the role at a low price. Press reports said that Cyrus Vance was planning to leave office after the election anyway; at odd moments Strauss was seen in an unmarked office in the State Department, studying briefing books with an anticiparory air.

But most of the time he was on the road in his new capacity as special executive liaison political director of the Carter-Mondale Committee, warning audiences in primary and caucus states that Kennedy, not Carter, represented the true disaster in November, warning that Kennedy's records on health insurance, gun control abortion and federal spending were "unacceptable to the political mainstream." Carter-Mondale campaign spots -- so good that rumor said that they had not been prepared by Jerry Rafshoon himself -- took up the same refrain.

Kennedy his back hard, of course, in his magnificent political style, and the primaries turned into a prolonged slugging match, the likes of which the Democratic Party had not seen in more than decade. It became obvious that each candidate spoke for a real constituency: Brown for the newly affluent hot-tub '60s radicals who now wanted no nukes and no inflation; Kennedy for the tattered New Deal coalition of blacks, Hispanics, union workers and Catholics; and Carter for the amorphous, unpredictable straight middle class -- Southern whites, the evangelical Protestants, and conservative homewoners across the country. And it further became obvious that the country had, indeed, become more conservative -- so much so that Kennedy was vulnerable to the Carter attack.

Kennedy's polls stayed high; but not as high as they had been before Carter and Strauss took after him. The new Democratic Party rules, which gave delegates in proportion to strength in primaries, whether a candidate won or lost, aided Carter. Kennedy whomped Carter in Dade County, but the president pulled unexpected strength in the Panhandle and the Orlando area. Kennedy got the support of the Chicago machine -- but Carter surprised him in downstate Illinois. Texas was phtofinish win for Carter. Brown's campaign helped split off a small edge of the anti-Carter vote -- enough so that Kennedy was not able to finish the president off.

Carter hit small towns throughout the South, Midwest and West. Strauss spoke to industry groups, warning them of a blizzard of regulations and taxes that would result from a Kennedy presidency. Mondale appeared in four to seven media markets every day. And Rosalynn Carter, chin high, sailed into the fray, preaching one powerful message to women's audiences -- and TV watchers -- around the country.

"Jimmy is the first president in decades who has gone four years without an American boy being killed in combat anywhere in the world," she said. "I'm so proud of him I could pop. He's been there, and he doesn't panic in a crisis. Jimmy doesn't have anything to prove."

Her speeches adoritly raised the three issues Carter had in his favor: Peace. His own personal morality, exemplified by his stable marriage. And the Chappaquiddick, "steady-in-a-crisis" issue. 'respect Hamilton's Privacy'

There were, of course, the usual quota of gaffes on both sides. No one knows who started the brawl at Studio 54; Kennedy family spokesmen insisted that the man who had accosted Robert Kennedy Jr. had been planning to visit his denist the next day anyway. Margaret Trudeau's role in the affair was never explained, as she left for a disco tour of Nepal the next day.

But those reports crowded off the front page the accounts of Hamilton Jordan's fraternity reunion -- and the subseqent revelation that the $6,745.43 bill for broken glass had been paid with Carter-Mondale campaign funds. The incident happened in the wake of the Lookout Mountain speech, and Carter's apology; the bishop of Memphis pronounced himself satisfied that there had been no anti-Catholic intend. But colummists noted that Carter had no Catholics among his close advisers.

The next day, Carter summoned his scapegrace chief of staff to a meeting in Boise. "Hamilton," he said with an affectionate grin, "have you considered a deeper reltionship with Our Lord?"

Two days later, it was learned that Hamilton Jordan was taking instruction in the Catholic faith. "I hope everyone will respect Hamilton's privacy during the photo opportunity of his thrice-weekly visits to Holy Trinity Church, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 3 p.m.," press secretary Jody Powell told reporters.

