Even while proclaiming an "operation candor" in an effort to contain the impact of the Billy Carter affair, White House insiders are expressing an anxiety that the shadow of the President's brother will hang over the remainder of the campaign and the election itself.
"There is some mixed feeling about the impact of all this," a White House aide says, "but the preponderance of White House staffers think it will be with us a long time."
"If Congress conducts a probe, which now seems likely, it would drag it out -- right into the election," he adds.
Further, Monitor conversations with Democratic political leaders here and around the US, supports this White House conclusion that the disclosures about Billy Carter's involvement with the Libyan government will be long-lasting and, perhaps, fatal to President Carter's reelection prospects.
The Billy Carter story started with disclosure that he had taken $220,000 from the Libyans.
Then information surfaced that Billy had arranged an introductory meeting between Zbigniew Brzezinski and the Libyan charge d'affaires in Washington last December. Now it becomes known that brother Billy also set up a meeting three weeks later between the President and the same Libyan official, Ali Houderi.
The President's rebuttal is basically that the "Billy Carter card" was played in an effort to get Libya's Muammar al- Qaddafi to intervene to gain the release of the US hostages held in Iran.
The White House, on Thursday morning, was far from stonewalling. Instead, the presidential position, at the moment, holds that it may have been a mistake to use brother Billy in this effort to free the hostages -- but that at worst it was a "mistake of judgment,' not one that involved anything criminal or improper."
The White House also contends that much of the assessment of the Jimmy-Billy Libyan "connection" is the result of hindsight -- with the wisdom of today obscuring the fact that last December, the President was responding to his own desire and intense public pressure to pursue every avenue to try to get the hostages freed.
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, the Senate established by unanimous consent a nine-member blue-ribbon panel to launch an investigation into the connection between Billy Carter and Libya's government.
Some Republican politicians were seeing this as a great opportunity to gain revenge against the Democrats for the damage done to the GOP by Watergate.
To this, one administration official comments, "If the Republicans go about this in too gleeful a fashion, comparing it to Watergate, it is going to invite comparisons that will boomerang. This is not a president who is sitting behind the scenes and calling the shots in a coverup. He is making it clear that everything should be out in the open -- and that we should answer every question , even those we may feel are trivial."
In the Reagan camp there is no sign of chortling over the Billy Carter stories. Despite the controversy and a recent Harris poll giving Reagan a 61 to 33 lead over President Carter, Reagan senior advisor Jim Baker expects the President to make a comeback similar to that of Gerald Ford in the 1976 presidential race.
To get his latest "brother problem" quickly out of the way, the President would have to persuade the Democratic leadership in Congress to stop a congressional probe. But Hill sources say Carter's ties with Congress are not good enough to yield that kind of cooperation.
House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill now has commented that it is a rare family that does not have a black sheep. This type of response helped the President in the past when he had to deal with Bill Carter's actions. But evidence appears to be growing that politicians and people generally are not going to be as forgiving of Billy Carter this time, or as willing as they have been in the past to be sympathetic with a President for having to deal with a wayward brother.