Einstein used to tell a cautionary tale about a little girl who visited his home to hear stories. One day he came in to find her playing alone by the fire. He told her a story about a little girl who burned up because her dress caught fire when she was playing alone by the hearth.
The little girl asked for another story. Einstein refused and said she should tell him a story. So she repeated the tale about the little girl playing by the fire. Only she added a different ending: "So the little girl burned up and went home to Mommy."
I am reminded of that tale not only because I have been revisiting some of Einstein's old haunts in Princeton, but because it also expresses to me the national reaction to the Iran crisis. The crisis has changed the universe, but the administration -- and probably the country -- acts as though, after a spot of trouble, it will be back to business as usual.
Foreign policy in general presents the most obvious example. The world has just been treated to a dramatic display of Washington trying to slip past commitments to the shah while trying to bargain with the ayatollah. So those with something to gain by spitting at the United States go right ahead, convinced that they have little to lose. Hence the attack on the embassy in Libya and the murder of American servicemen in Puerto Rico.
Those once dependent upon this country now find it expedient to take their distance; thus the decision by Mexico not to readmit the shah and the moves by Pakistan and other Islamic countries to accommodate the ayatollah.
Those suspicious of the administration's determination are even more wary. Senators fearful that the arms control treaty with Russia would be used by the administration to put the country to sleep on national security issues are the opposite of reassured. For example, Charles Mathias, the Republican senator from Maryland who has consistently supported SALT, is now demanding that the administration "lay out" for him the strategic rationale that justifies a vote for SALT.
But the administration keeps going forward as though nothing much had happened. It prepares the case on the hostages for the World Court as though time were on our side or didn't matter. The president still talks about our marvelous relations with the Third World, always citing the case of Nigeria. Harold Brown emerges from the near invisibility of his job as secretary of defense to unveil pieces of the Pentagon budget, as though that were enough to win passage of SALT.
Energy provides another case in point. Iranian production is almost sure to go down in the months ahead. Saudi Arabia and the other producers of the Persian Gulf are under strong financial and political pressure to limit or cut back their output. So supplies will stay tight, and the tightness will promote a continuing scramble for supplies and a certain rise in price.
To meet those problems, the administration ought to be pushing for tougher energy policies -- a big tax on gasoline, or gas rationing, or a limitation on imports. Instead, the president and his extremely political secretary of the Treasury, G. William Miller, keep giving the impression that what counts is socking the bad old oil companies with a windfall profits tax.
Last, there are the politics. The White House keeps asking for public support so the rest of the world will understand that the country is unified behind the president. That plea would have some logic if foreigners thought the country favors weaker measures than Carter does. In fact, the reverse is true. Carter wants a country that is losing patience to stand in line behind his policy of waffling and accommodation.
Up to now, his appeal has carried the day. American opinion, with the sorry exception of Sen. Kennedy, has been remarkable for its support of the president; and if the hostages were to be released soon, Carter might be home free. But the calm cannot last long. In time, those inside the government are going to express their mistrust of an administration so improvident that it doesn't stay in close touch with Mexico or even take the elementary precaution of destroying compromising documents in the Tehran embassy.
So a storm is brewing. Whether it will clear the air is not so certain. My impression is that the country may be tilting toward a sudden, spasmodic reaction -- something to punish the bad Iranians. Then, like the administration and the little girl in the Einstein story, it too would like to go back to business as usual -- back to Mommy.