When President Lyndon Johnson once showed up for some morning ceremonial duties in a gray suit and brown shoes, the people traveling with him were immediately alert for a change in the day's doings. Johnson was fastidious about the trappings of office, and even the slight dissonance of brown and gray hinted a new mood or schedule.
Sure enough, L.B.J. jetted off secretly to Viet Nam and a conference with his field commanders. While in flight he changed his gray suit to a rancher's outfit of twill so that he would look more like a soldier when he reviewed the troops at Cam Ranh Bay. When the Commander in Chief left the plane he was a harmony in brown.
No such detailed analysis can be applied to Jimmy Carter. He came in his glistening Marine helicopter through a clear and soft Rome night last week to start his new European adventure, settling in the shadows of the Quirinale Palace, which sits atop the highest of the Eternal City's seven hills, a panorama of enduring dignity and beauty.
Jimmy Carter had on a dark blue suit and cordovan shoes. No secret mission was planned, other than a jog in the Quirinale Gardens, for which Carter used sneakers. Cordovan with blue is just a part of Carter, a man still vaguely indifferent to, or perhaps even contemptuous of, the color codes of Old World diplomacy, an encrusted ritual built of the minutiae of centuries.
After nearly 3½ years of exercising immense power, Jimmy Carter remains resolutely rooted, in his cordovan wing tips, in Plains, Ga. But the rest of him is not so easy to figure out these days. He has left the U.S. weaker politically, more diminished in international respect, than any President in the 35 years since the end of World War II. Though the centerpiece of this mission is the summit in Venice, the real meaning is a search for some kind of cohesion in the frayed alliance. In personal terms it could be the final test of Carter as a world leader. Can he inject the tired veins of the democracies with a modicum of courage and purpose? Maybe.
Oddly, as the charts on his standing with both Americans and Europeans continue downward, Carter's grasp of his job seems improved in some respects. He is more angry nowat Soviet belligerence, at allied timidity. The narrowness of other nations' interests and the duplicity of their leaders are no longer smothered in Carter's determined Christian grace.
He is tougher and more wary. That is why the joint statement issued in Rome went straight to the problems of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the American hostages in Iran and the Middle East peace negotiations. That is why Carter fired off his letter to West Germany's Helmut Schmidt to make sure of German support for new nuclear missiles in Europe.
Carter has recast his Administration in significant respects. The White House staff is broader-gauged, and at last Carter's confidant and principal aide, Hamilton Jordan, is out of policy and into politics, where he should have been from the beginning. Carter's new Secretary of State, Ed Muskie, is streetwise and strong, reinforcing the President wherever necessary.