Washington — President Carter's offer to meet "personally" with senators investigating the Billy Carter-Libya affair could prove another high- risk Carter gamble to recover from the political doldrums.
Mr. Carter clearly wants his gesture of openness to contrast with former President Nixon's balking at Watergate testimony by himself or his staff. But a display of candor, welcome as it is, has to be backed up by safeguards and thorough preparations by the Senate inquirers themselves, argue nonpartisan groups like Common Cause.
"We're all in favor of the President's forthcomingness," Common Cause senior vice-president Fred Wertheimer says. "But the real issue at this point is to get the committee functioning."
The first priority is not presidential testimony at this time, he says. "We would like the committee to hire an outside counsel as soon as possible, to establish outside credibility," he adds.
The "Billygate" inquiry will occur during a critical election period, when a special counsel with independent stature would help assure that "what happened, what the consequences might be, and what sanctions should apply" will be determined in a way that will assure the public the President should be exonerated, if that is the inquiry's conclusion, Mr. Wertheimer says.
The President's offer to meet personally with Capitol Hill inquirers fits the mold of high-risk Carter gambits to get out of political trouble, observers point out.
The inquiry can take odd, unexpected turns once it gathers force. Some see the possible "Vesco" connection between brother Billy and the Libyans, tracing of payments into Carter's personal financial dealings, and embarrassing family flare-ups as possible risks.
Carter's offer to meet with inquirers is seen in the same dramatic vein as his Camp David retreat last July, followed by his malaise-energy speech, the ritual resignations of his Cabinet and staff, and the firing of "disloyal" Cabinet chiefs. Carter, at that time almost as low in public approval polls as he currently is, got only a slight uptick from that episode -- less than he got from his fall 1978 Mideast accords effort at Camp David.
The appearance of Gerald Ford in October 1974 before a House committee concerning the pardon of President Nixon was the most recent precedent for the Carter offer, notes Gerhard Casper, University of Chicago law school dean.
"That was carefully structured," Dean Casper observes. "An entire transcript was published afterward."
But "I do not think Ford gained in the end," he says, adding that while Ford's Capitol Hill appearance relaxed relationships between the White House and Congress, it did not help him with those who criticized him for the pardon. "And the pardon -- which I think was correct -- may have cost him reelection," concludes Dean Casper.
Casper sees the prospect of a personal appearance with "Billygate" inquirers of major consequence for the President, but questions his haste.
"Mr. Carter will be in a position to say everything he knows about the Billy-Libya affair -- and he will do it, I'm sure of that," Casper says. "This should do a lot to deflate the issue.
"What is at stake for him is his reputation for truthfulness -- one of the few things he has left. One of the most important elements for Carter in 1976 was his saying, 'Washington lies; I will never lie to you.' While no one has accused him of lying, White House statements have been less than forthcoming [on the "Billygate" affair], and Attorney General [Benjamin] Civiletti's statements were regrettable," he says.
"Waiting three weeks [before interviewing the President] is entirely sensible ," Casper says. "Even to prepare the questioning, to make sure you understand the facts, will take three or four weeks."
The inquiry timetable apparently will put off the President's appearance until after the Democratic National Convention next month.