NEW FOUNDATION." A slogan that w'll not be long remembered, or at least not in the way intended by my friends and former colleagues in the White House. Instead of a stirring presidential vision, the administration ended up with a word gag that set half of America sniggering at underwear jokes.

But whatever one thinks of the slogan, its history tells something about how such efforts can go awry in the Carter White House, with a president who feels uncomfortable with deliberate phrase-marking. Carter wants facts from his speechwriters, not catchy prose. "Abbreviate," he wrote on the first drafts of speeches prepared for his North and South Carolina trips last fall. "Get the bull out & put in the basic points -- then return to me. J."

Like presidents before him, Carter wants all his goals in every speech -- one reason why those of us in the word corner of the White House also wanted a slogan that could imply, without enumeration, a whole host of presidential concerns. We welcomed Jerry Rafshoon as an ally in our battle against laundry-list speeches when he arrived last year.

Slognans came up in one of our first meetings with Fafshoon. Chief speechwriter Jim Fallows, Rick Hertzberg and I trotted down the first floor hall of the Executive Office Bulding to Jerry's new quarters in the old Nixon hideaway, the room where Nixon had told John Dean "It would be wrong." The bookshelves were still bare ("You can always tell a man by his books," rick quipped). Long, spaghetti-like hanks of tape-machine tripwire protruded from the carpet. A 2-inch circle was cut out of the carpet under the coffee table where there had been a concealed microphone.

We met to discuss coming speeches and speech themes. "We need to focus on a few themes that clearly identify the president's priorities," Jerry told us, ushering in the era of the three Es -- energy, Fficiency and the economy. "We have to pick topics early."

"We do," Jim said. "The president changes his mind.",r"I'll take care of that," Jerry said. "You just get the stuff in." Jim smiled and nodded. Jerry would learn.

Then we talked about slogans. Months earlier, before the 1978 State of the Union, Rick had written a long memo urging a Carter slogan. "Every reforming president of this century has adopted a brief, evocative phrase summarizing his program and approach," Rick had written.

Rick's candidate was "Beloved Community." "The idea of a beloved community sums up the administration's theme, encapsulates its noblest impulses, describes its programs and is true to President Carter's personality, background and beliefs," he argued. "Beloved Community" appeared in the last paragraph of the 1978 State of the Union. It has not been heard again.

It was not the only Carter slogan to emerge and disappear.Stu Eizenstat's perennial candidate, "New Spirit," made its debut in the inaugural, got several repeats in the 1978 State of the Union, then dropped from signt. "Moral Force"

WE DISCUSSED Rick's memo with Jerry. Like Carter, Rafshoon is more interested in themes than slogans, but he liked Rick's memo and gave perfunctory endorsement to a slogan search. In June I ran a brief, half-hearted and remarkably unproductive White House slogan contest.

The most memorable contribution was "Moral Force." ("It'll catch the Trekkies," its sponsor promised.) Second was "The Adequate Society," a facetious entry from a Domestic Policy Council aide. I had a brief (and solitary) midsummer enthusiasm for "Bold Mission," theme of a Baptist conference Carter addressed in July. ("Bold Vision" flopped too.) Another July candidate, "A Liveable World," made its way into the Bonn state dinner speech -- and died.

At the same time, single-purpose slogans turned up during the fall. Greg Schneiders, rehabilitated by Rafshoon and installed as his deputy, proposed several variations on "hire, inspire -- or fire" for the president's remarks on civil service reform. (They were rejected.)

In mid-November Greg came to my office to talk about the president's coming address to the Democratic midterm convention in Memphis. "We need to bridge the gap between the traditional way of thinking about the Democratic Party and what has come to be Jimmy Carter's Democratic Party," Greg said. "New Progressivism," he suggested. (Greg, uniformly inept with words, now oversees the three remaining speechwriters. "As an editor," remarked one White House aide, "Greg reflects well on bartenders.")

It was Hertzberg who proposed "New Foundation." It came up in a bull session in Jim Fallows' office the week before his Thanksgiving departure. Rick brought it up again when we discussed the Memphis speech with Bernie Aronson, Jim's successor, a week later.

No one was overwhelmed. It wasn't used in the Memphis speech and was forgotten until the president rejected the first draft of the State of the Union in a meeting in the president's office on Jan. 2. Rick wasn't at the meeting, but Rafshoon, Schneiders and Aronson told him about it when they met later to discuss a new draft.

"Mondale said we need to articulate what is unique in the Carter administration. Stu [Eizenstat] is concerned because so many of Carter's achievements have no immediate payoff," one participant reported.

The problem was familiar. Carter's programs lack the drama of a moon shot, a Peace Corps, an poverty program. They lack the cohesive legislative focus of a New Deal or Great Society. His domestic initiatives -- Civil service reform, energy sufficiency, sunset legislation, government reorganization, deregulation, budget curtting -- involve tedious and often painful procedures.Most won't reap visible benefit for many years.

The State of the Union needed a coherent theme that could sum up these past efforts as well as convey future goals. "New Foundation," Rick said. "Carter is laying a foundation. He may not be the one to build on it, but you need a solid foundation before you can build a structure."

Rafshoon liked it immediately and took it to the president. Carter approved it the next day. The innercircle thought it fit Carter like a glove.

Unlike 1978, there was no internal dispute over the State of the Union this year. Each draft focused on inflation, SALT and more efficient government. Like the Memphis speech, the drafts also signaled a reexamination of goals largely unchanged since the days of the New Deal.

Helped by a large and talented crew, including Ted Sorensen, the speech laid out Carter's view of the imperatives of 1979 and the 1980s: more limited government, more efficient government, lowered expectations, an end to defictis and the expansonist psychology of the 1960s. If energy conservation was last year's "moral equivalent of war," frugality was to be this year's political equivalent of vision.

Not an apocalyptic vision -- this isn't a doomsday White House -- but a rational approach to a future of finite resources.

Carter's approach is sound, his judgements easy to defend. The trouble is that the message didn't come through. the speech lacked a unifying theme. The perfunctory use of "new Foundation" neither explained, nor properly utilized, the slogan. It looked "cute," like PR rather than a serious effort to convey the president's philosophy.

The many authors, impeded by the incestuous process of talking largely to each other, were too close to see that the message was not self-evident. This clasic insider hanicap has intensified since Jim Fallows' departure.

Carter himself does not view the presidency as a "builly pulpit." (One illustration of this is his refussal to rehearse a speech, except on rare occasions. One exception: Before his muchtrumpeted inflation address last fall, he read into a tape recorder and sent the cassette to Rafshoon for comment.)

Carter's attitude is reflected thoughout the staff. Like Nixon loyalists of old ("In your heart you know he's right"), the Carter inner circle has yet to learn the need to explain God when preaching to the unconverted.