The White House orchestrated almost every aspect of President Carter's massive "energy week" effort to mobilize public support for his answer to "a problem unprecedented in our history."
But it couldn't control the headlines showing Carter, the bold general of the energy war, retreating on other fronts.
On April 14, four days before he addressed the nation on the "greatest challenge our country will face during our lifetime," the Washington Star headlined, "Carter Killing $50 Rebate to Reassure Business."
On April 15, The Washington Post said, "Soviets Assail Arms Plan - Editorial Jars U.S. officials."
On April 16, The New York Times headlined, "President, in Shift, Favors Some Funds for Water Projects."
On April 17, The Times led the paper with a report headlined, "U.S. Bows to Policy of Unions and Bars 3 Soviet Labor Aides - Acts Despite a Carter Vow." And the Star bannered the news: "Another Flap - Andy Young Criticized and Defend."
Not exactly a fanfare designed to instill public confidence.But it was sweet music compared to what followed Carter's most important speech as President.
This week's front-page headlines included: "Carter Shifts Stand, Urges Higher Supports for Crops." (Star). "Senate Delivers Defeat to Carter on Business Tax" (Post). "White House Shifts, Says Energy Plans Won't Aid Economy" (Times.)
And to cap the week, the lead item in the Wall Street Journal's Washington Wire: "Carter's flip-flops on policy may undermine his support in Congress."
The picture that emerges is one of Jimmy Carter caught at the most awkward moment in a credibility crisis of major proportions, lunging forward on his drive for energy legislation just as his legs are being cut out from under him.
Maybe. But that's not the way it looks at the White House. And, more significant, it's not the way it looks on Capitol Hill.
"If anybody thinks he's going to be a patsy," says Sen. Abraham A. Ribicoff (D-Conn.), "they're nuts." "The people who think he's a pushover couldn't be more wrong," says Bert Lance, the director of Office of Management and Budget. "He's as smart and as tough as they come," says House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.).
These may be dismissed as the defensive comments of partisan Democrats rallying around a fledgling President.
But interviews with a dozen key members of the House and Senate and several senior Carter aides drew a picture of a chief executive whois anything but beleaguered, uncertain or stumbling.
One reason for that is the public opinion polls - which show Carter holding his exceptionally broad support and building his hard-core cadre for the battles ahead.
But equally important, the members of Congress and the White House aides say, has been the personal impression of confidence and command Carter has given those who have dealt with him during the past pressure-packed week.
To be sure, there are some who are concerned that Carter may be off-balance and sending out confusing signals. One presidential assistant said the withdrawal of support for the $50 rebate "was murky and it looked political. I don't see how that could have been a plus."
On Capitol Hill, Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) said a colleague told him, "I'm not going to say anything about Carter's energy plan until he sends down his real one."
And Rep. James R. Jones (D-Okla.) said, "I wouldn't say the sharks are circling the blood or anything, but there's beginning to be some conversation about his changes of mind."
House Majority Whip John Brademas (D-Ind.) expressed a common view when he said that Carter's compromises on water projects, farm price supports and other issues were no more than signs that "he's doing what any President does; he's negotiating and bargaining."
The only difficulty," Brademas added, "is that he had convinced some people he'd never do that."
Carter was preceded to Washington by reports of his monumental feuds with the Georgia legislature and a self-cultivated reputation as a stubborn, unyielding stickler for his principles.
As he said the day he withdrew the $50 rebate, "I have been accused of a lot of things, but I don't believe anybody ever accused me of being afraid of a political fight, or of being too quick to compromise." But, under prodding, Carter has begun to compromise.
O'Neill and others argued vehemently with Carter that he would be making a serious mistake pitting his popularity against members of Congress who balk at accepting his program. "I told him," the Speaker said, "you're taking on some able, tough guys."
On his side, Carter, according to his close friend Lance, "has grown a great deal with relationship to Congress. It's not at all like his relationship with the Georgia legislature."
Specifically, say aides, Carter discovered two things about the Congress he hadn't known when he was elected: the independence of its members' policy judgments and their tenacity in defending them.
He also came to believe that most of the Democrats really wanted to work cooperatively with their new President - something that was not true of the Georgia legislators.
The "education" process has been marked by a sequence of forced withdrawals by Carter, starting with the nomination of Theodore C. Sorensen for director of central intelligence and continuing right up through the concession last week on higher farm price supports.
In both those instances, as in others, Carter found that he simply had not counted votes. Said a key House Agriculture Committee Democrat, "I don't think there were three votes for the original administration position."
Similarly, Carter was in danger of being run over on the water projects fight and - perhaps - on the tax rebate as well, before he adjusted his position.
In both cases, White House officials say, Carter was more guided by his changed perception of the merits of the issue than by crass political considerations.
There is some skepticism about that explanation on Capitol Hill. Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), who says "Carter was kind of baiting Congress for a fight when he first came up here," says he thinks the President was first inclined to "go to the people" on the rebate fight.
"But I think his pal Pat Caddell [the Carter pollster] told him the people weren't that much for it," Hollings said. "If it had been popular, I think he would have belted us around good."
Others are inclined to welcome signs of flexibility on Carter's part without worrying about his motive.
Rep. Barber B. Conable Jr (R-N.Y.), ranking minority member of the Ways and Means Committee, uses almost identical language as presidential assistant Jack H. Watson Jr. to make the point. "His willingness to change his mind makes him look rather big, compared to those whose egos wouldn't let them change," said Conable.
Watson told an interviewer, "I really wonder if those who are writing about flip-flops want a President who looks the personal security to be able to change his mind?"
White House officials acknowledge - cost of Carter's switches was stranding political allies without notice. A House Democratic leaders, said he thinks "a lot of members are reluctant to commit themselves to Carter's energy taxes because they got burned on the rebate."
But Ways and Means Committee Chairman Al Ullman (D-Ore.), who was burned on the rebate when the White House notification system broke down, is carrying the ball for Carter on the energy taxes. "He's so committed on this one that he isn't going to play games with it," Ullman said.
What is almost completely lacking among the members of Congress is a suspicion that Carter lacks the courage for a fight.
I'd say he's just keeping his powder dry," said Sen. Gary W. Hart (D-Colo.) "He's not loath to take it on; he just wants to be sure that the sides and the issue are right."
The belief in Carter's latent power has its roots in the pools and in personality. The latest Gallup Poll puts his support at 72 per cent, and pollster Peter D. Hart reported last week that for the first time, "the President has began to build up a sizable core constituency which is based on personal and professional respect . . ."
At moments, Carter still flashes signs of his eagerness to mobilize that support in battles with Congress. Just last week, he told a delegation of western congressmen, that "I reached more of your constituents with my Monday night speech than you can reach in a year."
A member of that group said afterward, "I think he's a pretty tough guy. More than I'm comfortable with."
But in that meeting, as in others, Carter also impressed the lawmakers with the range of his knowledge. Despite his recent preoccupation with energy, he was prepared to talk substantively on tuna fishing, Indian rights, local water projects, illegal aliens and other issues.
As much as anything, Carter's daily demonstration that he is on top of his job is what keeps most people from deciding that he would be easy pickings.