At that dramatic moment when President Carter conceded his political defeat, the people around him were members of his personal household. There were some members of his Cabinet in the background, but those nearest were his family and those associates whom he had brought with him from Plains and Atlanta to Washington and who, for the most part, will be going back to Georgia.
It was one of those scenes which tells a good deal about the past and which helps to explain the present. Mr. Carter ran the presidency that way. In essence it was a one-man performance aided by family retainers. He did try in the beginning to attract to his governing team persons of general stature, but of those with names and reputations how many remained to the end?
The most prominent name on Mr. Carter's original Cabinet list was that of James Schlesinger, who had held a galaxy of high government posts in the Nixon and Ford administrations. Cyrus Vance was known and respected among people in government in Washington and in New York. Harold Brown had a reputation in academic and technical quarters. Michael Blumenthal, as executive officer of Bendix, was known in corporate circles.
Harold Brown is the only one of those persons with anything like a national reputation who has remained to the end. Vance resigned over the disastrous military attempt to rescue the hostages. He had opposed the operation. Schlesinger and Blumenthal were fired, in effect for thinking for themselves. It was not easy for a person of individual stature and importance to do a job during the Carter administration.
Mr. Carter was a man of enormous confidence in himself. He knew what he wanted. He worked hard. It is said of him that he probably worked harder and more diligently at the job than any president in this century with the possible exception of Woodrow Wilson. But he tried to do too much himself for his own good. It was a one-man operation. Only those who subordinated themselves to him survived in his administration. He took office promising a "collegial" system of government, but inside the administration it came close to being a "cult of the individual." It was not "collective leadership." The results have given one-man rule a low rating in the US today.
Ronald Reagan is not starting out like that. True, it is still too early for any decisive readings. I do not know as this is being written who will be his secretary of state, his attorney general, his secretary of the treasury, or his head of CIA. But he has approved of Howard Baker staying on as Republican leader in the Senate. He has already accepted advice from George Bush, his vice-president. He has named a Bush man as his chief of staff at the White House. He has been consulting with prominent Republicans from all segments of the party.
Present indications are definitely of a trend toward what in European country would be called a "broad-based" government representative of a wide spectrum of interests. In Moscow the equivalent would be called "collective leadership" in contrast to one-man rule.
It is customary today for leading political scientists to contend that collective leadership or group responsibility does not work in the United States. The trend for some time has been toward one strong man at the center. But some of the better presidents ran it the other way and successfully. Abraham Lincoln is the classic example. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was not the one-man dictator his opponents painted his as being. Quite the contrary. He enjoyed watching members of his Cabinet launch ideas, plans, or policies, defend them against others in the Cabinet, and sink or swim with them. Mr. Roosevelt was an interested spectator much of the time. Dwight D. Eisenhower used the "collective" or "collegial" system, and also used it successfully.
When a subordinate launches a policy which fails, a Roosevelt or an Eisenhower is himself undamaged by the failure. The trouble with one-man rule is that, while the one man gets the credit for the successes, he also gets the blame for the failures.
Whether Mr. Reagan is headed for the collective responsibility system because it suits him best, or partly also because he has learned from watching Mr. Carter's misfortunes, is beside the point. And of course it is far too early to be certain that he will stay with it. But we already can observe that the future policies of the Reagan administration are going to be determined to an unusual degree not by present Reagan inclinations but by his choice of colleagues in government.
We already know that he is choosing as consultants persons of importance in their own right. He is not coming to Washington surrounded by family or household retainers. He is not relying primarily on those who were with him from the beginning. On the contrary, he is associating with the moderate, and even with some of the liberal factions of his own party. His early moves all seem to point to a coalition of all Republican elements, which shold make for a difference in Washington.