President Carter took complete command of the national Democratic Party machinery yesterday, as the Democratic National Committee bade farewell to retiring chairman Robert S. Strauss and installed Carter's choice, former Maine Gov. Kenneth M. Curtis, to succeed him.
Committee members - often involved in furious battling over the past eight years - ratified the new President's slate of officials with dispatch and unanimity, then headed off to the White House for their first visit since the end of the Johnson administration.
Curtis, in his maiden speech, voiced assurance that "President Carter believes in and wants a strong and active Democratic Party."
But the other message from yesterday's proceedings was that Carter wants the party firmly in the hands of his own supporters.
In addition to Curtis, who backed Carter in the Maine caucuses almost a year ago, the committee elected Carmela Lacayo of California and Mayor Coleman Young of Detroit as vice chairmen and Joel McCleary of North Carolina as treasurer. All were early Carter supporters.
Dorothy Vredenburgh Bush was reelected secretary, a post she has held for years.
Curtis then named two of the key organizers of the Carter campaign Georgia state Rep. Ben Brown and Plains native Phil Wise, as deputy chairman and executive director of the committee.
Lacayo's choice as a vice chairman was the only one that stirred even a ripple of controversy. The California delegation was pushing another Hispanic woman. Dina Beaumont a vice chairman of the state Democratic Party and a vice president of the Communications Workers Union.
But Lacayo had backed Carter in the Californa primary while Beaumont supported Californa Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., a 1976 Carter rival still regarded by some Carter supporters as a potential 1980 threat. When Lacayo's name was entered on the slate, no opposition was heard.
Curtis cautioned the committee that people may begin to think "our party is too powerful, that we will become arrogant and unresponsive or that a contest for power among factions will dissipate our energy."
For the committee's next meeting in March, Curtis promised proposals to prepare for the 1978 election, to ease and expand voter registration, to open the party and "reach out and include the millions of Americans who make up this party."
In interviews before his election, Curtis told reporters he would set up a regional desk system at headquarters here for closer liaison with the states and take over preliminary screening for at least some political appointents from the White House.
Rejecting the "figurehead" label some [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] Curtis said, "If it turns out that way, I'll go back and practice law in Portland, Maine. The fishing is better there."
But in the same interview, he conceded that he was uncertain of the spelling of the name of the new party treasurer, McCleary, a young Carter fund-raiser who Curtis said was recommended to him by Wise, the new executive director and the organizer of Carter's Florida primary victory.
While the Carter people were taking control, the sentimental hero of the day was retiring chairman Strauss, who drew a prolonged standing ovation after a valedictory recounting a four-year passage from "meanness, pettiness and suspicion" to a point where "we have become a family of friends."
Then, breaking the exceptional solemnity of his own mood, he turned to Maine National Committeeman George Mitchell, who had nominated Curtis, and said, in mock protest.
"All the times you talked about me you never called ME decent or humble. It's a damned outrage."