It was not President Carter's finest moment. His gratuitous criticism of former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance at the town meeting in Philadelphia was graceless and petty. It was also unjustified.

Edmund Muskie may indeed prove to be a "stronger" and "more statesmanlike" spokesman for US foreign policy than his predecessor. That remains to be seen. But the fact is that it is precisely Mr. Vance's statesmanship that won him widespread respect and the perception of Mr. Carter's lack of it that has made many world leaders despair about American policy. Whatever gains US diplomacy has made in the past three years -- and these are not inconsequential -- are due in large measure to the dedicated efforts of Cyrus Vance.

Politics no doubt weighs heavily in the President's pronouncements these days as he seeks to gain capital from his appointment of Mr. Muskie. Perhaps his derogation of Mr. Vance was simply a casual, offhand remark uttered without much forethought. But, sad to say, we sense a touch of vinfictiveness here that does dishonor to the White House. Whatever policy disagreements Mr. Carter had with the former secretary, a stance of appreciation for his faithful service would more befit a presidential statesman.

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