How did Jimmy Carter reach the White House? What are his accomplishments? Does he deserve re-election? Millions of Americans debate these questions two weeks before the election, as the world watches.

President Carter and the United States have learned a lot about each other in the past four years and perhaps something about themselves. Four years ago America was suffering from the trauma of 15 years of variegated disasters, and rather suddenly there emerged from Georgia a strange new political personality who said, "Trust me," and who told Americans that they could have a government "as good as themselves."

By a narrow margin, the voters (only 54.4 percent of whom went to the polls) hopefully picked the almost unknown newcomer and thereby followed the 200 -year-old US practice of first electing a president and finding out about him afterward.

The year 1976 seems enormously long ago today. The American people had been torn and wrung as in few times in the nation's history, with Vietnam, riots, assassinations, racial and social turbulence, Watergate, gasoline lines, resignation of a vice-president and a president, and erosion of certainty in America's power and its boundless future.

On the political side there was a quiet shift in American governmental institutions, a decline in party discipline, an increase in congressional activism, a substantial loss of confidence in the presidency. For eight years America had split government in Washington. The occupant in the White House was a member of one party. Congress was dominated by another. This is a condition under which no other nation could survive, and in the near stalemate at the end of this period, President Gerald Ford sent up 40 vetoes.

People grew cynical. In a 1950 poll, for example, three- fourths of the people thought their government was run primarily "for the benefit of the people ," but in 1976 only 38 percent thought so, while 53 percent said they thought it was run for "big interests" (only 17 percent said so in 1950).

Along came Carter. This reporter met him for the first time in the snows of the 1976 New Hampshire primary, and liked him. He was extraordinary. He talked about "love." His quiet appeal was almost mystical. He also seemed to be an enigmatic and hidden man.

Veteran reporters didn't know what to think. Columnist Joseph Kraft thought he saw in him "a streak of ugly meanness," and the columnist team of Rowland Evans Jr. and Robert Novak quoted enemies back in Georgia who asserted that beside intelligence, discipline, and dedication there was in Carter "vindictiveness extraordinary even for a politician."

Not so said other analysts just as emphatic in Carter's favor: Anthony Lewis of the New York Times affirmed, "He cares about the powerless in society -- genuinely, I am convinced." An equally sophisticated observer, David Broder of the Washington Post, told of listening to Carter speak to a black YWCA crowd in Milwaukee where he spoke "with an eloquence, a simplicity, a directness that move listeners of both races." He said "one would have to be made of stone to be unmoved by the surge of emotion -- the communion -- between those black listeners and that white speaker who hopes to be their president."

But how did Carter get elected? Very simple, really. He planned for it for four years, a governor of a state with a nonrenewable term, who was without national experience and whose views were not well known, but who could grab the attention of the great American media machine by promptness, impudence, and audacity.

In the past, political conventions nominated candidates. But now there was a new way: If Carter could win a preliminary skirmish or two -- say the initial Iowa caucus, where only a few thousand Democrats voted -- he would catch the eye of the mass media, salivating for excitement. And perhaps he would let that attention lift him up to clutch the nomination. George McGovern had used the device earlier, almost inadvertently. Now Carter could systematically exploit the new process.

The governor had a united, loyal, clannish staff, had the new, expanded primary system (with 31 primaries), a new federal campaign financing law that would sustain him after the first million dollars (raised in 1975) was exhausted , and he had a product to offer -- a fresh figure preaching trust, love, integrity, open government, and anti-government.

In the Iowa Democratic caucus, Jan. 19, 1976, only 45,000 turned out, and Carter got the support of only 27.63 percent of them.But those 12,400-odd votes unleashed the chain of events that ultimately made him President. I have the front-page story of the New York Times of next day before me as I write with a story by R. W. Apple under the headline "Results in Iowa Regarded as Major Push for Carter." It begins, "Former Gov. Jimmy Carter of Georgia found himself widely regarded today as a major contender for the Democratic presidential nomination as late reports from last night's Iowa precinct caucuses gave him a solid victory."

In the New Hampshire primary in February, only 22,895 Democrats voted. And Carter got only 29 percent of their vote. But he was still charging ahead in the media and still considered the front-runner. In Florida im March he got 34 percent of the votes. George Wallace was his nearest contender with 31 percent. That did it. He was ahead. Jimmy Carter was in every headline, on every TV screen, and was the subject of every political conversation in the country. His nomination was virtually assured.

