Over at the White House, the president's advisers have decided to reserve their tools of crisis management for times of crisis.
And so it is that President Carter's major, prime-time television speech to the nation on energy-originaly set for tomorrow-has been preempted by the White House in favor of regularly scheduled programming.
Eventually, in a week or so, the president will be announcing new decisions on energy policy. But he will not be unveiling his plans in a major nationwide television address, as once planned, Carter's advisers now say. Instead, he will find some lower-key forum-a midday speech before an organization. And, Turnabout being fair policy, the Carter men say there will probably be no effort to encourage the networks to carry the president's remarks live.
When you interrupt a person's evening television for a presidential speech, it says something that we just don't want to say," explained one presidential assistant. "It says 'Crisis!' It says 'Flash!' It say this is something so important that your can't wait to read it in your morning newspapers.
"You set off all the signals of a crisis.And if your are going to go on TV with that, you had better have a program that will deal with the crisis immediately-and this just is not that sort of thing."
For days, the issue of Carter's energy proposals had percolated inside the White House on two distinct levels. First there was the question of what he would do; and second there was the question of how he would do it.
Yesterday, Carter told his energy advisers to rework some of the options they had given him, according to presidential press secretary Jody Powell. "The president indicated that he is less than completely satisfield with some of the proposals," Powell said. According to informed sources, the president has been reviewing options for the gradual decontrol of oil prices - which the oil industry wants - coupled with some sort of tax on the companies that probably would be billed as a form of "windfall profits tax."
But even while the details of just what Carter will propose were being decided, the White House advisers had come to decisions much earlier on how they would be announced - and even when.
It had, weeks ago, seemed obvious.
The president was going to announce some energy decisions, and energy decisions are, of course, very important. And so Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger thought there should be a major presidential address, and White House domestic policy chief Stuart Eizenstat thought there should be a presidentizlstuart Eizenstat thought there should be a presidential energy address, and in fact virtually all of the president's top advisers felt that way. So Carter concurred. And some time ago he told congressional leaders that he would make his energy address March 29.
Then came the rethinking.
Carter began rethinking the policy nuances of the message his energy advisers had sent him. Meanwhile, his advisers began rethinking the public relations-nuances of the medium they had suggested.
At a meeting last week, policy chief Eizenstat briefed the public relations end of the White house on the substance of Carter's upcoming proposals. Those attending included Eizenstat's deputy, David Rubenstein, communications director Gerald Rafshoon and his deputy, Greg Schneiders, and speechwriter Hedrick Hertzberg. They met in Rafshoon's office.
Eizenstat thought the proposal was good and the others agreed. But they were not so certain that a good energy proposal would mke for good television theater.
"The proposals were solid, but they were technical," said one adviser. "It is the sort of thing that is hard to explain-and even harder to show people in a TV speech how this will immediately improve their lives."
The Carter advisers came to feel there was a danger that the public would view the speech as much ado about nothing. Some felt this sooner than others, Eizenstat reportedly being more inclined than the others to go ahead with the TV speech. But eventually, sources say, he too concurred.
Rafshoon broke the news to Carter.
The communications chief told the president that his advisers had changed their collective minds, and that maybe a television speech would not be such a good idea after all.
The president told the communications chief that he wished his advisers would get their act together. "The president had every right to be ticked off," said one aide. "Everyone told him to give a TV speech. And so he got out in front on it. And then they came back and told him maybe the shouldn't. He was kind of ill-served by us.
"But in the end, we came to the right conclusion. We just got there, perhaps, in a funny way."
EPILOGUE: As the policy and public relations chiefs of the White House debated the merits of a television speech last Thursday, the wire service machines in the White House and news offices everywhere were clattering forth with a bit of information that indicates Carter would have a tough time selling a national TV audience on how he has dramatically moved to take charge of an energy crisis that has come upon us like the blob that ate Pittsburgh.
The news item, which the Carter men had not seen, was the results of an AP/NBC poll which said: ". . . People . . . were asked whether they thought the oil shortage was real or a hoax to drive up prices. Sixty-eight percent said they thought it was a hoax . . ."