Porgy and Bess comes to town soon with soothing lullabies about summertime, when the living is easy. Fantasy, of course. In Washington, this summer, nothing comes easy. The papers are filled with stories about crises. The water crisis. The pollution crisis. The heat-wave crisis. After the worst winter, the worst summer. And through it all exists a lassitude, a torpor, an indifference. Nothing can be done about it. Suffer in silence.
Even the one subject that official Washington loves best - the character and action of the President - fails to arouse emotion in this debilitated, somnolent city. Instead, after six months of Jimmy Carter, there's still puzzlement, curiosity, concern, and certain questions about the patterns and paradoxes of presidential leadship emerging.
Jimmy Carter, at this stage, stands as perhaps the most perplexing, and promising, President of recent times. By this point in office most Presidents have left a distinct stamp on Washington, altering the pace and, to a degree, the character of the city. That hasn't happened in Jimmy Carter's Washington.
The glimpses of Carter have been contradictory and confusing. He speaks of fireside chats, holds one, and never follows that forum of conducting calm, periodic reports to the people about national progress and problems. He sounds the trumpet in the spring, signaling a call to arms on energy, and lowers his voice to an almost inaudible whisper in the succeeding months. No more words about a moral equivalent of war. He strikes a martial stance on human rights, and then concedes he didn't anticipate the strong reaction against his stand.
On any given day, on any given issue, he comes over as a liberal, or as a conservative. In the most celebrated, and controversial, analysis of him yet, by James Wooten of The New York Times, he was depicted as a brooding, stony hard-eyed recluse, temperamental, walled off from frequent human contracts inside the White House, stirring specters of Nixon.
Yet that picture is sharply at cariance with others. In private he encourages seminars with top sides over public policy questions and invites their families to join him in the Cabinet room with picnic baskets while they all listen with him to a discourse on macro-economics and the changing nature of communism.
In public he bring tears to the eyes of wary and critical HEW employees by quoting from Kierkegaard and saying he knows how little impact one person can have on events, and how swift his time will pass. They are the constants of government, says this nemesis of the bureaucracy. And at his press conferences the supposedly humorless technocrat brings the lightest touch and quickest wit in years.
Now Jimmy Carter's trying to show another side of himself. He's calling in the press, holding informal sessions with the columnists around the pool, and sitting outside under the trees chatting with the White House regulars while waiters carry trays of beer and wine and cheese.
At the same time this exponent of candor and openness is plunging the press back into the most ludicrous days of the Highly Placed Official Source and the Anonymous, but Most Informed Official Spokesman. The meetings are on "deep background."
Even though it's the President who's speaking the reporters pledge not to divulge his identity: the President is known to believe, the President thinks, Carter believes . . . That kind of business, it had been hoped, was going out with the war and the glowing, and always anonymous, reports of light at the end of the tunnel.
But for all the contradictions, it just may be that Jimmy Carter perfectly suits the politics of the present. It's a present with problems, but no passion; a politics with issues, but no ideology. The most persistent question about Carter this summer is: Is he drifting with the current, or leading the waves?
That he's in tune with the times, both in Washington and in the country, seems indisputable, as two separate summer-time scenes this week demonstrated.
Charles (Chuck) Whalen is one of the good guys, who's going. He announced the other day that he's calling it quits after this political term ends. He will have served six terms as a Republican congressman from Dayton, Ohio. "Here lies Chuck Whalen," he says, smiling while sitting in his air-conditioned study at his home in the Maryland suburb. "Does it make any difference if it's six terms in Congress or seven?"
Whalen's been right on more issues by far than most - on race, on Vietnam, on Agnew, on Nixon, on Watergate, on impeachment, on dissent, the press. Over the years he's seen his party dwindle to a precarious few, and sink more firmly into the hands of the organized right wing. he talks about the bloodless political mood, and the reaction of his constituents to the string of crises from winter through spring and now into the summer.
"My constituents all say, 'What are you doing about energy?' But I don't think they really want anything done. I don't think they're prepared to sacrifice. Of course I think a lot of this stuff is folderol. If you've got shortages, you do as I do at home. You ration it. People understand that, but they don't want to do it."
The next morning the paper unwittingly reinforces his views. Despite official appeals for water conservation in the suburbs, nothing changes. Citizens use as much water as usual. Life as always.
Out of town, in North Carolina, the heat almost as unbearable as Washington's and the roomfull of English teachers are discussing problems about their young elementary and junior high students. They can't motivate the students to read, they say. They can't reach them.
One teacher says she assigns a writing topic: describe their most perfect place. She's shattered, she says, when the answer comes back over and over: their most perfect place is alone in the door, turn on the TV or lock themselves into their stereos. "It's back to the womb," she says.
Another tells of asking students to describe what they like about the TV they watch constantly. "They can't even describe what they've seen," he says. "It as if they're mesmerized."
The same with music. A teacher asks her students to write what moves them most about their cherished records. "They couldn't articulate at all what they thought about it." she says, "why they liked it, or what they liked about it."
No matter. It's summertime, and the living is easy. Jimmy Carter's in charge. Without ardor, without rhetoric, without ideology, without drama he's leading us. That's his job. We hired him. He's leaving us alone, and that suits us fine. Can that call to arms, we've got the stereo blaring and the air-conditioning humming.