"Jimmy Carter's Pathetic Lies" was the arresting title on an article in Harper's Magazine for March 1976. As a matter of fact the estimate of Mr. Carter in the Harper's piece was considerably kinder than the headline. Yes, the author said, Carter had the Sunday school manner of a preacher in promising "love" and "compassion" for everybody -- but, in practical terms, "Carter was a good governor. . . . He fought for tough consumer laws and banking regulation, and opened the government to blacks and women. . . . Jimmy Carter has many qualities that could make him a good president."

The author, Steven Brill, also noted that Carter had "become known nationally for disavowing . . . veiled racism."

But this was only the beginning of criticism.

As the President neared the end of his first term, columnist Jack Anderson wrote five articles declaring that Carter was preparing an armed rescue attempt for the American hostages in Iran, politically timed to promote his re-election.

The Washington Post, which sponsors the Anderson column in the capital, declined to run the articles, on grounds it could not independently confirm the allegations. But the charges were syndicated, causing wide-spread unease over the nation.

The news media's treatment of Mr. Carter is no more harsh than that of other public figures and is part of what most people believe is a healthy aspect of the democratic process. Criticism of each President is different. The criticism of Carter is that he is weak and vacillating. He does not inspire the vituperation and actual hatred that Franklin Roosevelt did, with his attacks on so-called "economic royalists," including newspaper publishers.

Carter is a quieter type. He often rouses condescension or contempt from political enemies. He does not rouse the masses. He is, in fact, not a very good orator.

Although this very lack lowers the decibels of debate, the 1980 campaign is one of the most personal in years.

Many instances are cited of Carter's supposed indecision.

He made a crusading speech urging the nation to combat the energy shortage, what he called the "moral equivalent of war," but undercut the impact of the speech with a White House paper that implied the situation might not be so bad after all.

He started boldly in 1977 to reduce the long-criticized list of "pork b arrel" projects -- dams, drainage projects, and waterways -- only to discover that when Congress really wants something it can override the will of the president, who has only so much power in Washington.

The Carter White House fed information about a brigade of Soviet troops in Cuba to Sen. Frank Church of Idaho, then joined the senator and others in demanding their removal. After the controversy had severely damaged the chhances for Senate ratification of the strategic-arms limitation treaty (SALT II), the administration let the issue quietly die.

Many of the Carter domestic programs have foundered in the congressional bog. He proposed hospital cost containment, and the Democratic Congress voted it down three times. Congress rejected his urban aid package and his proposal to form a national health insurance system. His comprehensive tax-reform package got nowhere. After two years and numerous setbacks, the comprehensive energy program proposed by Mr. Carter has won partial approval. It was introduced by a President (and White House staff) who had already demonstrated a lack of finesse in dealing withe the various power centers in Congress. It wound up being the chief example of what re- election candidate Carter apparently means when he says that his first term was a learning experience.

President Carter also succeeded in establishing two new Cabinet departments -- Education and Energy; a landmark strip-ming bill was enacted; revenue sharing was extended; and the administration, working with senators on both sides of the aisle, won a major foreign policy victory with the ratification of the Panama Canal treaties.

The Democratic President appointed more women, blacks, and other members of minority groups to government positions than any of his White House predecessors.

But national attention for the most part has been fixed on the declining economy, and on the deterioration of relations with the Soviet Union.

The challenges of the presidency have never been greater. In world affairs, petroleum reserves were being drained, and prices rose fanstastically in a short period. Crude oil jumped from $3.21 a barrel in 1969 to $33 in 1980.

It was the hardest time in 50 years for the United States to assert a successful, let alone controlling, international influence.

At home, the US was still feeling the post-Vietnam qualms toward arms expenditures and toward presidential initiatives in relation to Congress. There was an institutional and intellectual fragmentation in many fields, with a breakdown of political structures such as party discipline.

Carter mentioned the extraordinary change when he came to Boston in october 1979 to dedicate the John F. Kennedy Library: "Aft er a decade of high inflation and growing oil imports, our economic cup no longer overflows. Because of inflation, fiscal restraint has become a matter of simple public duty. We can no longer rely on a rising economic tide to lift the boats of the poorest in our society. We must focus our attention . . . directly on them. We have a keener appreciation of the limits now -- the limits on government, the limits on the use of military power abroad. . . . We are struggling with a profound transition."

Jimmy Carter was an enigma to mot Americans when he narrowly defeated Gerald Ford for the presidency in 1976. His proclaimed faith in the durability of American ideals and the goodness of the people, his very lack of any connection to what had become in the public mind a tainted Washington establishment -- these were the attributes that gave him the edge in the election.

President Carter remains an enigma to many after almost four years in office. But he now he is an enigma with a record of successes and failures. How the electorate judges that record, along with its positive or negative assessment of Ronald Reagan, will determine whether the former naval officer, peanut processor from Plains, and one-term governor of Georgia gets anothe four-year lease on the White House.

"Every day that I am here makes me recognize," presidential assistant Stuart E. Eizenstat told political writer David Broder in Broder's new book, "changing of the Guard," "that the most efficient type of democracy is a parliamentary system with a fairly stable set of parties, as in Great Britain. You can get your programs through, and if you can't, you get another government."

In this unhappy comment from inside the White House, Mr. Eizenstat noted the problems of the modern president: discretionary authority markedly diminished as a result of the reaction to Watergate and other checks on the executive.

"I think the pendulum has swung away over in the wrong direction," he said. "congress has added something like 50 legislative vetoes [over executive-agency] . They let the President's wage-and-price-control authority expire. They threatened last year to take away his authority to impost import quotas. They are threatening this year to take away his authority to recommend a gas rationing plan."

This is the testimony of a Democratic adviser to a democratic president about a Democratic Congress. The voter wants the president to crack the whip and make Congress go along. Franklin Roosevelt did it, but no President has with such success in the third of a century since. Says Eizenstat wistfully, "Today, I think, the President does not have sufficient authority to act."

What additional power should be president have? "I think he ought to have authority to order wage and price controls," this President's adviser declares. Also, he thinks, a president should have authority to supersede local and state requirements, and perhaps even federal regulations, in "a certain limited number of high-priority energy projects of critical national importance."

Carter has not been comfortable President, like Calvin Coolidge or General Eisenhower. They presided over relatively tranquil times. The country yearns for an executive who will "take charge," who will make the complicated instrument of government work.

The times are difficult. The 52 hostages in Iran are, in fact, a symbol of natinal frustration. And the failed rescue mission is a goading example of impotence that can come in a delicately balanced world even to a superpower.

Next: After the 1979 crisis speech

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.