In the privacy of his Camp David retreat, President Carter has told a procession of invited counselors of his need to strengthen his performance as a leader and to counter what he perceives as a growing sense of "malaise" in the nation.
Although his conversations on the Maryland mountaintop have been conducted in secrecy, the substance of the president's exchanges with leaders from varied sectors of public and private life have begun to emerge from interviews with participants.
In four days of what has been billed as an ongoing "domestic summit," Carter has channeled the discussions beyond the subjects of energy and economics to the larger question of the nature of the leadership he and his administration are providing.
He has heard specific and at times blunt criticisms of his top White House and administration officials, and has indicated that he will be making some changes, including a modest increase in the role of Hamilton Jordan as chief to staff.
He has heard optimistic predictions from members of the Senate and House that Congress will enact a standby gasoline rationing plan and a so-called "windfall profits" tax on oil companies before it recesses in August.
And he has left some of those who counseled him with the strong impression that Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger will not remain much longer in his present post, although Carter never actually said Schlesinger would be fired.
Carter began his meetings Friday, after abruptly canceling his planned televised energy speech to the nation. He gave just one day's notice and no explanation, public or private. In the days since, he has met with governors, private citizens, energy experts, oil company officials and members of Congress. A delegation of religious leaders will arrive on the mountaintop tomorrow to confer with Carter.
One of the most revealing sessions took place Saturday afternoon, lasting late into the night and winding up after breakfast Sunday. Attending were seven private citizens: Clark Clifford, attorney, former Defense Secretary and adviser to past presidents; Lane Kirkland, second in command at the AFL-CIO; John Gardner, former head of Common Cause; Robert Keefe, a Democratic political consultant; Sol Linowitz, attorney and head of Carter's commission on world hunger; Jesse Jackson, civil rights leader, and Barbara Newell, president of Wellesley College.
The seven arrived late Saturday afternoon, just after a group of governors had departed. The president's guests wore casual clothes; the president wore blue jeans and a knit shirt.
They met first in Laurel Lodge, and the president welcomed his guests by explaining just why he had so mysteriously canceled his energy speech - and just why had had asked them to the mountaintop.
Carter said that the energy speech that this staff had delivered to him at Camp David was a good speech. "But he said he had a lot of time to think, during his recent travels," said Clifford, "and he had the feeling that the country was in a mood of widespread national malaise.
"It disturbs him deeply. The American people are going through a period where there is a certain amount of cynicism, a loss of respect for institutions, including the government . . . He said he was very disturbed that one recent poll showed for the first time ever, Americans think their children's future will be worse than their own lives have been."
Carter said he had talked to his wife, Rosalynn, about the speech and that together they had agreed that something that addressed the broader nationwide problems was needed. "He said he felt the enegry speech alone would only contribute further to the malaise," said another participant in the Saturday talk.
Carter thn moved into what one source described as "a self-analysis" of how he has been performing as president.
He began by talking of the message he had carried when he was a cnandidate for the presidency in 1976. He said that his "central theme" was that he had been "running to be a leader of people, instead of running to be the head of the government," one participant said.
Participants said in separate interviews that Carter seemed to be in a confident, assured and upbeat mood. When Carter asked for their comments, they began by saying that they were concerned because the rest of the nation - and the world - did not know why the speech had been canceled, that there was widespread speculation that he was dispirited and lacking in confidence.
They were concerned that the speculation had damaged his reputation as a leader further.
"I will understand that if I can emerge from these sessions with an understanding of these fundamental problems and solutions to them," Carter said, according to Clifford.
The group adjourned for a steak dinner, after which they reconvened in the living room of Carter's Aspen Lodge. Carter asked his guests to discuss in full candor their perceptions of his administration and how it was coping with its problems.
Carter's staff advisers were attending as well - and at that point Hamilton Jordan suggested it would be best if they left. Jordan, press secretary Jody Powell, communications adviser Gerald Rafshoon, minority affairs adviser Louis Martin and pollster Patrick Cadell, who is not on the White House staff, left the room. Charles Kirbo, Carter's close friend, remained.
Those present then mentioned several Carter advisers by name. Soome were quite critical of Schlesinger, saying he had shown himself to be impolitic and had lost effectiveness and credibility as an energy spokesman. Carter indicated he recognized the problems they cited, but was not specific about what he intended to do about it.
Some criticized Carter's inner circle of Georgians for having been unwilling or unable to deal effectively with the national power establishment. They criticized Cabinet and subcabinet officials for appearing to be in business for themselves, rather than appearing to be working for Jimmy Carter.
Some specifically noted that Jody Powell had seemed to be showing what once called "wear and tear." They expressed concern that, while Powell was highly thought of by the press, he had dbecome increasingly irritable because of the burdens placed upon him and because his staff of assistants was, in the words of one participant, relatively weak.
One guest suggested that Carter might want to call in former Time Inc. editor-in-chief Hedley Donovan to counsel him in communications, nothing that Donovan admired Carter. The president said he knew Donovan and thought highly of him.
It was almost 1 a.m. when the session adjourned. The participants spent the night at Camp David and left after breakfast the next day.
The setting of the talks - in the seclusion of Camp David with helicopters ferrying participants to the presidential retreat from Washington - guaranteed widespread national attention. That, in fact, may be one of the principal purposes of the unusual format. Carter and his aides frequently have complained about their inability to get the nation - and through it Congress - to focus on the full implications of the energy shortage and the need for drastic, often painful steps to counter it.
The religious leaders summoned to Camp David tonight apparently will be involved in a more philosophical discussion of American society, somewhat similar to the Saturday night discussion.
Those invited include Cardinal Terrence Cooke of New York; the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, president of the University of Notre Dame; Rabbi Mark Tanenbaum, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Congress; Claire Randall, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, and Robert Bellah and David Riesman, sociologists at the University of California and Harvard University respectively.
Today, the president will meet with businessmen and others from outside the government for a discussion of the economy.
Yesterday's talks, the first time Carter has seen members of Congress since he began the Camp David conference, focused on the specifics of energy and economic policy.
After the morning session on energy, House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass) predicted that Congress will move quickly to give the president the standby gasoline rationing authority it denied him two months ago.
"There is a strong sense of direction that the nation now needs a rationing plan," O'Neill said. "The president ought to have the power to ration . . . The executive should take the onus."
The new support for rationing authority was the clearest consensus to develop during the day's talks at Camp David. But according to the congressional leaders, other proposals to deal with the energy situation appeared to have broad support, among them:
Creation of a national energy mobilization board with authority to push energy development projects through various environmental and other bureaucratic roadblocks.
A crash program for the development of synthetic fuels.
Direct intervention by the government on oil imports by making the government, rather than individual oil companies, the purchaser of foreign oil.
Both the tone of the meeting and the suggestions of renewed congressional support for stringent measures to deal with the energy problem clearly cheered White House officials, who have sought such support unsuccessfully for two years.
But if Carter has made major decisions on new energy proposals, he did not disclose them yesterday.Participants at the meeting described the tobe as "serious" and said the president mostly listened seldom revealing his own thoughts.
"It wasn't a goddamn bit different than their regular Tuesday [leadership] meeetings," said one congressional source. "They talked. He listened." CAPTION: Picture, Carter makes a point in Camp David conference with members of Congress.