President Carter put his side of the embarrassing Billy case forcefully, effectively, and with what seems to be considerable openness and thoroughness. His statement in his news conference that Billy Carter has in no way influenced US policy toward Libya and that neither he nor any menber of his administration has violated any law or committed any impropriety should be reassuring to the American people. Such categorical statements in prime television time cannot be made lightly and Mr. Carter must know full well the further political risks he incurs if it turns out he has shaved the truth. Certainly further investigations of the affair will measure the findings against these unequivocal words:
"Everything that I and the White House staff did with respect to this case was designed to serve the interests of law enforcement and justice."
By making public such an extensive report, including entries from his diary and recollections of top aides, and by fielding questions for an hour, Mr. Carter should put to rest any malicious comparison of this case with Watergate. If questions remain, they do not (at least now) revolve around an obstruction of justice or some insidious plot. From what has come to light so far, they concern primarily style of leadership at the White House.
At worst, the President seems to be ensnared in problems arising from his rather personalized and often parochial way of operating. From the very outset of his presidency he surrounded himself with a narrow circle of Georgia friends and showed -- as in the BErt Lance affair -- that he regards loyalty to them as extremely important, even when such publicity proclaimed loyalty seems to conflict with the interests of his presidential office. He obviously accept advice from family members and uses them for diplomatic purposes. He insists he will go on doing so. His public professions of love for his brother and his reference to Billy Carter's independence of spirit similarly seem to underscore his familial, down-home approach.
Much has been done, of course, to professionalize the White House operation, including bringing in more skilled and knowledgeable aides, and the Carter administration has been the better for it. But the public may perceive there are still too many strands of incompetence and poor judgment. We tend to think, for instance, that turning to Billy Carter as an intermediary in the US hostage crisis was not at all outlandish an idea, given the extreme tensions and frenetic diplomatic initiatives being tried at the time. in past crises other presidents have similarly used personal emissaries. But even this step seems to have taken without a grasp of the situation. Good staff work would have disclosed how little influence Libyan leader Qaddafi had with Ayatollah Khomeini. And it is not clear that anyone even raised the question of whether involving Billy Carter would not improperly enhance his influence with the Libyans. Ironically, the President was seen to be playing his hand precisely the way the Libyans themselves operate and think the White House operates -- through use of personal ties.
Many other matters will doubtless be gone into by the congressional investigators, including Attorney General Civiletti's approach to Mr. Carter which the latter defended (questionably) as proper. Such issues as the role which fugitive Robert Vesco may have played in the whole affair was not even touched upon in the news conference. It is clear that, however disagreeable all this may be at the height of a presidential election campaign, Congress will have to look carefully -- and we hope dispassionately -- at the presidential disclosures in the light of its own probings. But, barring some unsavory revelation, what we have seen so far suggests the Billy affair has been blown up out of proportion to its real importance.
Perhaps there is a lesson in it all, nevertheless. The President touched on an obvious but important fact when he noted that the "appearance" of favoritism to presidential relatives is often worse than the reality. It is this appearance of possible favoritism which the White House has failed to avoid. hence the President's announced intention to put into effect a rule barring any executive official from "dealing with any member of the President's family under circumstances creating the reality or the appearance of improper favor or influence" is welcome. The sad thing, of course, is that a rule should be needed.