Amid a flurry of presidential activity, the White House continued its political counteroffensive against Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) yesterday, saying that Kennedy's questioning of President Carter's leadership abilities is "a bum rap."
Charges of lack of leadership or lack of accomplishment are false," White House press secretary Jody Powell said.
In a series of interviews and statements to reporters yesterday, Powell made it clear that he was speaking of Kennedy, who has talked of his concern over leadership in the country as a basis for a possible challenge to Carter next year.
"We did not raise the issue of leadership," he said. "If the senator wishes to raise it, we have no apologies to make for the record of this administration and this president -- both in taking on tough issues and dealing effectively with tough issues."
Powell also strongly defended one tactic Carter is using to answer the "weak leadership" charge. Twice in the last week the president has referred to his "steadiness" in dealing with crisis, prompting questions of whether he intended indirectly to raise the question of Kennedy's behavior during the Chappaquiddick accident in 1969. In that incident, a car driven by Kennedy plunged off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, Mass., and a passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned.
Tuesday night during a "town meeting" at Queens College in New York, Carter said he had demonstrated "a steady hand" in office, adding, "I don't think I panicked in a crisis."
News reports of these remarks connected them with the Chappaquiddick incident, prompting the president to send Kennedy a note yesterday assuring him that that was an incorrect interpretation, Powell said.
"I won't make a habit of this," Powell quoted Carter as saying in the note, which was accompanied by a transcript of the New York town meeting.
Powell said he hoped the "flurry" over the Chappaquiddick interpretations that have been read into some of Carter's comments will mean "an end to those sort of interpretations."
Saying that the president's calmness in a crisis is a "demonstrable characteristic" and one that Carter has suffered "some political damage from," Powell said:
"The president's refusal to be rushed in action has prompted criticism that he's not tough enough and that sort of thing. It's not exactly fair to expect us to sit still for that sort of criticism without responding that there is something to be said for a president who responds thoughtfully. That's not an attack on anyone."
Powell's comments came as the president, in a series of swift actions beginning Tuesday night in New York, demonstrated some of the uses of his powers as the incumbent. Within a space of 24 hours, Carter:
Ordered the temporary takeover of the Rock Island Railroad to move Midwestern grain to markets during the fall harvest season, Vice President Mondale made the announcement of the presidential action yesterday morning.
Signed legislation forcing the completion of the Tellico Dam in Tennessee, the subject of a fierce, decade-long environmental dispute. The action outraged environmentalists, who have been among the president's strongest supporters, because completion of the dam will wipe out the snail darter, a tiny, endangered fish.
But as an apparent offshoot of the decision, the White House picked up badly needed additional support to win passage of the legislation to implement the Panama Canal treaties.
Summoned eight members of the House to the White House for some personal lobbying on the legislation that would create a department of education. The House members had voted against the bill when it passed the House last summer, and after the meeting at least some of them appeared to have changed their minds.A Senate House conference version of the bill is nearing a final test in the House.
Signed an executive order establishing a government consumer affairs council made up of representatives from each Cabinet department. The order was Carter's response to his failure to win congressional approval of legislation that would have created a consumer protection agency with statutory authority in the government.
These actions followed the president's appearance Tuesday night at a boisterous "town meeting" at Queens College in New York, where he coolly fielded some of the most pointed questions he has faced during similar sessions around the country.
In the process, Carter adopted a tough stance on the question of Soviet troops in Cuba, asserting that, contrary to Soviet denials, the troops are a combat unit. He said if that if current negotiations do not alter the "status quo" the United States will act on its own, and he promised a report to the country on the issue within a week.
And while the president has ordered his economic advisers to stop discussing a tax cut for next year, he raised that possibility himself in response to a question at the town meeting.
"We have had some reduction on taxes since I have been in office, about$28 billion," he said. "We may have to have some more in the future."
There was no elaboration on the statement.
In all, it was a remarkably active period for Carter that appeared designed to counter the suggestions by Kennedy and some Republican presidential hopefuls that the country is suffering from "weak leadership" in the White House.
Kennedy raised the leadership issue in interviews after he announced that he was considering challenging Carter next year for the Democratic presidential nomination.
He said he would base his decision largely on the president's handling of the economy and, without making specific proposals, suggested that his brand of leadership would mean a more concerted attack on the twin problems of inflation and recession.