Amid rising speculation that he will meet next week with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, President Carter neared the end of his visit here today with a surprisingly strong endorsement of Poland's record in human rights.
It was a day filled with symbolism, in which the President paid homage to the heroes of Polish resistance to tyranny, and it was capped by an American-style Presidential news conference, the first of its kind behind what was once known as the Iron Curtain. But Carter's hectic activities were overshadowed throughout the day by talk of the prospect of a dramatic meeting with Sadat as the next stop in the unfolding Middle East peace negotiations.
At the news conference, the President sought to dampen the speculation, saying that while he would keep his schedule "flexible," he had "no plans at this time" to stop in Egypt next week as he passes through the Middle East for the second time in five days.
By tonight, however, it was clear from the comments of American officials that intensive discussion with the Egyptian government over a Carter-Sadat meeting are nearing a climax.
The President will leave Poland early Saturday morning for Tehran and meetings with the Shah of Iran and King Hussein of Jordan. He will pass through the region again next week and the speculation was that he will alter his schedule to meet, however briefly, somewhere in Egypt with Sadat.
Such a meeting, coming less than two weeks after Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin presented his peace plan to Sadat on Christmas Day, would thrust Carter into the center of the Middle East peace negotiations.
These developments tended to draw attention away from the President's activities today during which human rights, in a variety of forms, was the dominat theme.
Taking questions from both Polish and American reporters, Carter was careful to compare Poland's record in human rights only with other Communist nations of Eastern Europe.
"My own assessment within the European theater, Eastern European theater, is that here, compared to some other nations, there is a great regligious freedom and otherwise, and I think this is a hope that we all share and cherish," he said.
At another point, the President said: "I think that our concept of human rights is preserved in Poland much better than in some other European nations with which I am familiar. There is a substantial degree of freedom of the press exhibited by this (news) conference this afternoon; a substantial degree of freedom of religion, demonstrated by the fact that approximately 90 per cent of the Polish people profess faith in Christ; and an open relationship between Poland and our country and Poland and Western European countries in trade, technology, cultural exchange, tourism."
These comments were fraught with irony, given the day's events.
For example, Carter opened his news conference by saying there were "a few who wanted to attend who were not permitted to come." The reporters who were denied credentials by Polish government authorities were later identified as representatives of "Opinia," a dissident magazine.They submitted three questions in writing to Carter and he promised to reply.
While the news conference was carried live on American television, it was aired on a delayed basis here tonight. One notable translation change dealt with Carter's remarks about "few (journalists) who were not permitted to come." A Polish translation of this was rendered into "a few who could not come."
Moreover, as the President moved through the city during the day, ordinary Poles were kept far from his view. His schedule was never published here, and at the outdoor events he attended police kept all but government-approved spectators far away.
At one such event, there was some pushing against police lines by Warsaw residents. After the indicent, police took the names of several people, including Stefan Staszewski, a former Communist Party leader here during a brief period of liberalization in 1956.
Carter met with Polish Communist Party First Secretary Edward Gierek for three hours this afternoon and out of those discussions came the one concrete result of his visit here - the President's approval of an additional $200 million in agricultural credits to Poland.
Poland already has $300 million in agricultural credits, but badly wanted the additional assistance because of a severe meat shortage and a generally troubled economy. In return, Carter told reporters, Gierek pledged to work toward satisfying the American desire to reunite Polish families separated in Poland and the United States.
Tonight, Carter and Gierek toasted each other at a state dinner and both placed special emphasis on U.S.-Soviet relations, a subject of abiding concern to Poland.
Gierek said he hoped the President's visit would deepen the process of detente, which he called "the only alternative" for the future of the world.
Carter acknowledged the mistrust that has often marked East-West relations, but added: "I know in more vivid terms than before that nations like your own and like the Soviet Union, which has suffered so deeply, will never commence a war unless there is the most profound provocation or misunderstanding brought about by lack of communication.
Gierek's stress on American-Soviet relations was not surprising. As of tonight, Carter's visit to Poland had not been reported in the Soviet Union and Polish officials confided that the Soviet reaction to the visit concerned them.
Prior to the meeting with Gierek, the President paid homage at three shrines of Polish resistance to oppression. Accompanied by his wife, Rosalynn, he went to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, to the Nike monument, which commemorates the heroes of the Warsaw uprising against the Nazis, and to the Warsaw Ghetto monument. At each, the President had his wife walked solemnly behind two U.S. marines who carried a wreath to the monuments.
The President seemed particularly moved at the ghetto monument. He stood for a moment alone before the stark structure, his head bowed and cradled in his hands as he apparently offered a silent prayer for th Jewish victims of the Nazi occupation.
The weather could hardly have been worse. A sharp wind blew a biting mixture of rain and snow through the air under a dreary sky. Carter was one of the few present who did not wear a hat and before the morning was over his wet hair was matted down on his head.
To these clearly symbolic appeals to the Polish people, the American party added another touch - Mrs. Carter and Zbigniew Brzezinski, the White House national security adviser, spent more than an hour meeting privately with Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski. More than just the Roman Catholic primate of Poland, Wyszysnki is a genuine national hero in this overwhelmingly Catholic nation.
The President's news conference late this afternoon was the final symbolic touch of the day. It was the first time an American president had held a fullfledged, televised news conference in a Cummunist-ruled country.
The news conference took place in a large conference room of the Hotel Victoria here and had much of the look and feel of a Presidential news conference in the Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House. There were differences, however. For one, the President was flanked by both an American flag and a Polish flag. Carter stood behind a familiar podium, but he was equipped with an earplug - as were all the reporters - to hear the translation of Polish questions into English.
The Polish reporters asked about their special concerns, particularly human rights and U.S. relations with the Soviet Union.
During the news conference, Carter:
Said he hoped a new strategic arms limitation agreement can be negotiated with the Soviet Union by the spring and that then the two superpowers could begin negotiations toward limiting tactical nuclear weapons.
Defended the controversial "neutron bomb" without saying whether he will approve its deployment in Western Europe, and critized the Soviet Union for deploying the new SS-20 missile, which he said is much more destructive than anything now in the NATO arsenal.
Said he hoped he could soon act to end the stalemate over the proposed mutual reduction of NATO and Warsaw Pact troops that now face each other in Europe.
Suggested that Poland, because of its longstanding ties to the United States, might serve to bridge the differences that separate the United States from the Soviet Union.
The Middle East also arose during the news conference when the President was asked about Sadat's recent criticism alleging that the United States is supporting Israel's demands for military outposts on the West Bank of the Jordan River and the Gaza Strip.
"We don't back any Israeli military settlement in the Gaza Strip or on the West Bank," Carter replied. He repeated his assertion that the United States is not seeking to impose a peace settlement and said that his expressions or what might go into a settlement were merely preferences.