All over town last week, Jimmy Carter, that most methodical and publicly passionless of men, was trying to deal with other people's passions.
By Thursday night, our local dog pound had been made temporary home to 32 goats, courtesy or a contingent of angry visiting farmers who had set them loose and had also bullied and socked their way into the Agriculture Department for a confrontation.
A coal-crisis meeting was hastily moved from UMW headquarters to a government building for greater protection against disturbance by a couple of hundred Pennsylvania miners - and the possibility of widespread violence in the country, if the strike remained unsettled, continued to haunt Washington.
Against a backdrop of news photos of maimed Arab and Israeli children, the administration sought to move gingerly to tame the ferocious conflict in the Middle East and, not incidentally, to calm both its anxious American Jewish constituency and its pro-Arab, anti-Israeli, Third World friends.
By a massive effort of wheed-ling and importuning, the White House succeeded in getting Senate approval for the first of two Panama Canal treaties.The treaties themselves were testimony to the force of feeling prevalent in Latin America about the proper American hemispheric role - an intensity of feeling equaled only by that of the American opponents of the "giveaway" treaties.
I offer you this mixed bag of public issues because its contents tell us something about both the kind of challenges Carter is facing and his particular mode of using power to deal with them.
That mode is mediating, difference-splitting, reactive and even in some ways passive. Sometimes Carter "stiff-necked") resists. Sometimes ("compromising") he gives. For reasons that escape me, a lot of people seem to see this as evidence of some fundamental contradiction or incosistency in his approach to public office, whereas the two responses strike me as being the obvious dual tools of a single way of doing things. What Carter doesn't seem to do is to cut loose of other people's conditions, to stand outside their rage with a rage of his own, to direct, compel, intimidate or aggress as a leader.
For which, of course, many will say: Thank God. I understand and, to some extent, share the sentiment. But I think the missing element in the exercise of power is worth considering. And if you have any doubts about that, you need only reflect on the fact that the presidents's own closest aides are now trying to create a mystique of the president as one who prevails over others, investing him with an aura of great victory and clout as a result of the Panama vote.
In doing so they acknowledge, implicitly, the value of that aura and mystique in getting more things done. The really interesting question, however, is whether they recognize that they won the Panama vote finally on a one-shot, non-refillable, non-reusable argument that made the president out more as supplicant than as force to be reckoned with - i.e., if he loses this vote (the Bob Byrid and White House argument), his authority and credibility around the world aill be mortally damaged. They were communicating, in other words, the image of a weak Carter.
Does the president in fact have mush choice as to how he wields his power? Certainly there are institutional limits of a very severe sort on what he can do. A White House assistant who has been immersed in the baleful details of the coal strike told me the other day that he could not imagine a better education in the limits of presidential power than that which had come to him through the coal negotiations. "What, ultimately, can we do?" he asked. "We can't arrest thousands fo miners. We can't mine the coal ourselves." Certainly the coal crisis, and other of the ordeals both Carter and the country are going through, are well beyond the remedial reach of some simple assertion of power.
And it is also true that out recent history of the abuse and discrediting of the presidential mystique has made that assertion more difficult. Lyndon Johnson was, personally and presidentially, an absolutely terrifying man - but he was driven from office. So, too, was Richard Nixon, who, upon his overwhelming reelection in 1972, embarked on an out-and-out orgy of threats, warnings, firings and other generalized retaliation against those he felt hadn't been loyal or industrious enough. He rendered "inoperative" the psychological force of the office, temporarily anyway.
Still, I think that the thing may be ready for a return to normal use if the Carter administration gets its act together.A couple of weeks ago, when President Tito was here, someone composed a presidential speech that hailed the Yugoslav leader as a friend of former world leaders he wither hadn't got along with or never even knew. More recently, in a turn on Mack Sennett, the White House put three big hitters (including the president) to the task of persuading Sen. Ed Zorinsky to come by for a Panama persuasionsession with Carter, arranged for him to be picked up - and then sent the car to the wrong place, leaving the senator in the street. The trivia adds up to an unnecessary undermining of that sense all White House operations ideally and usually convey: of competence, of being in control.
They say that there is an effort under way now to recapture this control and that among other things the riot of self-expression currently prevailing throughout the government is going to be ended. But that doesn't go to the question of whether Jimmy Carter by temperament and style can personally assert the kind of compelling presidential influence that he is likely to need. He is manifestly rational, monotonously even of tone. When he is really sore, at least in public, he smiles. And then he settles . . . out of court. He doesn't frighten or intimidate or sway by coveying a feeling that you really should do what he ask . . . for the good of the country . . . or because, otherwise, there will be some consequence you regret - not a violent consequence, just a profoundly regrettable one from your point of view.
We began with goats. We end with mice - mice in the White House, lots of them apparently, causing an awful flap, but producing only bureaucratic stalemate and pleas of helplessness on the part of the staff charged with getting rid of them. Carter is reported to have called in the mouse people and, icily, let them have it: He wanted the job done - period. Evidently then, and only then, was it done. Can this particular man, in this particular office, which has been stripped of some of its trappings of power, bring that same voice and presence usefully to bear on larger events?We still don't know.