Washington — America loves its ex-presidents. William Howard Taft became chief justice of the United States. Herbert Hoover headed a couple of commissions. General Eisenhower was a revered elder statesman at Gettysburg.
Now President Carter, in a low-keyed but deeply felt farewell speech, urges America to be true to its creed, warns against certain "trends," pledges support to the man who defeated him "to the very limits of conscience and conviction," and thereby puts himself in line for the usual course whereby defeated presidents are often much more popular after retirement than when they left office.
Among other ex-presidents John Quincy Adams came to the House, Andrew Johnson joined the Senate, Grover Cleveland returned to the presidency -- and Theodore Roosevelt unsuccessfully tried a political comeback.
Though Jimmy Carter has said "farewell" to the voters who, in effect, repudiated him, his brief but poignant address leaves open the opportunity for public service if he wants it. This is true of his Republican counterpart, Gerald Ford. Among other things Washington is full of embryo commissions or important foreign assignments always waiting for distinguished citizens to head them.
Messrs. Carter, Ford, and Nixon receive a pension equal to the prevailing salary of a Cabinet officer, currently $69,630, and substantial allowances for staff, moving expenses and protection.
Millions watched the 17 minute Carter presidential farewell on television, once again reviewing the four year incumbency that ended in defeat, noting the characteristic absence of purple passages or resonant eloquence in his speech, and sometimes moved in spite of themselves by Carter's quiet dignity. His comments led their thoughts, too, to the problem of the presidency itself.
"This is at once the most powerful office in the world -- and among the most severely constrained by law and custom," he said. Though the president "is given a broad responsibility to lead," he added, he often finds he can't prevail. This is the theme of many recent academic books. Was it Carter's fault that he met delay on the energy program, SALT II (the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty) wasn't adopted, and economic stabilization was not achieved? Historians will debate these things.
Carter developed this thought in his final address: "Today we are asking our political system to do things of which the Founding Fathers never dreamed," he said. And added,
Today, as people have become more doubtful of the ability of the government to deal with our problems, we are increasingly drawn to single-issue groups and special interest organizations to ensure that whatever else happens our own personal views and our own private interests are protected."
He echoed a school of political scientists that deplores the decay of political parties and party discipline in Congress, and the operation of veto power by bureaucrats, legislative subcommittees, and interest groups.
Avoiding specific details which might make him seem to be arguing with the incoming Reagan administration, he offered four main themes, beginning with his concern about special interest groups. The other three were:
* Nuclear destruction: "The danger is becoming greater," he warned. He was speaking, he said, as "a fellow-citizen of the world" in warning against global accumulation of weapons. He avoided bringing up SALT II over which he and Reagan have clashed.
* Environment: Increasing world population, he warned, threatens global resources; there is "no reason for despair," but there is "a dismal future" if action is not taken.
* Human rights: President Carter virtually originated this theme as an international political goal. Now he urged that it be included among other "time-honored principles and commitments."
To Reagan, Carter said, "I wish him success and Godspeed." To the public he concluded : "Thank you, fellow citizens, and farewell."