JIMMY CARTER'S employee evaluation form is reminiscent of nothing so much as that pom-pom-ridden White House guard's hat the people who worked for Richard Nixon thought was such a swell idea. It is a symbol gone wacky, a reasonable and respectable intention become absurd. The Nixon hats were sold at auction. Apprropriately, the Carter evaluation forms have , in considerable numbers, turned up in government-issue wastebaskets. HUDHEW Secretary Harris' reponse was the right one. She knew her subordinates to be both competent and loyal, Mrs. Harris declared. She had not the vaguest idea what time they came to work every morning, only that when she had needed them they were there. So she wouldn't be filling out the forms. Score one for dignity.
Dignity. That is the attribute - let's go farther, the viirtue - which the week's events make eminently worth discussing. It is not to be confused with "straightlaced" or "stiff-backed" or any of the other adjectives you can use to describe either old dowagers or the chairs they sit in. Except for rare and isolated acts - Mrs. Harris' rejection of the evaluation forms, Brock Adams' refusal to grovel on signal and a few other examples - dignity was in shorter supply over the last few days than lead-free gas on the Fourth. Those examples, incidentally, might seem to be defining dignity as simple defiance of someone else's instructions - but that isn't it, either. The quality so conspicuously missing is more like a combination of the following: integrity, seriousness of purpose, self-respect and respect for the sensibilities and feelings of others, a refusal - no matter what the temptation or provocation - to do it the sleazy, showboat way.
The first thing you will notice about this particular definition is that it describes a property that no one can take away from another - it can only be yielded up, forfeited, lost. The Carter White House assault on some of its real amd imagined adversaries last week affected those persons' dignity only to the degree that they let it, that their responses were demeaning. The president was very clunky and roughshod in the way he dealt with individuals. He did not appear to be respecting their feelings or their interests or to be relaxed in and aware of his own superior power and, thus, his own greater freedom and obligation to act with personal restraint. It had a frantic quality to it - the week's unfollding and admittedly gripping drama - but it was the dignity of the presidency, not that of its various casualties and objects of suspicion, that got bloodied up in the process.
This is especially interesting because Jimmy Carter is a man whose conduct of the offiice and whose personal bearing have always been notable for their dignity. You didn't have to admire or support everything he did to think that. But the past week's actions were curiously corrosive of presidential dignity and uncharacteristically lacking in restraint, even though their outcome was surely well within the president's legitimate prerogatives to seek, and some of what he was seeking was overdue. It was as though, not just in the newly acquired table-thumping gestures and slight yell, but also in the insensitivity to his own government and in the all but deliberately sought-out confrontations and chaos, he was attempting to be or look like someone else. That never works. The gestures don't fit. The evaluation forms looks funny, as if it had been contrived with Mark Russell in mind. The intended show of strength is received as evidence of something quite different, even opposite. The blaming of others not just for faults that were indisputably theirs, but also for faults (would you believe, for instance, a clumsiness and ineptitude with Congress?) that the Carter White House almost seemed to invent, weakens and undermines the valid case for change something awful.
Mr. Carter now claims the restoration of peace and calm and order is upon us. Thank God for that. His government will be missing some people of big talent. Maybe he will improve upon what went before. To do that he will have to restore something else. Dignity - and the personal authority that came before, not from enforcers and dicta about loyalty, but from the overwhelming sense that the president was a man at home with his own style and nature and way of doing things.