Just over a week ago, in a meeting at the White House, President Carter nodded understandingly as several of his most senior advisers told him that his highly charged attacks on Ronald Reagan had succeeded only in diverting attention from Reagan and making himself the focus of campaign controversy instead.
"Yes, we'll have to understate it," the president finally said, according to one adviser who was there. "And we'll have to avoid the characterizations."
That said, the president set out on the political trail anew, for what turned out to be a campaign week that was a neo-American classic -- even when judged by the distinctly nonclassical standards of 1980 political oratory.
It began with Carter falling victim once again to his zeal to make Ronald Reagan the issue of 1980, and learning, again, that he had succeeded only in making himself the issue once more. (Carter did this in a single stroke: His emotional overreach about how Reagan's election may divide America -- black from white, North from South, Christian from Jew.)
But just as the Carter aides were beginning to despair of another bad week on the trail, along came Reagan. Reagan delivered Carter from disaster, when, in his own zeal to make Carter's record the issue, he succeeded only in bringing a new wave of controversy upon himself. (Reagan did this when, in his desire to label Carter officials hyperenvironmentalist and antigrowth, he erupted in a dialectic about how air polution from automobiles is nothing compared to Mount St. Helens.)
So went another week of foot-to-mouth resuscitation on the campaign trail. No candidate can be counted out as long as his opponent is still alive and well and standing in front of an open microphone. And this week provided an episodic example of the difficulty the Democratic and Republican nominees are having in trying to deliver their message, unmarred, to the American people.
The frustrations and failures of this past week were forged in that controversy over war and peace, which was left over from the week before. It was very much on the mind, for example, of the senior Carter adviser who telephoned a reporter Monday morning, even as the president was en route to his first campaign stop of the week.
"The war and peace issue hasn't caught on -- we know that," the senior Carter adviser said, his voice rising to a pitch of finely tuned rage. "But the reason that the war and peace issue hasn't blown itself sky high is that the reporters on that Reagan plane are not covering the sonofabitch. He just walked away from 30 years of arms control policies and there was nothing on the networks about it -- nothing! And The Washington Post buried the story at the bottom of something about judges and The New York Times buried it way back in Section B . . . Reagan's going to be president the way this is going -- because the coverage of this candidate Reagan is outrageous!"
Similar political passion plays were in progress that morning elsewhere in Washington, as several of the Carter high command, as if on cue, were letting a number of journalists know their assessment of the way the opposition has been covered. The complaint of the Carter advisers was that Reagan has been getting a free ride, perhaps because he is not the incumbent. It is the strongest complaint about press coverage of a campaign since 1976, when the Carter advisers were complaining that Gerald Ford was getting a free ride, perhaps because he was the incumbent.
In their most recent example, the complaint of the Carter officials is at least partly justified. The media, electronic and print, did give short shrift to what should have been a major story: Reagan's statement almost two weeks ago that he would scrap the SALT II treaty before the Senate and try to pressure the Soviets to negotiate a new treaty by embarking upon a buildup of the U.S. military and confronting Moscow with "the possibility of an arms race." Reagan had explained in a little-noticed interview with The Associated Press that a Soviet SALT negotiator "will be far more inclined to negotiate in good faith if he knows that the United States is engaged in building up its military. . . . The one card that's been missing in these negotiations has been the possibility of an arms race."
This was the most insightful glimpse of Reagan's view of how to control nuclear arms, yet the story was largely overlooked by the nation's media. But Carter only made his own matters worse when, in his effort to highlight his differences with Reagan on the issue, he hit the jingo button and launched a little overkill of his own, saying that the difference between himself and Reagan could mean the difference between peace and war.
It was after that, back at the White House, that he conceded to his advisers that he realized that this had only hurt him more, and he vowed not to do it again. Which set the stage for this past week's events. When Americans next heard from their president, however, he was on the network news shows, speaking in Chicago, his eyes fixed in that cold steel stare that is his sign of anger. After a day of perfectly satisfactory (and certainly not self-damaging) oratory that was not highlighted on the television news shows, he had told his audience there was one more thing he wanted to add -- and there he was, saying that if Reagan won the election, America could be divided "black from white, Jew from Christian, North from South, rural from urban."
The Carter high command was reconvened. And this time, it was decided that -- to quiet the renewed complaints that he was a "mean" campaigner -- the president would have to announce that he was going to switch to a lower keyed campaign tone. As the vehicle for this message, the White House chose ABC's Barbara Walters, who at the outset of the Carter presidency has once ended an interview with Carter by publicly beseeching him to "be gentle."
Then, as the Carter officials were trying to gauge what other fallout the week would bring, Reagan came along and accomplished what the president had been unable to do -- he succeeded in making Reagan the issue for at least a day or two.
"I'm not a scientist and I don't know the figures," said Reagan, "but I just have a suspicion that [Mount St. Helens] . . . has probably released more sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere of the world than has been released in the past 10 years of automobile driving or things of that kind that people are so concerned about."
Federal officials were quick to say (and Reagan aides ruefully conceded) that this is not true.
Meanwhile, Reagan aides had distributed a speech text to reporters which has the GOP nominee saying that air pollution had been "substantially controlled." And all of this made Reagan the star of the Thursday night news. He was shown at one stop saying, "I didn't say anything about it being substantially under control" while the CBS network superimposed the speech text that said just that. So it went.
But just as the Reagan aides were trying to figure out what to do about their own misfortune, the wire service machines chattered forth the news that Carter just said that Reagan was not "a good man to trust with the affairs of this nation." It was blunt language, delivered in a quiet and low-key way. oAnd when the initial United Press International lead on the story was phrased in hard-hitting language, the president's press secretary, Jody Powell, was quick to telephone in a complaint that the president really had not been as hard-hitting as all that.
So the week ended partly as it had begun, with Carter advisers still concerned about the president being portrayed as a "mean" campaigner, but buoyed at least by the fact that Reagan, too, had had a bad week on the nightly news. The Carter camp's concern about this "mean" thing is understandable -- the latest poll of Louis Harris shows that, while 70 percent of the public still says that Carter is a man of "high integrity" -- this represents a 9-point drop from the 79 percent Carter commanded just a month ago.
The task ahead for the Carter officials is to keep the president from slipping back down to that low road from whence he came, even as he continues on the attack. The task is formidible. For, as Carter himself said to Walters: "Some of the issues are just burning with fervor in my mind and in my heart, and I have gotten carried away on a couple of occasions."
And as Jody Powell elaborated: "He does have a touch of hyperbole. But that's not the worst thing people can say about a man."
EPILOGUE: Out in Arizona, a television network crew caught up with Barry Goldwater, who is hard-pressed in his own campaign this year, and asked the father of Reagan conservativism for his views on the 1980 presidential race. Goldwater -- who fell victim in 1964 to his perceived views about extremism being no vice and Social Security being no good, to which Lyndon B. Johnson added a little girl and mushroom cloud and came up with a landslide -- offered a quick assessment:
"Why hell, this campaign so far makes my campaign against Johnson look like a Sunday school picnic."