The Carter years

Jimmy Carter's concession speech displayed him as the man so many Americans voted for in 1976. Many fell away as they saw him failing to keep promises, to reach goals, to maintain the high standards he had proclaimed for his administration. Yet his country and the rest of the world should not overlook "every good thing that I tried to do," to use an unassuming phrase from the President's remarks Tuesday evening. And there remains a sound touchstone for future United States leaders in these words:

"This is a special country, because our vast economic and military strength give us a special responsibility for seeking solutions to the problems that confront the world, but our influence will always be greater when we live up to those principles of freedom, of justice, of human rights for all people."

Recall the buoyancy with which Mr. Carter rose out of Plains to act on such an outlook. He defied conventional political wisdom at home by challenging pork-barrel water projects; abroad by challenging Moscow to a strategic arms agreement that actually called for reductions. When congressmen dug in on the water projects, he at least won part of the battle; when Moscow huffed at his arms-control effrontery, he regrouped and got a SALT II treaty for nuclear arms limitation if not reduction.

He plunged into solving the energy problem, had one program shot down, and pushed ahead with another. He tackled civil service reform, government reorganization, deregulation of transportation.

He used America's good offices on behalf of peace and self-determination in Africa, succored refugees from far and near, began to renew America's reputation as a friend of poor and developing nations even while Congress stymied foreign aid. He rescued a deteriorating and potentially dangerous relationship with Latin America by carrying through the Panama Canal treaties launched by his Republican predecessors. He took on the enormous task of peacemaker in the Middle East and at least got a treaty between Israel and Egypt.

The hostages in Iran, the escalating price of imported oil, the adventurism of the Soviet Union, the one-two punch of inflation and unemployment -- to what extent would different Carter policies or attitudes have provided greater amelioration of such onslaughts? The debate on such matters has not ended with the election.

But somehow the Carter presidential image began to change. There was more apparent toleration of questionable conduct among those close to the President than he had led those who voted for him to expect. His actions and attitudes began to remind people of allegations of political maneuverings in Georgia.

He gave supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment, for example, an excuse to say he was more willing to use the power of incumbency for his own political advantage than to push measures like ERA. His "malaise" speech gave political opponents an excuse to say he was blaming the people for his own administration's shortcomings. His constituency of black Americans and other disadvantaged minorities came to feel their economic needs were being sacrificed despite all the minority appointments and civil rights steps he could point to.

As the 1980 campaign began in earnest he neglected making a judicious case for what he had done for the country, and what he intended to do for it, in favor of playing on negativism and fear.

Now that the campaign is over, the whole Carter presidential record can start to be put in perspective. One element of importance in the history of the office could be Mr. Carter's willingness to choose a vice-president, Walter Mondale, of no less political stature than himself -- and to bring that vice-president closely into White House councils. Taken all in all, the shortcomings of the Carter years ought to be outweighed by "every good thing that I tried to do."

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