One year after Jimmy Carter's election to office, the American people have made a discovery about him that calls to mind the famous last line of the wicked best seller "Candy." Good grief , an anguished nation seems to be proclaiming as one, it isn't Daddy!
Nobody ever said it would be, of course. On the contrary, while you can argue that Carter has turned around on a number of things he had led voters to expect, his style of governing isn't one of them. For if the candidate was clear about anything, it was that he intended to conduct a scaled-down, unpaternal, unmajestic and even - in a sense - unprofessional presidency. He has been as good as his word. And that, I am convinced, is what has got him into trouble.
To say as much is to implicate others in the current "leadership crisis" - an anti-Washington electorate that professed to yearn for an end to Big Daddyism in the White House, and a lot of people in Congress and elsewhere who were disturbed by the extravagant powers and perks a series of postwar Presidents had laid claim to. So Carter's conception of a stripped-down presidency had great appeal for many people - I know it did for me.
That is one of the qualifications you have to append to any analysis of Carter's leadership problems. The other is that these presidential "crises" - the alleged dips and sags, comebacks and surges - are in large part unreal, about 50 per cent air, 20 per cent water and only the rest genuine trouble. For one thing, there is a press rhythm involved, something that seems to drive us to see these sags and surges when they exist . . . and also when they do not. There is as well a lot of chronic, almost institutional disaffection in this country that is forever in search of a timely explanation.
For instance, when I hear, as we all have heard lately, that the Jews are anxious about the U.S. commitment to Israel, the farmers sore about their prices, the leaders of business without confidence in the administration and the organized poor convinced that they are not getting what they deserve, I do not imagine myself to be in the presence of a new and distinctive political crisis. I feel right at home.
But when you have corrected for all that, you still left with the fact that something has gone wrong in the Carter presidency. Some critics, fixed forever in a kind of political Pompeii by the lava flows of the Nixon years, can only look at Carter and see Nixon: icy, ruthless, abusive of the office, overreaching. But this is off the point, and it confounds the search for the sources of his trouble. Carter is not marching around in one of those Haldeman-designed tin-solider hats, intoning with the parodists, "I am the President, make no mistake about that." If anything, he has reversed course so dramatically and demystified the office so utterly that he is now having trouble projecting presidential authority - both in Washington and in the country at large.
I went out on the President's three-day, six-state tour in late October and was continually struck by the contrast between the imposing paraphernalia of the office and the deliberately unimposing style of Carter. People pressed up against airport fences and barriers, months-old babies hoisted to their shoulders the better to "witness" the event, seemed genuinely wowed by the approach of Air Force One - it looms especially large on airfields that have been cleared of other traffic, its huge jets whining and screeching as it wheels up toward the waiting greeters and microphones. But the "magic" of the moment tends to be dispelled by a hail-to-the-chiefless chief who skips nimbly down the steps looking frail and unattended, dwarfed by the giant aircraft, a simple, normal person - just like you and me.
I don't think that's what most people want - never mind their republican protestations to the contrary. And I know it is not a style that can make the wheels go round in Washington. Some Presidents use the royal "we," but that is just an empty affection so far as clout in the nation's capital is concerned. What matters is whether, behind his back, a President is given the Washington "He," as in "I'm told He was really up the wall about that . . ." It is an unexplained, unadorned pronoun; you can hear the capital H; you don't need an antecedent to know who it - it is the President, the only plane on the runway.
Gerald Ford never got the Washington "He." Carter has it, but increasingly in a context of bewilderment, ridicule and despair. His presidency is widely regarded as weightless and formless, lacking in coherence, direction and order - in everything but excessive democracy. Even in a city that has known at firsthand the horrors of an overblown presidency, there is a remarkable degree of unanimity now that what is wanted is a little more presidential size; a sense that though he may not be the daddy of us all, the President does control his destiny (and ours) to some extent, that he is not just one among equals; that he knows, in ways beyond our grasp, exactly what he is doing.
Watching Carter's performance in a series of public encounters on his recent trip left me in no doubt that the people who put him in office want the same thing. The closest he will come to establishing that special President-to-people relationship with them is to say (a frequent usage) that he is "proud" of what this group or that town or some person has done. But mostly he was telling a wide range of citizens that he was just like them, that he was there "to learn," that he didn't have all the answers, but was trying. My observation was that this litany seemed to let the air out of the balloon. On those occasions when Carter would flex presidential muscle instead, hinting - say - that he was going to settle some agency's hash when he returned to Washington, he got cheers.
Presidents often fall back on successful campaign techniques when their presidencies are in trouble - John Kennedy inclined to approach a recalcitrant Congress as if it were a convention waiting to be stormed. So it is not odd that Carter too reaches back to the sources of his campaign strength to bolster his shaken presidency. What is odd is that this most disciplined of men is somehow failing to impose a discipline on his government or to restrain his own habit of getting lost in the details of his programs or to convey a sense of competence and direction - mastery, in short - to the American public. A President who is just like you and me will be eaten alive by the bureaucrats, trampled by the Congress and served ill by those paid assistants he is meant to direct and control. It will be the ultimate revenge of the imperial presidents and their imperious aides if the legacy of their misue of presidential power is fear of using it at all.