As Jimmy Carter prepares to depart Washington, surely it is fitting to ask: what did his four years amount to? I believe that they amounted to the sad consummation of 1970s liberalism, a liberalism that ultimately became in its policies, inane in its oratory, irretrievably corrupted by ambivalent purposes and meanness. This was the liberalism of the New Age, an age of trashy values, utopianism and a habit of ducking difficulty and responsibility. t

The great historic fact of the Carter administration is that during its four years practically every prescription of New Age Liberalism -- certainly every foreign policy prescription -- simply blew up.

In foreign policy, the New Age liberals' insistence on accommodation, legalism, negotiations, "openness," disarmament and so forth was greeted by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iranian barbarism, the proxy wars in Africa, growing turbulence in Central America and the fissures in NATO. In the end, Cyrus Vance was heard sniffling over SALT's demise, despite the clear evidence that SALT had neither sweetened the Soviet paranoiacs nor halted their vast arms buildup, the most massive peacetime buildup in history.

The Iranian barbarism put the lie to all the New Age liberals' guff about restraint, understanding and Third World innocence. The ghastly holocaust in Southeast Asia showed what hollow and perverse guff it had always been -- even when sung to guitar accompaniment, even when intoned by the clergy at protest marches.

In domestic policy, the gigantic costs of the New Age's programs for perfect justice, perfect safety, perfect dreaminess in every sphere of human behavior grew and impoverished the citizenry. The tax burden rose. So did unemployment. So did inflation. In this century no other president could claim such a stupendous accomplishment, not even Herbert Hoover.

Through the late 1960s and early 1970s, Jimmy Carter had heard the swelling chorus of New Age visionaries. He had duly noted the gathering force of their complaints against American society. In 1976, he took a gamble. He gambled that the songsters of the New Age were going to win; he brought them and their enthusiasms into his government.

Now they are all in a red-hot fever to denounce him, loyalty and truthfulness not being insurmountable obstacles to their art. Already the indefatigable Arthur Schlesinger Jr. is at work on the necessary revisions of the historical record. "What the voters repudiated in 1980," he writes, "was not liberalism but the miserable result of the conservative economic policies of the last half-dozen years." Stalwart slave to the party line Jack Newfield counsels: "We must understand that the main reason Carter was defeated was because he was an incompetent conservative president."

Well, of course, we cannot really blame these two lovable humbugs for trying. They have suffered a lot recently. Yet to go along with their gorgeous balderdash, one has to banish an awful lot from memory -- for instance, the enormous growth in regulatory mischief, in transfer payments, in encroachments upon practically every area of the private sector. During the Carter years there was the glorious birth of the Department of Education and of the Department of Energy, the violent struggle to create a Consumer Protection Nanny and a Department of Natural Resources. There were the CETA boondoggles, the huge increase in food stamp outlays and the noble struggles against the giant corporations. There was the foreign policy. This was conservatism?

"It was a very novel idea Jimmy Carter had four years ago," a splendid Associated Press report tells us. "Instead of staffing the government with the usual appointees, he brought in critics of government, the reformers, the discontented. He hired outside agitators and made them inside agitators." More than 50 public interest pests from the Nader camorra were given powerful posts in the Carter administration.

"He trained a whole generation, which will be back," averred Sam Brown, whom Carter made director of ACTION. When the world was young, and the answers to our problems blossomed like spring flowers, Brown organized the Vietnam Moratorium. He also organized Eugene McCarthy's 1968 presidential campaign. During the Carter administration he attended cocktail parties for the victorious North Vietnamese. Is he, too, another of the Carter conservatives?Over the past two decades American liberalism devised an elaborate set of analyses, ideas and ideals. In time, it took refuge from reality in them. The failure of the Carter administration has now revealed the error of much of this intellection. Such absurd polemics as Newfield's and Schlesinger's demonstrate that the flight from reality continues and grows more desperate.