Nation: Assessing a Presidency

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In a trade that is lubricated by conviviality and depends on the intimate knowledge among friends accumulated over a lifetime, Carter remains a perplexing figure, self-contained and often unfathomable. It may be that even after 3½ years in office the Carter presidency ultimately is founded on the judgment of six people: Carter and his wife Rosalynn, Attorney and Friend Charles Kirbo, Political Strategist Hamilton Jordan, Press Secretary Jody Powell and Domestic Adviser Stuart Eizenstat. There are many other influential people around the President, of course, such as Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, White House Counsel Lloyd Cutler and Pollster Patrick Caddell. But for the final balancing of major policy decisions, there is no higher or more potent tribunal than the President and those five original Georgians. One day when Carter was chairing a National Security Council meeting on Iran, and he had been hesitant on some of the options laid before him, he excused himself for a few minutes to take a call from Rosalynn, who was out campaigning. When he left, Jordan looked around the table, rolled his eyes and said, "Boom, there goes Iran." That was Jordan's hyperbole, but Carter's visibly toughened stance, once he was back in the meeting, was pure Rosalynn.

There has been no room for anyone else in this select fraternity. The crusade of the Georgians had been against Washington, bigness, sin in public places and institutions as viewed and defined from Plains. Carter no longer wages war against the deductible three-martini lunch, but he has never reconciled himself to those who indulge. Nor is there any evidence that he has ever gone off secretly to contend, over dinner, with the forces of Washington outside the White House. "Carter is alone in this city," says a former Democratic Party official who worked for Lyndon Johnson. "Not a single Senator and very few members of the House have stood up for him. He does not have friends in other areas." This man recalls how L.B.J. once hustled off to Georgetown to sell his Great Society to a collection of reluctant corporate executives. Johnson ate and drank with gusto, told stories, recalled almost every person's name from old encounters, removed his coat and straddled a chair backward, and explained for hours his grand vision of abolishing poverty and giving every child in the U.S. a chance to thrive.

"The Georgians gloried in being outsiders," says a former Carter Cabinet officer about the inner White House circle. "They never understood—and do not today—that if you are going to govern, then you have to reach out." A couple of years ago, when trouble for Carter's programs was developing on the Hill and it was apparent that the gap between Congress and the White House was widening, Carter was urged to select certain compatible Senators and Congressmen and get to know them over dinner or at other social occasions. Maine's then Senator Edmund Muskie was viewed as an important figure who could mesh with the President. Yet Carter balked for weeks, reluctant to court someone from the world of the Capitol hideout and the burble of good bourbon used nightly "to strike a blow for liberty."

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