President Carter's remark here that he has been "reinspired" by the crowds at his lock-and-dock stops on the Mississippi River revealed a familiar and disturbing paradox of his presidency.
The paradox centers in the president's tendency to confuse image and reality. The reality here was a week-long, all-out political campaign for reelection that accomplished little. It was pointed toward the first-in-the-nation Iowa delegate-selection process, now less than five months away.
That reelection campaign, deceptively labeled as a nonpolitical "vacation," did nothing more for Jimmy Carter than a shot of adrenalin for an asthma patient: provide temporary relief.
The images were pleasant -- crowds and banners and a country-fair atmosphere all revolving around the president on the Delta Queen. They were there because Carter has a reputation as a nice guy with a nice smile, his strongest political asset. They were there also because any president is a magnet for voters.
They were not there to show confidence in Jimmy Carter as keeper of the nation's fate. They did not begin to remove the stigma of confusion and incompetence that threatens to make him a one-term president.
A large-bosomed mother pushing against the ropes to shake Carter's hand as he left the Delta Queen at Davenport expressed it bluntly. "If you want to know what I really think, I think he ought to be home working in the White House."
Moreover, the particular target of the president's trip down the Mississippi was far removed from all those jolly crowds on the riverbank; the January precinct caucuses in the first state to start the delegate selection process for next summer's Democratic national convention. Carter was "reinspired" by those smiling crowds, but many local leaders of the Democratic party were left sulking far away.
"If he's coming out to our city, do it wide open," Democratic Mayor Charles Wright of Davenport told us he advised the White House when he was first contacted about the president's "vacation." But instead of making himself accessible to party leaders, Wright said, "Jimmy Carter used that phony old vacation gimmick and that means as many Republicans and business leaders get to see him as Democrats and labor guys."
Wright's view was prevalent. A former Iowa Democratic state chairman with political clout throughout the party told us he was appalled by the flawed political performance of the White House in preparing for the trip. One example: Party vice chairman Jean Haugland was not invited to greet Carter at the Davenport stop until 24 hours before the event. She sent word she couldn't quite make it.
The cost of this insensitivity could be high next January because of the nature of the Iowa caucuses. Carter will be judged not by the voting public -- the cheerful throngs that "reinspired" him -- but by a small handful of party workers who take the time and trouble to attend those precinct caucuses.
These party operatives were not at all impressed by Carter's sudden turn from preaching the gospel of "malaise" on top of the Camp David mountain to a line here that echoed Hubert Humphrey's politics of joy. "We're the greatest country on earth, do you agree with that?" he said at the docks of Davenport.
But what can a single individual do to help, he was asked on a radio call-in show. "The first thing we can do is to count our blessings," the president replied.
Such talk was easy to listen to and the voters who flocked around Jimmy Carter listened well. But, unlike the president himself, they showed no sign of inspiration or confidence in the way their country is running.
As one top Midwestern party leader told us, they listen because they are polite and because "they know Carter is fighting for his life." They gave him a shot of adrenalin, which is a long way from a cure, a reality that the president and his men may not quite grasp.