The innermost White House advisers are, like the president himself, bright, hard-working, lively and generally likeable. Also like the president, however, they took over without a day's previous experience in government at either the national or international level. The results are obvious.
Nevertheless, since President Carter still seems to prize the advice of his White House claque, he must like what he hears, which, foremostly, is that his extremely low estate in the polls is not a reflection on him but on the inability of the press and public to recognize a great president when they see one.
It's not exactly a secret that Carter doesn't suffer critics gladly (not many presidents do), but the White House staffers insist that the First Lady and Charles Kirbo, the Atlanta attorney, can at least be counted on to say "no" to him, although there's little evidence of their having done so.
Mrs. Carter, in fact, defended to the last her husband's long refusal to fire Bert Lance, despite the president's pledge to raise the moral standards of official Washington. Kirbo's only known criticism was directed not at presidential performance, but only at the way it has been "sold." In short, there's nothing wrong that a better public-relations job wouldn't cure.
Midge Costanza, one of the very few non-Georgian White House advisers, made the fatal mistake of recommending the dismissal of Lance at a moment when Carter was saying, "Bert, we're proud of you." After hanging in the wind for months, she has now been allowed to resign. The only other adviser to differ publicly with the president is Andrew Young, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. He was forced, however, to apologize, with intimations that any further "indiscretions" could bring dismissal, even though he, too, is a Georgian.
The public is still waiting for Carter to run the country instead of running after it. But every time the president drops lower in the polls some new public-relations effort is launched, the latest being the addition of Gerald Rafshoon, an Atlanta advertising man, to the White House staff as Carter's supreme image maker.
He has his work cut out, for in the Gallup Poll Carter's approval rating has fallen to 40 percent, the lowest point any of our last six presidents have reached in their first 18 months in office. Since his inauguration, Gallup reports, Carter has dived a near-record 31 points. In three other national polls the president is doing worse, with approval ratings of 38, 32 and 27 percent.
Carter says it doesn't disturb him: It just reflects "public skepticism about government" and, he adds, "when we do achieve success - as we will - the polls will take care of themselves." Rafshoon lost no time agreeing: "One of the president's problems," Rafshoon said, "is that people keep saying he's got problems."
Rafshoon also quickly echoed the White House denigration of the media. He wants the president to hold more out-of-town news conferences, because Washington reporters hog the camera and cramp the subject matter. White House press conferences, he says, often become "a joust between the lions and gladiators," and Washington reporters "have the tendency to trivialize the presidency."
In the last week or two, the president and his wife have been privately wining and dining some of the nation's leading publishers and editors, but in a less guarded moment he once told Playboy "the national news media have absolutely no interest in issues at all." There was nobody on his press plane, he said, "who would ask an issue question unless he thought he could trick me into some crazy statement."
He wasn't, let it be said, altogether wrong, but gripes about the media seldom get at the real problem. Recently, at a small luncheon with a group of editors, Mrs. Carter said her husband had an image problem because the media focuses too often on negative or irrelevant details, and hence the public's perception of him doesn't do him justice.
"They think he's incompetent - he's not incompetent," she said. "They think he's indecisive - he's not indecisive. He's very strong. He's very determined." Spoken like a loyal wife but not like the brutally frank adviser that the president now so obviously needs if he hopes to salvage his administration.
It's clear that Kirbo, for all his vaunted independence, is not going to fill that role, for he, too, contends that Carter's "fuzzy image" is a "reflection of what people hear on television . . . and read in the newspapers."
And right along with Kirbo comes Hamilton Jordan, the acknowledged No. 1 White House adviser, who can't find any fault with the president's performance, either. "We've had significant successes in a number of areas," says Jordan, "but we simply have not gotten credit for it and have not been very good at taking credit for it."
Thirty days before Carter took office, his own pollster, Patrick Caddell, privately gave the new administration a cautionary memo that said the incoming president was viewed by the public as "inexperienced," a politican "who often flip-flops on issues and positions," one who "over-promises," and, finally, there "is the general sense that Carter is a risk as president." Now, almost 20 months later, that memo deserves a second reading around the White House.