A year ago tonight, President Carter went on television to announce that the nation was in the grip of a "crisis of confidence" that was "threatening to destroy the social and political fabric of America.
Having come to that conclusion, Carter did what presidents often do when confronted with a crisis that is severe, yet somehow vague: he appointed a commission.
It is called the President's Commission for a National Agenda for the Eighties. It is made up of 50 prominent people who have 30 staff members and $2.8 million of government money to help them figure out what it all means.
Like most commissions, this one is unlikely to have a major immediate impact. But, like most commissions, it will produce a sort of snapshot of the views of the American Establishment, from whose ranks its members are drawn and whose vision of America has changed dramatically over the last 20 years.
In 1960, in the glommy years following the Sputnik launch, President Eisenhower appointed a Commission on National Goals. Its report predicted confidently that we could "continue to improve our own way of life, and at the same time help in the progress of vast numbers in the world whose lives are blighted by chronic sickness, hunger and illiteracy."
During two days of meetings in Washington last week, Carter's commission members sat in rooms with blackboards on which were drawn graphs that usually pointed downward. Members heard about adjusting to slow growth, stemming the collapse of American industry, the permanent nature of the energy crisis, trade-offs, risk, tough choices -- the antithesis of the rhetoric of 1960.
"I think in 1960 there was still a belief that there wasn't anything Americans could not do if we set our mind to it," said Frank Pace, a former director of the Bureau of the Budget who served on the 1960 commission and is on the current version. "The mood was not 'How do we make it?' The mood was 'What do we do to create a better world?"
The 1980 commission's panel on the American economy talked about reindustrialization and achieving a growth rate of 2 1/2 percent a year. The 1960 commission's estimate of the lowest conceivable growth rate was 3 1/2 percent.
The science panel talked about "appropriate technology," the elections panel about how the system does not work, the foreign affairs panel about interdependence, and the quality-of-life panel about too high expectations. In meeting after meeting, there was discussion of how this country might emulate Japan.
The 1960 commission said it had detected the sound of "the onrolling thunder of a new age," and proclaimed that "we have achieved a standard of individual realization new to history."
This year, the talk was about adjusting to a fairly gloomy future. "The '80s is certainly going to be a decade of second thoughts," said commission member Matina Horner, the president of Radcliffe College.
The road from Carter's speech of a year ago to last week's commission meetings began when the president decided in the wake of last summer's meetings at Camp David to bring Hedley Donovan, the retired editor in chief of Time Inc., to the White House staff as an elder statesman with strong ties to the Establishment.
Together, Carter and Donovan had the idea of setting up a commission, and recruited William J. McGill, just retired as president of Columbia University, to head it.
They filled the panel with respected figures -- Benjamin Hooks, Lane Kirkland, John Gardner, Juanita Kreps, William Scranton and other veteran commission-sitters.
They provided it with an elegant townhouse on Lafayette Square and a budget.
The commission is making a point of not issuing its report until after the November election so that its work will be, in words of its members, "above partisan politics." It is also putting out feelers to the campaign of Ronald Reagan. The panel aims to produce, not a Carter agenda, but a nonpartisan one, which makes it doubtful that major legislative or executive action will emerge directly from its work.
Being nonpolitical, the commission has about it the air of a high-level seminar -- full of good intentions, slightly chummy (when Elspeth Rostow, the wife of Lyndon B. Johnson's national security adviser, told a joke about the Vietnam war, Frances FitzGerald, one of its most passionate critics, chuckled politely), its tone more vague and less urgent than that of Carter's speech a year ago.
Here, for instance, is a moment from a meeting last week of the panel on the quality of American life, midway through a small debate over the scope and timing of the commission's work:
"I think we have insufficient time to look at the full implications and crosscutting themes," said Keith Melville, a staff member. "I don't know what the answer is, but maybe we ought to think about it."
"Is Aspen still on?" asked Matina Horner, the panel's chairman, referring to a much discussed future conclave of the commission's leaders to talk things over at a Colorado mountain retreat.
"Aspen's gotten reconceptualized three or four times," said Melville, shrugging. "It's now officially labeled an outreach event."
Robert Benson, a commission member and president of Children's World Inc., broke in. "What are gonna be the mechanisms for looking through the panel reports?" he asked. "A three-day executive weekend? A panel?"
"I suspect that may be the only meaningful response we can have," said Melville. "The end date cannot be slipped."
From there the talk went on to the other hard business of solving the national crisis of confidence. The commissioners discussed scenarios for the 1980's upcoming meetings, demographic trends, something called the "revolution of entitlements," and even, to some extent, the one issue Carter has specifically referred to them for a solution: how to raise America's productivity.