In the heart of Kentucky's coal and bourbon country, President Carter today resumed his personal campaign to bridge the gap he sees separating ordinary Americans and the "insulated" world of bureaucrats and government forms in Washington.
Speaking to about 2,000 people at a "town meeting" in a high school gymnasium here, the president said his job tended to isolate him and declared that he will not let "anything erect barriers between your president and you."
In response to a question, the president also came as close as he ever has to supporting resumption of registration for the military draft. He said that he saw no need "for actually calling people up" but that because of weakness in recruiting for the volunteer Army, "we might have to have, as a precautionary measure, registration for the draft, just as a standby measure."
Only last week, by contrast, White House domestic affairs adviser Stuart Eizenstat had voiced what seemed to be clear-cut opposition to a new registration law. "This administration opposes peacetime registration for the draft," Eizenstat had written several dozen House members. "We do not believe it it necessary to impose this burden on our nation and its youth at this time . . ."
Carter, however, told his audience here: "We are now reassessing the need for registration."
In Washington, a White House official said the president's remarks today were not inconsistent with what Eizenstat said in his letter to Congress and what Carter has said in the past.
Carter's trip to this town of 7,000 about 40 miles southeast of Louisville was his first out of Washington since last week's purge of his Cabinet. That week-long government upheaval decreed by the president was widely interpreted in Washington to have interrupted and perhaps set back the gains he was thought to have achieved by his nationally televised "crisis of confidence" speech July 15.
Today, Carter returned to one of the main themes of that speech - "the separation between the American people and their government."
"Those were not empty words," he said. "I can tell you that the members of Congress and the federal employers and the Cabinet members who work with me are all . . . dedicated people, but the more you live in Washington and the more you talk to each other in Washington, you tend to become insulated from the rest of the nation, you tend to become isolated from the people of our country.
"We start getting our ideas from each other and we start getting our thoughts from each other. We spend too much time reading federal government forms and regulations instead of listening to people like you."
It was pure Carter populism, right out of his 1976 campaigh rhetoric. The White House billed this trip as the beginning of an effort by Carter to make contact with ordinary Americans, but in fact the president had at least a couple of other reasons for traveling to Kentucky today.
One was to make up to the state's Democratic Governor, Julian Carroll, at the National Governors' Association meeting in Louisville earlier this month so that Carter could remain at his Camp David "Domestic summit conference."
And the other was to use the backdrop of the nation's largest coal-producing state for an appeal for enactment of his energy program and the development o alternative energy resources, including synthetic fuels made from coal.
Democratic National Chairman John White referred to this en route here, calling the Carter energy program "a dream for Kentucky." In his speech, Carter called the United States "the Saudi Arabia of coal."
"I would rather burn another ton of Kentucky coal than see out nation become dependent on another barrel of OPEC oil," he said.
Carter's Cabinet purge seemed far from the minds of Bardstown residents today. Only one question at the "town meeting" touched on it, when the president was asked whether his firing of Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Joseph A. Califano Jr. meant a retreat from Califano's strong support for drug and alcohol abuse programs.
Carter replied that Califano "did a very good job" and that his successor, Patricia Roberts Harris, is committed to the same programs.
In an example of the homey art form he has raised the "town meeting" format to, Carter also promised a woman who complained about her telephone service that Wednesday he will call the chairman of the Kentucky Public Service Commission to see what can be done about it.
Following the "town meeting," the president made an unscheduled trip to the tiny town of English, Ind., about 35 miles northwest of here, which was inundated by floodwaters six days ago. Ankle deep in mud, Carter spent about 15 minutes asking residents how they were faring and what they needed from the government.
White House officials are planning weekly trips into the countryside such as this one throughout the month of August. For this first post-Cabinet shakeup foray, they chose friendly territory, a picturesque, more than 200-year-old town that in 1852 inspired Stephen Foster to write "My Old Kentucky Home." The town is heavily dependent on tourism, and surrounding Nelson County, site of a number of distilleries, is known locally as "the bourbon capital of the world."
Bardstown responded to the presidentiat visit with a wildly enthusiastic welcome. Thousands of people, turned out to see Carter and surged toward his limousine. For a time, the president sat on the roof of the car, waving to the crowd.
On the way to Bardstown, in keeping with the energy-coal theme, Carter stopped to inspect the Cane Run power plant of the Louisville Gas and Electric Co. just outside Louisville. The plant was selected for the tour, according to White House officials, because it was one of the first in the country to be equipped with modern environmental devices known as "scrubbers" that remove sulfur dioxide from high-sulfur coal burned at the plant.
Carter spent about 30 minutes touring the plant while, outside in the sweltering heat, company workers and several executives, wearing green, orange, yellow and gray hardhats, gathered to hear him speak.
The president spoke from a raised platform ona gravel driveway leading to the plant, calling for the enactment of his energy program and the porposed "windfall profits" tax on the oil industry to pay for it. The plant workers listened impassivley until company executives and Kentucky politicians, lined up behind Carter, began leading the applause.
While the president stressed energy production in his appearances today, he also promised that the crash program he has proposed to cut U.S. oil imports in half by 1990 will not be accomplished at the cost of fouling the environment.
Following his tour of the Cane Run plant, Carter met with a group of coal and utility company executives. According to Democratic Chairman White attended the meeting, they asked several critical questions about environment regulations. But White quoted Carter as responding that "trade-offs (for energy) that the impair the environment are a dead-end. The American people wouldn't stand for it." CAPTION: Picture, Carter shakes hands along parade route in Bardstown, Ky. AP