Jimmy Carter just woke up! Leonid Brezhnev lied to him!

The White House can be a learning situation. Being president encourages one to attain his or her full human potential and become a nicer person. As president, Jimmy Carter has learned many things. For instance: Cubans in Africa are efficacious stabilizers and an "inordinate fear of communism" is wrong. Think of how far he has come. By the summer of 1977 he had learned "where all the nations of the world were and who their leaders were." This he reported to a spellbound Newsweek interviewer whose editor was unpatriotic enough to print it.

Some of those leaders are not around anymore, and some of the countries have also disappeared. Yet one sees Carter gamely ordering up the new maps, memorizing the new names. Moreover, he is now studying some nations in depth. Life in the White House can be rewarding.

Russia's invasion of Afghanistan has stimulated our president to give Russia a very careful scrutiny. Apparently the Russians are not like you and me. "My opinion of the Russians has changed more drastically in the last week than even the previous two and a half years," Carter told Frank Reynolds on Dec. 31. How exciting. Once he has had his learning experience with English syntax, we shall have a clearer perception of what all this means. We do know that he has angered the Directors of American Atheists by repeatedly referring to the Russians as atheists. And we know that he is angry -- even angrier than when the Iranians took over our embassy and refused to return it.

I wish he had had his Russian lesson when most of the other fellows his age had theirs. That is to say, sometime between that melancholy interlude in 1945 when a very tired FDR turned to Sen. Arthur Vandenberg to say, "Just between us, Arthur, I am coming to know the Russians better," and the publication of George Kennan's illuminating essay, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," wherein it is written that "the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies . . . . Such a policy has nothing to do with outward histrionics." t

The lovely arias Carter now sings obbligato to the ham-fisted Soviet burglary in Afghanistan is not unprecedented. The same disquieting spectacle took place in the 1940s. After every war Americans withdraw, avoiding their responsibilities in the world and turning their foreign policy over to the muzzy-headed. In the middle 1940s there were such blanks as Secretary of State Edward Stettinius and Henry Wallace. Today there are Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Marshall Shulman, who informs The Wall Street Journal that "we're going to be in for a long period of gradual slide in relations." The reason Shulman expects this "slide" is that the United States and the Soviet Union are increasing their military capabilities. Imagine the arms increase the Afghans must have mounted!

In the late 1940s, America demobilized with customary enthusiasm and embraced the United Nations with customary moral certitude. In an illuminating 1950 reminiscence, former secretary of state George Marshall lamented that when he arrived at State the American Army had evaporated into 1 1/3 divisions -- "this is quite a proposition when you deal with somebody with over 260 . . . . We had nothing in Alaska. We did not have enough to defend the air strip at Fairbanks." Alaska, of course, came out all right. It was the Poles, the Hungarians, the Czechs, etc., who did not. Today it is the Afghans, and back in Washington the president is growing, changing, experiencing.

In the late 1940s Americans had not seen much of the famed Soviet politique. They had not yet witnessed the full catastrophe of Eastern Europe, the 1956 invasion of Hungary, the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, the horror of Southeast Asia. Forunately, they were blessed with a generation of public men like Harry Truman and Dean Acheson who were capable of facing that truth and acting upon it. In 1947 Kennan could state confidently that, upon seeing the Soviet reality, Americans were "capable of pulling themselves together and accepting the responsibilities of moral and political leadership."

Are there any such Americans today? The vacuous Republicans scud off to Iowa and make lewd gestures to farmers. Teddy Kennedy and Jerry Brown drone on in the bizarre argot of the Scarsdale High graduating class of 1973. And our incredible president stumbles forward -- Carter, the most stupefyingly right-thinking gym instructor of all time. Whatever happened to Henry Jackson? Where the hell is Pat Moynihan?