The weeks before the convention, Washington was full of the sound of helicopters -- helicopters taking uncommited delegates to Camp David for cozy dinners at Aspen Lodge; helicopters bearing Vice President Mondale, his face gray with exhaustion, to Andrews Air Force Base for visits to places like Truth or Conseqences, N.M., Brownsville, Tex., Winnetka, Ill., and Maui, Hawaii, to woo waverers who could not come east. Carter's spokesmen denied the reports that laundered Carter money was holding up the staggering Brown campaign. Kennedy retained his lead in delegates, but no one -- including himself -- was sure whether he had enough to put him over the top.

The convention machinery remained in the hands of Carter supporters. In a break with precedent, the keynote address was given by Mrs. Connie Willis, a housewife from Laramie, Wyo., who excoriated the special interests. "My husband, Jack, would have liked to be here today," she said. "But he has to work for a living." There was thunderous applause at this from the Carter delegates, who were in an ugly, antiestablishment mood. Carter himself called Mike Wallace in the hospital to apologize after the incident in the Montana delegation. The floor votes on the Indiana, Iowa, Puerto Rico, Illinois, Virgin Islands, Idaho and Mississippi credentials challenges showed more weakness in Kennedy's camp than had been predicted. 'Space Is a Viable Metaphor'

And on the first ballot, Kennedy was 21 votes short: the vote was Kennedy 1644 3/5, Carter 1296, Brown 385, Mork from Ork 5 2/5. Carter and Jerry Brown huddled immediately after the voting. Carter aides had been instructed to run in with erroneous reports of breaks in Kennedy's strength; one recalled overhearing the California governor muse, "Space is a viable metaphor, but a questionable ecosystem." Whether, the bluff worked -- or Brown's third-place finish in the California primary had convinced him that his future was not in this world -- the deal was quickly struck. At 10:53 p.m. EDT -- making prime-time coast-to-coast -- Brown's delegates put Carter over the top on the second ballot.

(Brown's designation as head of NASA came only days after the delegates went home; rumors held that after the election the job would be elevated to cabinet rank and that the secretary of space would also be honorary commandant of cadets at the new Space Academy.)

In his acceptance speech the next night, Carter took no notice of the half-empty convention hall or the rump convention across town that was in the process of nominating Sargent Shriver as a third-party candidate. (The vice presidential nomination was declined by Dr. Spock, before going to Tom Hayden.) Instead, the president took a leaf from Harry Truman's 1948 acceptance speech, and promised gamely, "Vice President Mondale and I will win this election and make these Republicans like it -- you wait and see." He further copied Truman by announcing that he was summoning a special session of Congress to begin the following Tuesday. "We'll give this low-down, no-account, good-for-nothing 96th Congress one more chances to redeem itself," he warned. "And if they don't, I'll lead the fight to turn out the ones who have sold out to the special interests -- whichever party they belong to."

The "shirt-sleeve session" lasted 23 days before Congress adjourned in disarray. Members were sweating, in part because of the special Energy Department "Thermostat Patrol" that was cruising the halls to note which buildings were too cool. But the members were also terrified. Their standard-bearer was trailing the Republican nominee by 27 points -- and he seemed more determined to defeat them than the Republicans did. In panic, they voted a tax-credit plan and standby gas rationing authority; but still they balked at wage-and-price controls -- just as Carter hoped.

The July inflation rate was over 1.5percent -- nearly 20 percent on an annual basis. A percent on an annual session was called for October to discuss a price increase. But the special session allowed Carter to shift the blame for rising prices from himself to the "no-count, low-down, good-for-nothing 96th Congress." As soon as they adjourned, he appeared at a press conference in Plains to announce that the lengthening gas lines forced him to impose gas rationing.

So began the "Fish Pond Campaign." It was stolen from the Ford campaign that had nearly defeated Carter in 1976, of course. That campaign had proved that, with federal campaign funds and the powers of incumbency, even a doorstop could come within one percent of victory.

