The need for a President to protect himself from his own political party was raised recently when Democratic National Chairman Kenneth Curtis, in his understated way, delivered a virtual ultimatum to the White House.
Curtis, the publicity-shy former governor of Maine, complained that presidential aide Mark Siegal had been turning up at meetings of the Democratic executive committee to direct traffic. So, Curtis put it to the President in approximately these words: If you want Mark Siegel or any other White House staffer to run the party, just tell me and I'll quit.
That attitude derives partly from the fact that Curtis must function amid rosy memories of his spectacular predecessor as national chairman, Robert Strauss (whose executive director was none other than Siegel). But beyond personalities, the White House worries that protection of President Carter's interests has a lower priority for Chairman Curtis,
His ultimatum has been ignored. Siegel was present Friday morning when top presidential aide Hamilton Jordan conferred at the White House with Curtis. And when the Democratic National Committee meets in Washington this week, Siegel will be present.
But that alone does not remove concerns at the White House that the party under Curtis may revert to the self-indulgence that proved ruinous at Miami Beach in the summer of 1972. Specifically, worries center on the party's 1978 mid-term conference, whose delegates - possibly selected via the quota system - might embark on a wild spree of policy declarations.
A hint of possible chaos ahead came at an Aug. 12 meeting of the 25-member Democratic executive committee, which adopted a resolution condemning British "occupation" of Northern Ireland. National committeeman Patrick J. Cunningham of New York, sponsor of the resolution, was asked whether Strauss as national chairman would have permitted such a mischievous proposal to pass. "Hell," Cunningham replied, "If Bob Strauss were around, we wouldn't even have introduced it."
Curtis made no effort to kill the Irish resolution. Nor at an earlier executive committee meeting did he support the White House desire to limit delegates at the mid-term conference. Curtis, who does not like to preside, surrendered the chair to an advocate of more, not fewer, delegates: Mayor Coleman Young of Detroit. The smaller delegate total was approved, thanks partially to intervention from Siegel - triggering Curtis's ultimatum.
But the President was less fortunate when on Aug. 12, without Siegel present, the executive committee issued a "preliminary call" for the mid-term conference that evoked unwelcome nostalgia about 1972. In effect, it set delegate quotas for blacks, Indians and youth.
Influential Democratic state chairman Morely Winograd of Michigan warned that his state would not send delegates to the conference if the "preliminary call" became permanent. Winograd, who conferred with Jordan at the White House last week, intends to junk the embryonic quota system at this week's national committee meeting - with help from the White House.
Nobody expected or wanted Curtis to duplicate the high-stepping Strauss, who had a free hand at the national committee with no Democrat in the White House to upstage him. But influential members of the committee, all ardent Strauss admirers, have become so frustrated with Curtis (one actually called him "a rockhead from Maine") that they have turned for help to Strauss's old deputy, Siegel. His knowledge of party issues and personalities is unparalleled.
Curtis has his own admirers on the national committee - such as Ulric Scott, the new Minnesota state chairman, Scott resents "White House interference" in party affairs and wants the mid-term conference freely and openly to debate the issues - just as they do in Minnesota's Democratic-Farmer-Labor party. Scott on Curtis: "I think he's been terrific."
That Curtis might share the Minnesota view that the President has no business running his party astounds Carter advisers. "John Bailey must be turning over in his grave," comments one such adviser, remembering that Bailey as national chairman sacrificed his won reputation to defend Lyndon Johnson against the anti-Vietnam assault.
There have been quiet signs that the White House has had about enough. Despite previous reluctance - in the interests of Curtis's sensibilities - to assign a subordinate to handle party matters, Jordan now has designated Siegel and presidential appointments secretary Rich Hutcheson to make sure that the mid-term conference does not become a fiasco for Jimmy Carter The President has plenty of serious trouble on his hands without piling on more from his own party.