That is how Carter got to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

What is the effect of putting a brand new, inexperienced, "anti-Washington" figure into the White House to run the country?Europeans look on the practice with awe. Forty years elapsed between the time Winston Churchill first entered Parliament and when he became prime minister. Carter came to Washington with no congressional experience at all. There is probably less accountability between American voters and their government on campaign pledges than in any other of the world's democracies. The new President soon found this out.

Carter had made an extraordinary number of promises. As an evidence of good faith, he had his staff collect these promises and print them for reference after the election. In itself this seemed almost unbelievable sign of innocence to many Washington politicians.

It is not meant as criticism to say that Carter and his new team appeared to spend the first year in office learning the ropes; it was a desirable and almost necessary task in the circumstances. It is important to note, too, that a president is elected not merely as an executive but as a personality -- one who creates an atmosphere, or aura in government. Jimmy Carter did that with considerable success with all his difficulties, and it can be measured by the very difficulty we have in remembering the sullen, angry, venomous mood that hung over Washington for a while after Watergate.

Here is one of the Carter promises, made before the Democratic platform committee, June 10, 1976, and set down not in criticism but as a reminder: "Without endangering the defense of our nation or commitment to our allies, we can reduce the present defense expenditures by about $5 billion to $7 billion annually."

While President Carter was undergoing on-the-job training on promises like this, he also abruptly proposed, largely through the press, an international system of human-rights policies and urged the Soviets to join in a general, major slash in arms.

The Soviet reaction was outrage: They felt they were being undercut by a propaganda maneuver and insisted on conventional diplomatic negotiations. They could not understand the sudden changes in American government. Many have derided the Carter human-rights initiative. But to some degree it has changed the image of the United States around the world.

One other instance of Carter inexperience leaps out in reviewing the record.

Just after he was inaugurated, the old Roosevelt segment of the Democratic Party held a triumphant "New Deal Dinner" honoring the anniversary of FDR's first inaugural, March 4, 1933. It expected to tie in with the new Carter administration. What might be called the "intellectual lobby" is powerful in America; it is made up of thinkers, philosophers, academics. It is not numerically large, but it molds and sways public opinion to an extraordinary degree. Roosevelt, of course, built his administration upon it.

I have the program for the dinner here with its list of patrons -- How the names bring it back! Chester Bowles, Ben Cohen, Tommy Corcoran, Jonathan Daniels, William O. Douglas, Marriner Eccles, India Edwards, Kenneth Galbraith, Averell Harriman, Leon Keyserling, Robert Nathan, Joseph L. Rauh, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Rex Tugwell, and so on. It was the time above all for Carter physically and symbolically to identify himself with the intellectual center of the Democrats in America's two- party system. But Carter didn't come. The souvenir program had a place for "Greetings: the Vice-President," but Vice-President Walter Mondale didn't show, either. He was off skiing in the West.

It was a gloomy anniversary as the remnants of the once all-powerful New Deal had their last reunion. Almost certainly the slight was unintentional. But many at the party never forgave Carter. The Democratic group supporting independent presidential candidate John Anderson now includes some of them.

Carter started out boldly. He told the Democratic Congress to kill more than 30 dams and water projects, which he regarded as pork-barrel projects, which some of them were. But suddenly he discovered that Congress is not the Georgia legislature, that the American presidency is severely -- some say dangerously -- limited, and that there is little in Washington save patronage and blandishment to make an undisciplined party toe the line.

Carter beat a retreat on the projects; also, as major inflation began to take hold, he dropped the $50 tax rebate that was included in his original economic stimulus package. Critics jumped on the chance to call him vacillating. Some of the critics were Washington insiders who could not forgive an outsider like Carter from making it. This was accentuated by the tight, almost clannish, nature of the Carter inner circle. The problem was that after coming to Washington the Carter outsiders remained outsiders too long.

In this learning period the President had to find out how to allocate his time. He was a detail man. During his first six months in office, according to James Fallows, a sympathetic onetime White House speech-writer, the President would undertake petty matters, personally reviewing all requests to use the White House tennis court.

Mr. Fallows, who wrote his insider's account in the Atlantic monthly last year ("The Passionless Presidency") still thinks Carter is "the best hope for someday bringing the government under control." He wants him re-elected, he says , to supply "the stability of character which is Jimmy Carter's greatest strength." Also because he thinks the "on-the-job-training has been costly for all of us: Soon it will be time for him to pay us back."

