There was a time, when he was running for president, that Jimmy Carter was so keen on insulating the attorney general from politics that he urged taking the job out of the Cabinet and making it independent.
But today, Carter carried Attorney General-designate Benjamin R. Civiletti like a good-luck charm through Civiletti's home town of Baltimore and told the Sons of Italy convention that they could look to the team of Civiletti and Carter for help on increasing the number of Italian-American judges.
"I will make you an offer," the president smiling told Charles Caputo of Pittsburgh, who asked about the chances of expanding the number of Italian-Americans on the bench.
"If the Sons of Italy and other distinguished groups around the county make recommendations for federal judgeships and if you cannot get an adequate hearing in Benjamin Civiletti's office, you can come directly to me," Carter said.
The deputy attorney general, who has been confirmed by the Senate to succeed retiring Attorney General Griffin B. Bell and will be sworn in this month, joined the rest of the crowd at the Baltimore Hilton in applauding.
Caputo promptly nominated Frank J. Montemurro, who was on the platform with Carter and Civiletti. A few moments later, as Civiletti backslapped his way through the crowd on his way to lunch with Carter and Baltimore political leaders in a "Little Italy" restaurant, others were shoving their cards into his hands.
Civiletti was not Carter's only on-the scene ambassador to the Italo-American community at the fraternal and philanthropic group's annual convention. The president also brought with him retired federal Judge John J. Sirica of Watergate fame, Rep. Mario Biaggi (D-N-Y.) and Monsignor Gino Baroni, an assistant secretary of housing and urban development.
But it was Civiletti whom Carter shoved into the limelight, asking coyly if the convention delegates approved of his appointment and later identifying Civiletti as his "chief advisor" on judicial appointments.
The presence of the top Justice Department official as a supporting player for the president at such a non-judicial event was unusual enough to raise questions.
Civiletti said in a brief interview that he had promised the Senate, during his confirmation hearings, that "I am not going to do political events. But this is not a political event," he said.
"The president is not a candidate. The campaign has not begun.And besides," he added, "this is my home town."
When asked the date of his last previous appearance at the Sons of Italy convention, Civiletti said, "You could say this is my first annual visit."
Later in the day, Terrence B. Adamson, spokesman for the Justice Department said that Civiletti had accepted an invitation to attend the meeting of the group, which claims 500,000 members, before he knew the president was coming.
Adamson said that Civiletti is "proud of his Italian heritage. He marched last year in the Chicago Columbus Day parade and I expect he will be attending other Italian-American functions." Adams said Civiletti had made five speeches to Italian-American groups in the past year.
During his confirmation hearings, Civiletti said he would follow the example set by Griffin Bell in maintaining his independence from the White House on law-enforcement matters.
Although Bell, a fellow Georgian, was sometimes an advisor to Carter on administration politics and problems outside his own department, he made a point of avoiding any appearances with or for the president that might be construed as political.
Adamson said the only major public event he could recall Bell and Carter attending together in the past 30 montqs was the funeral of former vice president Nelson A. Rockfeller.
As a candidate in 1976, Carter suggested that the attorney general should be made independent, removed from the Cabinet, and given a five-to-seven-year term, overlapping the president's in order to remove him entirely from politics.
After he took office, the Justice Department gave Carter a memo saying no such chage was possible without a constitutional amendment, and the idea was shelved.
About two months ago, Carter's pollster, Patrick Caddell, organized an all-day meeting of administration and political officials to discuss ways of strengthening Carter's appeal to Catholic voters -- a problem area for him since the early primaries of 1976.
Caddell said yesterday that the Civiletti appointment and appearance with the president were "certainly not inconsistent" with the suggestions made at that meeting. CAPTION: Picture, Benjamin Civiletti and John Sirica listen to Carter at Sons of Italy convention. By Frank Johnston -- The Washington Post