The President's off campaigning in Viginia for a self-styled Southern populist this first fall weekend of his administration. At the White House, aides are talking about his plans for a 24,000-mile journey in a few weeks that will take him to eight countries on four continents - all in 11 days.That foreign trip has nothing to do with his recent troubles, of course. It was long in the works: and it just happened that timing of the announcement came at a fortuitous moment. Just as naturally, his aides are happy to draw attention to it. The networks were alerted by his television adviser, we're told, to try to ensure the event wasn't ignored.
In other words, everything's back to normal in Washington. The trees are turning on schedule in Rock Creek Park, the Redskins are returning home for what already promises to be another frustrating season, the new subway system is still sputtering after arousing such initial hopes the train service is declining while fares are rising, the Congress is carving up the energy bill the President is leaving town after surviving a crisis.
But for this President and this administration everything isn't really back to normal. Aside from the inevitable postmortems about what happened in the Bert Lance affair - who did what, when and why, with what damage or gain - what lingers are different kinds of questions. They are more personal, and they deal directly with Jimmy Carter.
The cliche about Carter is that he's "enigmatic." It's been said so often that one grows weary of the expression. We never knew Jimmy Carter, it seems during the early days of his presidency, during the problems that overtook him this summer. Surely, if true, that's at least as much an indictment of the people who judged him closely and carefully and then elected him or of those who prefessionally are supposed to watch and interpret him.
Yet there is something to this continuing sense of mystery. In the latest and perhaps most ambitious attempt to gauge him personally. The Wall Street Journal conducted upper and middle-echelon figures in his administration. The result, as chronicled by the respected political writer James M. Perry, is both absorbing and frustrating.
As Perry writes, in attempting to say what Carter's really like:
"Over and over again, the officials said they were struck by the way Mr. Carter's public personality is similar to his private one. They said he is 'cool," 'poised,' 'aloof,' even 'princely.'"
He's also characterized as many other things favorable and unfavorable - bright, hard-working, supremely self-confident but at times grim, bogged down in detail, lacking in vision.
What's frustrating about this is that it almost exactly fits the common cliche. Jimmy Carter still seems detached, elusive, removed. That's why Washington, if not the ocuntry, wonders where he's going what he feels and in what direction he's taking us. It's been a long time since we've had a President about whom so much personal uncertainty exists. Certainly, his predecessors over more than a generation did not fall into this pattern.
With perhaps the exception of Dwight Eisenhower they all aroused strong passions and stirred sharp debates. The oft-cited analogy of Carter and Richard Nixon is clearly not correct in this regard: no one evoked greater personal reactions, pro and con. for a longer period of time than Nixon.
Carter's perfomance last week was somehow paintfully typical. Only the mosr cynical could have seen in his actions anything less than sincere anguish over the plight of his fallen friend. He was moving, gracious, compassionate. Yet in the end he seemed incapable of taking that one last step: he couldn't really tell us how he felt. So he finished ambiguously, extravagantly praising all of Lance's public and private virtues, without being able to say just what had gone wrong either with him or his associate.
He did say, however something that was perhaps unintentionally revealing. In linking himself so closely to Lance, he described their relationship as a "partnership." What was lacking was recognition of another kind of partnership - that between Jimmy Carter and the public, between you and me and him.
If there was one promise to his presidency, that was it. After Watergate, he was going to be the one to operate the presidency differently. He was going to level with us,hold fireside chats, tell us what was happening and make us feel we really understood the workings of government, good and bad. He seemed uniquely qualified for that new direction.
Much has been written, and much of it critical, about his "symbolism" - but, in fact, people have approved of his attempts to cut through the stultifying layers of the White House and the pompous trappings of power.
Jimmy Carter was different, and it was possible to believe he understood well the real art of leadership that had been missing in Washington.
Early in World War II Walter Lippmann wrote of Winston Churchill:
"Mr. Churchill seems to be the only statesman in the world who really believes that the people can and should be enabled to understand the war. Certainly he is the only one who goes to them whenever events have taken a new turn and tells them even in broad outline what has happened and why it has happened. Surely the willingness to explain what he has been doing is, even more than his great gifts of speech, the secret of his leadership . . .
"For while he accepts full responsibility for the great decisions, he also holds himself fully accountable for them. Having explained the reasons which led him to make the decisions, he not only allows his psople and their representatives to pass upon them. He insists that they must pass upon them. He insists that they must pass upon the dicisions and take their share of the resposibility. This is how the democratic method can, when it is really used, stregthen and unify a nation."
There's a great difference, obviously, between wartime and peacetime leadership, between Churchill's eloquence and Carter's coolness. If anything, Carter's task may be the more difficult. Without a crisis to command attention, it becomes harder to lead.
It's the belief here that a great reservoir of public goodwill still exists for Jimmy Carter. He can tap it by making us all partners in his work. But to do that he has to let us know more of what he really thinks and feels.