The 1980 campaign for the presidency is in its early stages, and this past week Jimmy Carter was on one of them and Edward Kennedy was on another.
On a stage in the Old Executive Office Building theater, with all the fanfare a White House can muster, President Carter and his economic Who's Who -- Schultze, Miller, Arshall McIntyre and Kahn -- were warmly wrapped around Lane Kirkland of the AFL-CIO, who was seated with them on stage to dramatize that he is finally on board in policy, if not politics.
Most of the economic supernumeraries would not even have speaking parts in this presentation. But it was a commandperformance for them just the same, akin to sitting for the cast picture of "One Man's Family."
Officially, the president was unveiling an unprecendented wage-price document -- "A National Accord Between the Administration and the AFLC-CIO Leadership," the White House chose to title it. The choice was significant because a good measure of the depth of the economic and political problems that Carter faces today is seen in the fact that there must even be a formal written accord between a Democratic president and organized labor.
While Jimmy Carter was on stage Friday with the luminary-apparent of organized labor, the senior senator from Massachusetts was in his home state, wowing labor's rank and file with a bit of burlesque that has become part of the quadrennial American tradition.
Edward Kennedy was perfecting the art of politease. Only weeks ago, Kennedy had begun as the model of political modesty, demurely dipping a strap and hiking a dem, allowing as how his mother and his wife say it is all right for him to run for president. By Friday in Boston, Kennedy was standing on stage like the Blaze Starr of politics, tassels atwirl, as the union audience was hollering for more and he was promising that he would be saying something soon about his candidacy -- "and I don't think you'll be disappointed."
The economy is the barometer by which Kennedy has said he will decide whether to challenge Carter for the Democratic presidential nomination. And leadership ability, not new policies, is what he has held out so far as the means by which he will take his measure.
So it was that Friday was important to Carter, as it showed the president had been able at least to win organized labor back to the policy fold, after two years of frosty relations between the White House and AFL-CIO that were exceeded on occasion only by heated denunciations.
And, in Fact, Friday marked the end of a week of substantive and political importance to an embattled president, in these days when it is becoming increasingly apparent that timing is everything and politics is all.
It was, for Carter, a week with a chain of accomplishments. The crucial link was his decision Tuesday night to sign the public works legislation that forced the completion of the controversial Tellico Dam in Tennessee. The dam had become an issue because environmentalists had argued it would wipe out an already endangered little fish, the snail darter.
In other times, Carter might have sided with the snail darter -- he did, after all, once before. But now, with more at stake, Carter decided against the best interests of the small fish, and for his nation's and his own. As the snail dater would see it, the decision was dam the torpedos, full spped ahead. As Frank Moore, Carter's chief congressional liaison saw it, the decision was responsible for victories yet to come.
In successive days, Carter won two victories in the House by margins barely wider than a 20-pound-test fish line. One was on legislation to implement the Panama Canal treaties; another was for the creation of a Department of Education.
"I don't think there's much doubt that we would have lost both the Panama and education votes if the president and vetoed the Tellico Dam bill," Frank Moore said. The veto, he explained, would have enraged a number of congressmen from western and southern states which had projects covered in the public works bill. And the margin of victory on both of the succeeding bills, he said, was provided by support from moderate congressmen from sothern and western districts.
The passage of the Panama legislation was mainly a victory in the sense that a defeat would have been one more foreign policy setback to an administration which has problems enough as it is.
But the passage of the Department of Education bill proved a much more positive political asset for the president -- and one which produced a prompt dividend. Carter had made the creation of a Department of Education one of his campaign promises in 1976, and he won endorsement of the National Education Association as a result.
On Friday, after passage of the education bill, the NEA voted to endorse Carter once again in 1980. "That means a lot to us," said one of Cater's political operatives in the White House. "In 1976, almost half of the labor delegates at the Democratic convention were members of the NEA."
Carter also took one action this week -- after winning the backing of labor -- that was responsible for the Interstate Commerce Commission's rare order for takeover of the strike-bound Rock Island Railroad. The move was viewed as essential to transport grain to markets during the fall harvest season. The unions gave their approval only after the administration assured the striking workers that they would be paid for work done in August for which they have not been compensated, and that they would be paid at the prevailing national wage for rail workers.
But of all of the week's happenings, the Old Executive Office Building ceremony that featured the AFL-CIO's Kirland (who is retiring George Meany's heir apparent) surrounded with smiling, bantering Carter economic chieftains was potentially the most important of them all.
The Democratic president and the AFL-CIO had been politically estranged long enough to win a divorce in most states including Georgia. And that fact had not been lost upon the top Carter strategists who were plotting how they could withstand a Kennedy challenge -- especially one based upon charges that he lacked the leadership to run the economy.
Friday's ceremony -- and that "national accord" document that came with it -- marked a policy turning point in the Carter administration. And advisers including chief of staff Hamilton Jordan believe that this policy reapprochemont will have sizable political benefit as well.
But as the Carter men sat smiling all around him on the stage Friday, Kirkland went to the microphone and let them know that all that was past may be prologue, but it is not forgotten.
There was no need for the "national accord" to be forged on the eve of a presidential year, with inflation soaring (and Carter polls floundering), Kirkland said. "I assure you that we would have been prepared to negotiate on the same basis last year," he said in response to a reporter's question. ". . .We felt we were held very much at arms' length. . ."
In fact, one White House official conceded privately, Kirkland is right. "We ought to admit it," he said. "There were consultations with labor, but not really negotiations the first time around. We just sort of informed them of what we were considering -- and it never got father than that."
It never got farther then because labor balked -- angrily and publicly, and the political frost set in.
In January, the president sought to smooth things in a meeting with top labor leaders, including Meany and Kirkland. And in June, the idea of a formal explicit arrangement was raised. Kirkland had a series of long working dinners during June and July with White House aide Landon Butler, in part fostered by their desire to make policy and in part by the fact that the wives of both men were out of town for the summer anyway.
The Carter White House came to see that labor would insist upon some sweeteners in exchange for any agreement to restrain wage demands. Labor received a number of key concessions: one was when Carter agreed to raise the limit for federal workers' wage increases from 5.5 to 7 percent; another was an administration pledge in the national accord to enforce vigorously existing trade agreements.
The administration also agreed to make a number of specific agreements in the accord concerning antirecession measures -- commitments in the name of jobs, including restating its commitment to the goal of full employment.
Kirkland and Treasury Secretary G. William Miller met privately in August and September and the accord was forged in Miller's longhand on yellow legal pads. And the deed was done.
"It's a visible indication of a dramatic new working relationship between the administration and labor," bubbled one presidential adviser. But as the Carter strategists eye Kennedy and his economic leadership barometer and await his whether report -- whether he will run or whether he will not -- they were reminded by Kirkland forcefully on Friday that things could have been patched up long ago.
Kirkland took the smiles off the faces of the Carter officialdom seated on stage when he said it was the Carter White House that had been guilty of ignoring and slighting the AFL-CIO in the past. But he put the smiles back on the Carter men when he inadvertently slipped back into the jargon of a previous president who had once tried to woo George Meany, as he added:
"We made that perfectly -- oh, excuse me -- very clear at the time."