And Carter was no doorstop, but an effective campaigner who had burned his bridges behind him. Day after day, he appeared at the special presidential rostrum, equipped with a "man-maker" to add inches to his height, to announce a new appointment (keyed to influential ethnic groups), a new executive order (keyed to vocal pressure groups), or to announce a bold new initiative he would propose "as soon as the voters clear that low-down, no-account 96th Congress out of town."

The Republican challenger, despite his energy and good will, found the "Fish Pond" campaign as tough to combat as Carter had found the "Rose Garden" campaign of four years earlier. Vice President Mondale went to the attack, branding the challenger as an extremist and hinting at ties to Watergate.Andrew Young strode through black areas of North and South reminding voters of the challenger's poor record on civil rights. Strauss warned of economic disaster if the Republicans were elected in the middle of a recession. "Things are bad enough," read one Carter sticker. "Let's not make them worse." And Rosalynn carried Carter's trump card from town to town: peace, sweet peace. An incumbent's greatest strength.

Then there were the televised debates. To the surprise of many, Carter did very well. After all, he had debated before. And whatever he was doing in Plains, reporters had noted a lot of videotape equipment rolling in during the days after the convention. 'The Last Chance Special'

The last 10 days were a gaudy blur, the gripping, confusing finish to a contest that the polls showed was nearly a horse race.Carter's campaign money had been hoarded for a last-minute blitz of television and radio ads, and on Friday, Oct. 24, Carter flew to Independence, Mo., to unveil another surprise. From some dusty Smithsonian barn, the committee had dug up the Ferdinand Magellan, Harry Truman's specially shielded railroad car. It was creaky and old, its green carpets worn, and it could not be pulled faster than 45 miles per hour; but its canopied rear platform still held a musty shred of the magic it had when the Magellan's wheels had clicked Tom Dewey into oblivion 32 years before.

Carter christened the train the "Last Chance Special." The name smacked of desperation; but Carter told the crowds on the sidings that it meant "your last chance and mine to put an end to government by specials interests and congressional power brokers. If you don't take it, come next year the special interests will be all over you chickens on a June bug. Or you can send a message to Congress Nov. 4 by voting for Jimmy Carter. I'll see that they get it. You can depend on it."

Did the Carter-Mondale committee pay the unknown voices to yell "Give 'em hell, Jimmy?" In any case, during the four-day run of the "Last Chance Special," and the mad dash on Air Force One that followed it, there began to build a deep sympathy for the slight man with the halting voice who had fought so hard to get and keep the job of president. Every American who had ever felt like the class clown, the office loser, began now to stir toward Jimmy Carter, as once they had stirred toward Richard Nixon. Jaded intellectuals, who could no longer get attention by espousing the neo-conservative line their Campari, began halting conversations by saying, "You know, I think Carter's got a lot of guts -- and he just may pull it off."

Election night. . . ah, election night. The sparsely attended party at the Omni Hotel began on a note of gloom. Carter was trailing in the bellwether precincts across the country. There was trouble in the heart of the old Democratic political base. The GOP nominee jumped to narrow leads in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Illinois. Only in New York and Ohio did Carter stay roughly even as the count proceeded. In California, the count was slow because of a puzzlingly high turnout. The president, deeply weary, slumped in a hotel chair as the bad news came in.

But his face lit in a rueful, small-town boy's smile as the states of the Old South -- all, that is, except Virginia -- came in, one by one, like silent friends in a moment of family grief. They had counted on the South, of course; but they had counted on Pennsylvania and Illinois as well. Even when word came that CBS had projected him to win Texas, Ohio, and -- perhaps on the strength of the jogger vote -- New York, Carter knew it was all over. The West -- despite his best efforts, and the 198 campaign stops Vice President Mondale had made there, was a lost cause.

