Washington — Jimmy Carter as President brought in some exceptionally able people around him. This should be said before his administration fades into memory and before the stereotype that he drew mainly mediocrity to his side is accepted by history.
Much of the public liked Carter as a person and only reluctantly decided he wasn't what they wanted in the presidency. For the first year or so Carter held this public support, with many people excusing his performance while blaming the "hacks" he had as advisers.
Then, as time went on, Carter was faulted not only for what was widely discerned as ineffectiveness but also for surrounding himself with perceived second-raters, often in advisory roles. The questioned conduct of Bert Lance in private business and the alleged behavior of Hamilton Jordan and Peter Bourne tended to give the Carter team a negative image. Reporters traveling around the United States soon found people generally had concluded the whole Carter operation was flawed by key aides who were frivolous and way over their heads in their administration jobs.
Actually, the Carter inner circle must be rated, as a whole, quite good -- certainly a strong, solid B. There were a number whose performance was outstanding, aides so intelligent, so hard working, so imaginative that their presence would be regarded as a distinct asset for any president fortunate enough to persuade them to stand by his side.
First and foremost among Carter's elite corps was Robert Strauss. If Carter had a big problem, he would call on Strauss. As Carter's trade ambassador, Strauss did some magnificient global negotiating. Then Mr. Carter needed someone to head his effort to curb inflation, so he called on Strauss, who worked mightily to coax industrial and labor leaders to hold down prices. He did a fine job -- but couldn't hold back the inflationary tide. Then he was asked to be Carter's chief ambassador to the Mideast. Again Strauss said "yes" and was given high marks by diplomats for his performance in that post.
All along, Strauss and Jordan acted as Carter's chief political advisers. Strauss as a public servant was superb.
Then there was Vice-President Mondale. Mondale was continually at Carter's elbow, advising him on issues both foreign and domestic. Mondale is a quality man, high quality, whose presence would grace any administration.
No president has had a better liaison with governors and mayors than Jack Watson. Little wonder that Democrats in those high positions stayed loyal to Carter and thus helped him immeasurably in his battle to keep Edward Kennedy from taking the nomination. In the last year, Watson, replacing Jordan, became Carter's chief of staff, a move that should have been made much earlier. Jordan , outstanding in providing political acumen, was no coordinator or administrator. Watson was.
Stuart Eizenstat, too, was an outstanding presidential assistant. Eizenstat was chief White House architect of legislation, and he was very good at it.
There were others who stood out. Anne Wexler must be given an A for her masterful performance as Carter's chief liaison with leaders of the private sector. Sol Linowitz, more than any others, helped to bring about the Panama Canal treaties; later, he ably applied his negotiating skills to the Mideast.
Other Carter aides who sparkled included Ray Jenkins, Jody Powell's deputy, whose display of professionalism was a daily delight to reporters who dealt with him; Alfred Kahn, the administration's wage-price policeman, who performed ably despite an impossible task; and Lloyd Cutler, who showed mature judgment in helping and presidential decision- making.
Then, finally, there was John White. It's popular in Washington these days for observers to say that White was a failure because he, as the Democratic Party chieftain, didn't get Carter re-elected. But the time will come when White's valiant, loyal, highly competent effor ts in behalf of President Carter will be appreciated.