In his 58 days as an official member of the White House senior staff, Gerald Rafshoon has been credited or blamed -- depending on the point of view -- for inspiring the following developments:
President Carter's well-publicized tour of Civil War battlefields last month.
The president's journey to New York for a media extravaganza involving the signing of federal aid legislation to the city.
Carter's raft adventurers along the Salmon River in Idaho last week as he vacationed in the West, a region where he has deep political problems.
The so-called "repomping" of the presidency, with the return of "Hail to the Chief," the long, black presidential limousine and other signs of creeping imperialism.
There have been published reports that Rafshoon. Carter's image molder in the 1976 campaign, is gradually as-suming the role of "chief of staff" in the White House in an effort to shore up the president's popularity. Last week in a critical editorial. The Wall Street Journal even suggested that Carter's veto of a $36 billion weapons procurement bill was part of a carefully conceived "get tough" act in the White House.
The editorial was headlined "The Rafshoon Veto."
To these and other suggestions that he is now pulling most of the strings at the end of which Jimmy Carter dances, the 44-year-old former advertising executive, friend of the president and thoroughly non-"good ole boy" shakes his head in dismay and denial.
"The term 'image maker' connotes magic," he says. "I am not a magician."
He is not. But along with Anne Wexier, the politically savvy former undersecretary of commerce who joined the White House staff shortly before he did, Rafshoon has quickly become one of the most important and influential aides around the president, generating an increasingly aggressive White House tone that is likely to grow in the months ahead.
The weapons veto is a case in point. for months, Carter and his aides have been looking for a bill to veto, a vehicle to challenge Congress and counter the president's image as a weak and vacillating leader.
A major weapons procurement measure, however, was a tough call. The last president to take such a bold step was James K. Polk, whose single term is shrouded in obscurity. For Congress to override the veto would further cement the image of weakness.
But while such influential aides as press secretary Jody Powell and domestic policy chief Stuart Eizenstat worried about such factors, Rafshoon argued strongly for the veto.
"If it was right, and he believed in it, he would do it well," Rafshoon recalled of his thinking at the time. As for the "weakness" issue and the inherent risk of an override, he said. "Which would look worse -- for him to risk being overriden, or to stand up there trying to justify signing a bill he was known to be against?"
It may be too much to conclude from this that it was "the Rafshoon veto" -- others, including Vice President Mondale and national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, were strongly for the veto from the first --but Rafshoon's arguments were clearly important in getting Carter "to follow his own instincts," a phrase now used frequently in the White House to describe Rafshoon's role and influence.
In other cases, Rafshoon appears to be getting the president to break with some of the instincts displayed during the first 18 months of his presidency. Some of the things he has done are less visible than the "media gimmicks" he has blamed for, but may be more important in the long run.
Among the Rafshoon innovations:
A series of intimate White House dinners hosted by the president and Mrs. Carter for top executives of influential news organizations. The Washington "outsider" had virtually no social contacts with Washington media officials when he was elected and has studiously avoided cultivating any since. But Rafshoon believes that the president is at his best in small groups and that such social contacts can't help but pay dividends in the long run.
A sudden surge in presidential interviews. Until this summer, Carter turned down virtually all interview requests, on grounds that his twice-monthly news conferences and sessions with out-of-town editors made him more than amply accessible to the press. Rafshoon convinced him of an elementary point that other presidents seem to have known instinctively -- in an interview, no matter what the questions, a president can always say what he wants, thereby "getting his message across."
Practice for news conferences and speeches. Carter has rehearsed some of his more important speeches, and his preparation for news conferences is now much more thorough, with Rafshoon and other aides peppering him with likely questions for an hour[WORD ILLEGIBLE] before each session. Gone is the long-standing White House pretense that the president knew the issues so well he needed virtually no preparation.
Rafshoon has also become something of a "chief of staff," in a limited by important area. Almost everything involving Carter's public activities --be it a trip, a speech or a public statement now goes through his office. By the same token, Rafshoon is assuming control -- White House officials call it "coordination" -- over the public appearances of other administration figures, making sure they are all marching to the same drummer.
In all these moves, Rafshoon enjoys the great advantage of knowing Carter well and holding his trust. Although born in New York, he established roots in Atlanta, where he opened his own advertising agency and got to know Carter and the Carter circle of advisers. In 1976, he was Carter's campaign advertising director. Until last month, when he joined the White House staff, he was an unofficial presidential adviser while continuing the advertising business.
Both before joining the White House staff and since, Rafshoon has given much thought to what has gone wrong with the Carter presidency. His views are shared and are also being pushed by Wexler, and they clearly are influencing the rest of the White House staff.
Essentially, Rafshoon argues that the president has become the victim of his own "overreaction." He "overreacted" to the initial image of a Bible-toting, uncompromising southerner by being too accommodating with Congress. He "overreacted" to his own campaign promises by rushing forth with scores of poorly conceived programs just so he could say he kept his word. And he "overreacted" to the excesses of the Nixon administration by stripping his own presidency of some of the tools necessary to get things done in Washington.
Thus, Rafshoon is prepared to argue for more vetoes and welcomes the president's public break with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) over national health insurance.
"I would rather draw the line on important, substantive issues like that than some of the petty stuff we have been involved in," he said. "If I could, I would do it every day."
Nor is it surprising that both Rafshoon and Wexler are known to advocate what could amount to a "housecleaning" of administration officials who were appointed with little or no consultation with the White House and who have displayed a predictable level of loyalty to the president since then.
Both, too, care little for Carter's promise to cut down the size of the staff -- a promise that has resulted, in Rafshoon's words, in too many things "falling between the cracks" in the White House.
There are limits to the changes a presidential adviser or "image maker" can produce.
"Nobody here is pretending that this one person is going to transform things," said an aide who is among Rafshoon's strongest admirers.
But this same official said Rafshoon has helped convince Carter that there is more to being president than studying the issues and making decisions, that unless he does "the other half of the job" and "spends more time selling himself" he will fail.
"I think the president has learned a lot," Rafshoon said.