The administration had successes. It normalized relations with China, won the Middle East peace agreement, passed the Panama Canal treaties, refinanced social security, enacted a modified energy program, and embarked on far-reaching environmental activism. Presidential appointments to federal courts were generally approved, but Carter's loyalty to friends was often embarrassing, as in the Bert Lance affair.

Jimmy Carter has one disconcerting habit for his critics, the habit of winning. He has repeatedly exasperated opponents who underestimate him. He often seems to inspire condescension by opponents who cannot take him seriously. He became governor of Georgia by cultivating the underdog image. Then he surprised the nation by getting first the presidential nomination, and then the presidency. Some people still rub their eyes. As President, he achieved an unlikely Israeli-Egyptian agreement at the Camp David summit that seems to have taken both Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat a little aback, though not all of its provisions have been implemented.

Again, Carter got the Panama Canal treaties through the Senate where 34 votes could have stopped them. He lifted the Turkish arms embargo. Was his reputation irretrievably tarnished over his scapegrace brother Billy's dealing with Libya? The President held a dramatic press conference on the subject that many felt turned into a tour de force.

Then came the renomination fight. At one point he seemed a pushover for Edward Kennedy, who led him in the polls 2 to 1. After the President's July 15, 1979, speech in which he said the nation was suffering a "malaise," followed by a shakeup of his Cabinet and White House staff, Sen. George McGovern (D) of South Dakota and Sen. Henry Jackson (D) of Washington, representing opposite wings of the party, urged him to yield gracefully to Kennedy.

At the same time Congress, in what looked like a gesture of contempt, left on vacation without acting on his energy package. At one point the House, 246 to 149, even refused to grant him stand-by authority to ration gasoline in a national emergency. But Carter did not yield. He won most of the primaries and he was renominated by the New York convention.

With the Carter record of coming from behind firmly established, few are willing to count him out in the Nov. 4 election.

Under normal political circumstances an incumbent president with the triple burden of inflation, unemployment, and high interest rates on his back would be a pushover, like Hoover in 1932. But Jimmy Carter -- who knows?

Carter is a blurred image. Different views of him regularly appear. Critics attack him for "waffling indecisiveness." It is agreed that he works hard -- 16 hours a day. But hard work is not enough. Bluntly interpreting polls taken during the Carter-Kennedy nomination duel, when Kennedy was far ahead, the Harris Poll editor said, "It is the perceived belief that he [Carter] doesn't know how to do the job he has been elected to do."

Carter is rarely eloquent, and it may take eloquence to run America. Says historian Arthur Link, who notes the power of Woodrow Wilson through his speeches, "Carter is unable to communicate great ideas and to formulate great programs in language that will capture the hearts and inspire the minds of the people, as Wilson could. Carter . . . is much better in unrehearsed encounters, press conferences, and the like."

So much for one view. On the other hand, journalists who find their way to the White House dinner table discover Carter, in the words of Anthony Lewis, "thoughtful, easy, sympathatic," also extremely well-informed and quietly reasonable. He is calm and unemotional.

In some ways Carter is the only true political outsider in a century. The bewildering ups and downs of the polls tell the turbulent story: At one point he was a favorite, then he plunged to the lowest rating of any president since polls began. Finally came foreign crises that lifted him because Americans always turn to the presidency in an international emergency.

There is one final aspect of the puzzle: the office of the presidency itself. Is America's system of checks and balances working the way it should? Do we have a good way of selecting our presidents? Godfrey Hodgson, former editor of The Times (London), reviewing a book "The Absence of Power" declares, "I happen to believe that Haynes Johnson [the author] is right in his judgment that the American people show some signs of being unwilling to govern themselves. As he points out they certainly show every sign of being unwilling to be taxed adequately to provide the services they expect."

That is critical to the problem: How much can a president do anyway? Americans still search for a president who "can make Washington work"; a "strong" president, they say. But problems have stiffened and party discipline has loosened. The White House has less authority than it did.

Is it the Carter presidency that has been in trouble, or the presidency itself? Can the government overcome stalemate without drastic reorganization or greater team play?The public feels it deserves better government than it gets. It is still searching for some romantic newcomer.

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.