President Carter, who came to Washington four years ago vowing to make the concept of "Cabinet government" work, held what was almost certainly his final Cabinet meeting yesterday with the top officials of his administration.
"It was an emotional, very touching sort of session," said one person who attends the 80-minute meeting at the White House.
The meeting made clear that the hostages in Iran and the growing tensions in Poland remain the chief concerns of the outgoing administration. But to a large extent, according to sources, this final meeting of the Carter Cabinet was also a time to look back as, going around the large table in the White House Cabinet Room, each member of the Cabinet recalled the accomplishments and difficulties of the last four years.
"I thought I'd like to let you know of the outcome of the election collectively instead of breaking the news to you individually," the president said at the beginning of meeting. "We lost."
This brought laughter in the room. But while there were no tears shed at this final session, there were what were described as "emotional" and "poignant moments" as the record of the Carter administration was reviewed by an admittedly biased collection of observers.
Vice President Mondale delivered one of the most direct verdicts on that record. "I am certain," he was quoted as saying, "that history is going to deal far more generously with the Carter administration than the voters did this fall."
Mondale said the administration was "leaving office without embarrassments of a significant nature" and cited specifically the administration's record in human rights and the fact the the country has been at peace and has not experienced a Watergate-type scandal under Carter.
There was discussion at the meeting of a number of current topics, including Iran, Poland, the Middle East peace process and the budget the president will submit to Congress before leaving office. But there was also, according to sources, a natural "review of the last four years and expressions of pride at the accomplishments." And as this went on -- with national security affaris adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski discussing advances in human rights, and Health and Human Services Secretary Patricia Roberts Harris mentioning the number of minority and women appointees of the administration -- Carter finally cracked, "It's hard to see how we lost." t
The president also recalled some of the items he has frequently cited as major accomlishments, including the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, the Panama Canal treaties and diplomatic recognition of China.
Carter told the Cabinet of his plans to return to Georgia to write his memoirs and he expressed satisfaction with the cooperation his administration is giving President-elect Ronald Reagan's transition organization.
The session, the last one scheduled, was the 74th Cabinet meeting of the Carter administration.Carter's hopes for what he said would be an administration of "Cabinet government" never really materialized. After an initial effort at this, the number and importance of the Cabinet meetings dwindled, and less emphasis was placed on the importance of the Cabinet as a whole.
But despite the setbacks of the last four years, there was no lack of emotion or affection at this last gathering. As the meeting ended, Carter rose from his chair and shook a few hands as he headed toward the Oval Office. The president exited to applause.