Reprinted from Newsweek.
For once, Washington and the rest of the country seem to be talking about the same political subject. But they are saying different things. I mean those symbols and gestures by which Jimmy Carter is seeking to deflate the grandeur of government and to establish something approximating human life in the White House. People in congress say the response in their districts has been spectacular - a veritable volcano of approval every time another limousine bites the dust. On the other hand, there is Washington: dark mutterings about sham and phony savings and the manipulation of a gullible public and even risks and inefficiencies that may be the price of these gestures.
Who is right? I hope only tell you that if the thing is a sham, that fact is not understood by the White House aides in charge of it, the President's special assistants for normal life. For these are no John Ehrlichmans exulting in how it will play in Peoria. Rather, they are dead-earnest, straight-arrow young folk who seem determined to help the President fulfill what they regard as a sacred commitment. Talking to them you get the idea that - like it or not - Washington is about to experience its own variation on the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
This conclusion was borne in upon me as I sat in the approporiately unebellished White House office of Hugh Carter Jr., the President's cousin once moved who is in charge of what can only be described as perkicide. Cousin Hugh (or Cousin Cheap, as he is called by some of the victims of the new austrity) has already eliminiated from the White House life-style some $12,000 worth of leased cars, $40,000 worth of subsripitions to publications, and roughly 250 TV sets and 175 AM-FM radios. He is an amiable and attractive 34-year-old business executive who had been working in Atlanta, and his appointment was truly inspired. He brings to the job not just a special background in management and administration, but also a special relationship to the President, who is said to call him "Sonny." Presumably this relationship will help guard him against the wrath of the counter-revolutionaries - those TV-less aides and assistants who will have plenty of time to sulk while riding the bus to work.
What I liked most about Hugh Carter Jr. was that I couldn't tell whether he appreciated the high social comedy of the situation he described. Sometimes I thought he did, and sometimes I thought he didn't. He told me how the car-and-driver privilege works now; the White House assistant orders up a car, the garage inquires as to the purpose of the trip, the purpose is described and if it doesn't meet the guidelines the request is denied - contention over all this to be referred, if necessary, all the way to cousin Hugh Carter himself. But the cars, he says, have not produced the most anguish. No, it has been the TV's - even though he and his staff had moved quickly with a view to averting withdrawal symptons: "I'd say by Friday morning, Jan. 21, most of the sets were gone from the offices, so folks didn't have a chance to get used to them."
Hugh Carter will concede, as do others in the administration, that the purpose of these removals and levelings is not primarily to save money, although the odd saving here and there is welcome. Instead, they claim, the purpose is to keep the Carter White House staff from living in a world so cushioned aginst discomfort and inconvenience that it (a) gets grand ideas about itself and (b) grows remote from the concerns and travails of ordinary citizens. And they also acknowledge that one reason they are making such a public show of it now is to give Carter cabinet members the idea that they should follow suit in their own departments: no more privileges, no more frills.
Watching the President one month into his presidency, and listening to aides such as Hugh Carter or Greg Schneiders or Barry Jagoda who have special responsibility in these matters, I am persuaded that something more than "style" or "image" in a tinselly sense is involved here. I think that Carter and they regard this matter of living style as something as palpable and consequential as the President's programs in a dozen different fields.
I also think they have a problem that can be summed up as follows: the objective ofall the democratizing and sweater wearing and bus riding is to reassure a sour public that Washington is not a bastion of privilege, presided over by people who have lost touch with reality. But the only way to convey this reassurance is by an ostentatious public show of unostentatious living. Among the Carter people I have talked to, there is genuine dread of the possibility, built into this circumstances, that the whole performance will thus at some point be seen by the public as just another stunt.
There are two possible routes to this unhappy destination. One is that people will believe too much, that they will see more reality than symbolism in the effort and adjust their expectations too high, so that they will believe they can call the President or drop in on him or God knows what all else. That could only lead to a tremendous national downer in the wake of the current high.
The other is that so much attention will be trained on the new humble style of the White House and its residents that a kind of boomerang effect will occur. By continually talking about how wonderful it is that Jimmy Carter doesn't insist on "Hall to the Chief" or ruffles and flourishes and that he walks and carries his baggage just like the rest of us, we are creating him, after all, as a kind of benevolent despot, a kindly king. For the fact is (and we know it) that he doesn't have to walk or carry his bags if he doesn't want to, that he can whistle up a couple of trumpeters at a moment's notice and that the new austerity in government is itself tribute to the power of the President - because he can order that up too. The more abject our gratitude and starry-eyed our wonder, the more we will be conceding that the office is imperial.
I think, in short, that Carter in this whole project has really taken on the tough one.He is surely right in thinking that these symbols and gestures are required now as an antidote to the governmental excesses of the past. And he is surely right about cutting down to size, with a large injection of reality, the pretensions of those who act in a President's name. And above all, I think the instinct is right that tells him how important it is to try to stay human in the White House.
In a way, you could say we will only know whether he has succeeded when the subject vanishes from the news. The ultimate in modesty and unassuming behaviour, after all, occurs when such behaviour is not even noticed. I have come to think of it as zero-based humility, and I figure we will all know it has been successfully achieved when we hear the first voices demanding a little more pomp in our public life.