In the guise of welcoming the Reagans to the White House, certain Washingtonians have been making catty remarks about the Carters. In columns and on TV they hail the presumed return of "class" to presidential social events as if these had been in the hands of a Jacksonian mob for the past four years. Such implications are manifestly unfair. Their emergence ought to make Americans stop and think about what kind of White House style they prefer.
This is not to forecast or prejudge the Reagan approach, as some Washington hostesses seem to be doing. Nor is it to give undue weight to the social side of the presidency as opposed to the substance of policy and administration. It is simply to recognize the surface elements that can effect the tone at the top and thus possibly in the country.
From some of the comment it appears that the hope is for elegant parties including the local insiders that were not exactly wooed by Mr. Crter and the Georgians. It is useful for any president to have the insiders in his corner, as Mr. Reagan's first Washington forays seem to recognize. But it should be remembered that part of Mr. Carter's original political appeal lay in freedom from such ties -- as did Mr. Ragan's. And no president will want to cultivate them at the expense of appearing to become their prisoner.
The grass-roots "morality and religion" constituency of Mr. Reagan will hardly be delighted if their candidate becomes identified with the lavish conviviality of "society." For one thing, this would hardly set the right example for the sons and daughters of this constituency, or of anyone else. The challenge is to maintain a manner appropriate to an office representing all the people.
The Carters did respond to this challenge, however much the results might be debated. As with Andy Jackson, some of the common touches -- the cardigan, the garment bag -- may have been calculated, and they faded after a time. The social conduct of some Carter aides was toom common. But the effort remained to avoid elitism while supporting excellence, whether in the realms of such White House guests as Horowitz, Baryshnikov, Rostropovich, Segovia, Leontyne Price, or Dizzy Gillespie. The Carters also went out to plays, concerts, art exhibitions. Mrs. Mondale notably joined in supporting the arts beyond the official channels of the national endowment. The short-memoried press even took note of the care and thought that went into the decor and menus, refreshingly free of hard liquor , for White House festivities.
We join in welcoming the Reagans and the buoyancy and flair that hold such promise for the atmostphere in Washington. But we won't make it an excuse for poor-mouthing the incumbents.