Sure enough, as Washington, Nevada, Oregon and the other western states came in, Carter read the handwriting on the wall, and a certain weary peace settled over him. He had done his best; he had shocked the nation and dominated the campaign. What matter if his fate for the rest of time were scorn, ridicule, ostracism? He had fought it out; he had not quit; he had ridden the "Last Chance Special." 'Where the Nuts Come From'

Carter and speechwriter Hendrik Hertzberg wrestled with the wording of a concession statement, both men close to tears. Then Hamilton Jordan burst into the room, wearing a lapel button that read BORN-AGAIN CATHOLICS FOR CARTER.

"They came through," he shouted. "They came through for us."

"Yes," said his spirtual mentor gently, "we carried the South."

"Not the South, Mr. President," said the chief of staff.

"It's California! Where the nuts come from! California, Mr. President. They came through for you!"

And it was true. The land of the Golden Sunset, country of Brown and Zen and hot tubs, had voted for Carter. From every corner of Topanga Canyon -- every part of North Beach and Venice and San Diego -- people (they changed history; don't call them "nuts") who had never voted before turned out for Carter. And they put him over the top.

At CBS headquarters, the projections now showed Carter with 271 electoral votes, the Republican with 267. Carter had 49.1 percent of the popular vote, the GOP 49.05, and Shriver and Hayden 1.3. Guest commentator Ben J. Wattenberg, gazing at the scrambled colors of the electoral map, muttered into a dead microphone, over and over, "I'll be goddamed." 'The Bonehead Congress'

The commentators soon began to explain what Carter and Jordan had known since November. That the Democratic Party did not exist any more, except as a fiction propped up with federal funds. That Carter's strategy had been to run against his own party -- to get the nomination as a Republican, then run for office as a Democrat. That the power of incumbency was so great that even without any breaks, a good strategy and a certain amount of daring could carry Carter to victory against seemingly overwhelming odds. For Carter had had no good luck along the way. A mild winter, a Nobel Peace prize, an OPEC price break, a drop in the in the inflation rate or an upturn in the economy would have made his job easier -- and made some of the mad tactics unnecessary.

Of course, he had avoided some bad breaks: a cocaine indictment of Jordan, a military crisis that would shatter his reputation as a man of peace, a collapse of the Middle East peace settlement, a sudden surge of support for Brown -- any number of things might have made the task impossible.

The effects of the bombshell were still to be felt, the commentators said. The 96th Congress was destined to be remembered as the "No'Count Congress"; the 97th would probably be known as the "Bonehead Congress." In the House, there were 180 Democrats, 168 Republicans, and 87 independents. In the Senate, there were 49 Democrats, 49 Republicans, one independent, and one vegetarian. New members of Congress included one former bartender, a computer consultant, six candidates too young to hold the office, one former felon, and the Midwest district ticket sales manager for Professor Mysto's 1819 Shrine Circus, who had run in all 13 districts in his territory.

The nation's political system was in a shambles. But Cartr had won. He had won . . . .

Slowly, like a man waking from a beautiful dream, the president let his mind come forward from the exuberance of Election Night (he himself had drunk three beers; Hamilton had not been seen for 10 days) to the empty office of Inauguration Day. Ahead of him lay the challenges of governing for a second term: an economy in full slump, with inflation soaring over 20 percent; squabbling between Egypt and Israel; the difficulty of getting the new Department of Space through Congress.

But for a minute longer he allowed himself to luxuriate in the glory of the greatest comeback in American political history. He reached over and picked up a small wooden sign ("The BUCK Stops Here") and hefted it gently, as he thought of the man who had left it behind three decades before -- like himself, a small man, without imperial airs, seen by many as unqualified for the high office he had assumed, like himself from an unfashionable part of the American heartland, like himself often reviled by liberal and conservative alike. Jimmy Carter and Harry Truman, he thought.

That may explain what happened next. The desk phone rang and a secretary's voice said to him, "Sir, it's Senator Kennedy calling. He says it's urgent -- he's back from his round-the-world cruise and he wants to talk to you about national health insurance and tax reform and SALT III. Shall I put him on?"

The president smiled, and spoke softly, as if to himself. "Tell him -- " he began. And then he used some words that Harry Truman would have loved.