Washington — Very few Americans, including the former hostages' families, will fault President Carter's handling of the hostage negotiations. The negotiations were successful. Mr. Carter exercised prudent patience. He wisely rejected a military confrontation for which the nation was not prepared. The US paid no ransom.
Carter indulged in some politics on the fringes of the hostage issue, but not at its heart. When he thought it would benefit him politically, he pretended he had to be "presidential" and remain closeted in the White House and, when he needed to campaign, he found he no longer needed to remain in Washington.
I think most Americans extend an appreciative "well done" to Mr. Carter -- and should. It is altogether deserving that the negotiations were completed while he was still President.
It seems to me that Ronald Reagan, then President-elect, helped prod the Iranians by publicly warning them that they might not fare as well if the settlement were not completed promptly. Although the release followed the inauguration, the negotiations were completed before. Mr. Reagan did the instinctively gracious act of appointing Mr. Carter to represent him to greet the returnees at the American base in Wiesbaden.
The theory that if the hostages had been released before Nov. 4 Carter would have won the election seems to me wishful thinking.
Some commentators are saying that it will be impossible to avoid conflicting voices within the administration in foreign policy. I think they are wrong. It is possible because it has been done before in more than one administration.
Only the secretary of state spoke for the president when Dean Acheson and Gen. George Marshall were secretaries. There were no competing and conflicting voices when John Foster Dulles and Dean Rusk and Henry Kissinger were secretaries of state. Then the national security advisers worked behind the scenes, not stage front.
The record shows that when the president and the secretary of state want it that way, it happens. I am convinced that President Reagan and Secretary Haig will make it happen. It is vital that they do so.
The ingredients essential to make it work are a strong president and a strong secretary of state, and clear recognition by the secretary of state that, while he is the sole foreign policy spokesman (other than the president), he is not the only official to give foreign policy advice to the president. It is the responsibility of the national security adviser to ensure that every other part of the government which affects foreign policy decisions (Defense, CIA, Treasury , Commerce, Agriculture, US ambassador to the UN) have full opportunity to get its views before the president.
Mr. Reagan's national security adviser, Richard Allen, knows his terms of reference and he intends to make the system work as it has on more than one occasion in the past.
Conventional wisdom, which is often wrong, keeps repeating the proposition that there is no preparation for the presidency. It isn't true anymore. The fact is that much of the time during the past 30 years the vice-presidency has been a training ground of experience for potential presidents -- and a ladder to presidential nominations.
President Eisenhower was the first modern president to give major tasks to his vice-president. There were some in the administration who wanted to shunt Richard Nixon aside in 1956 and tried to persuade Eisenhower to pressure Nixon to accept a top cabinet post on the ground that it would be a better route to political advancement. Nixon was not interested and felt he was making the right decision.
Vice-President Mondale has been an intimate partner with President Carter and a full-scale participant in the decisionmaking councils. He is widely viewed as a likely and particularly qualified prospect for the 1984 Democratic nomination. The vice-presidency brought Hubert Humphrey the presidential nomination in 1968, and Vice-President Ford was able to take over from Nixon with great ease.
By now the vice-presidency is both training ground and frequent escalator and is likely to con tinue that way.