Nation: Assessing a Presidency

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Princeton's Eric Goldman, who once worked in Lyndon Johnson's White House, expected Carter to come a cropper from the start because, in Goldman's words, "he does not understand modern America. Carter understands small towns, not the cities." New York City University's ubiquitous and biting Arthur Schlesinger Jr. feels that Carter is something the American people produced in their exhaustion and confusion after Viet Nam and Watergate. We are in a period of "national doldrums," contends Schlesinger, and when the U.S. begins to stir again—and it will—the Carter era will be swept away with the lethargy. "Carter would have been O.K. for the Republicans who don't want to do anything," says Schlesinger, who worked in John F. Kennedy's White House.

But in other quarters the verdict on Carter is not nearly so certain. There remains something admirable about the man's determination to learn, his durability in these months of political assault. James R. Jones, an influential young Oklahoma Congressman who has pointed out Carter failings in the past, was a guest on Air Force One when Carter flew to Japan in July. Jones spent long hours with the President, talking, listening, viewing the U.S. and the world from the finest fuselage aloft. A very practical pol himself, Jones was surprised. During this encounter he found Carter to have a good grasp of the task ahead, to display better instincts about his leadership. Carter seemed to have learned a lot. Concluded Jones: "Jimmy Carter could be a good President these next four years."

That is the central question this week about Jimmy Carter. How much has he learned? Can he break out of the cocoon of doubt that he seems to have woven for himself both at home and abroad? Can he visualize and then start to build a world that is not yet? Says Kirbo, the Atlanta attorney who counsels Carter: "I think he is the best-informed President that we've ever had. He has grown and matured, and now he has a lot of the tools in place that he did not have. This country can get great service out of him." But it was wise old Harry Truman who said that men do not change much after a certain age, that we only learn more about them. New York Senator Daniel Moynihan has observed that Carter's Administration has a "learning disability." That also seems to be the essence of the skepticism that grips the majority of Americans. How Jimmy Carter resolves this debate will determine his future—and much of ours.

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