Do Presidents get to say what they really think only in their farewell speeches? In his farewell speech President Eisenhower warned of a military-industrial complex that was getting too big for its own good, and the good of American society. It was a warning all the more startling, coming from a military man who, as a moderate Republican, had hardly been an enemy of Big Business. But Eisenhower thought he saw an alliance of special interests threatening to get out of control and make a farce of democratic processes, and at the very last minute he said so.
In his farewell speech President Carter addressed himself, first and foremost , to "the threat of nuclear destruction." Thirty-five years after Hiroshima, he said, "the danger is becoming greater" and "it may only be a matter of time before madness, desperation, greed or miscalculation lets loose that terrible force."
He noted that a nuclear war in the '80s would last only half a day.Yet "more destructive power than in all of World War II would be unleashed every second for the long afternoon it would take for all the missiles and bombs to fall." And more people -- most of them civilians, of course -- would be "killed in the first few hours than in all the wars of history put together."
Mr. Carter concluded: "The survivors, if any, would live in despair amid the poisoned ruins of a civilization that had committed suicide."
In farewell speeches one hears the voices of men shaken by a closeup view of power and what power can do.
What a contrast to inauguration speeches! In inauguration speeches Presidents conjure up New Frontiers and hint, as Mr. Carter did, of a populism that will unite leaders and citizens in the promise of national greatness, as of yore.
An incoming President would not be able to say things an exiting President says, even if he wanted to. The new man must maintain the confident, can-do posture expected of a fresh leader. But an incoming President would not want to say those things anyway.
The incoming President -- even when he is older than the going President -- is, by the comparison of experience, a youth, full of the expectations of youth. Still cresting from his election, he feels like a winner. He tastes, mostly, the sweetness of power.
One recalls the first White House days of John Kennedy -- rising early, roaming into the mail room to open letters himself because he simply could not wait, rather like a charming child on Christmas morning with the toy he had always wanted.
After the Bay of Pigs, after the Cuban missile crisis, what would President Kennedy have said in his farewell speech?
Every outgoing President becomes, in a sense, father, passing on power to the next generation with the warning: "It's not as easy, it's not as innocent as you think."
Fathers, as every son knows, are made to be ignored. And, to an extent, sons are right. Fathers can be tired. Fathers can be prematurely despairing -- too fatalistic about defeat.
At the moment, it would be a small act of cruelty to put the beaming face of Ronald Reagan beside the long-distance-runner face of Jimmy Carter.
he mood of farewell speeches goes away, even for the speaker. Eisenhower went back to playing golf. A young man as ex-President go, Mr. Carter may forget his own words and find himself back in the swing of politics-as-usual -- the game whose only object is to throw the other team out and regain possession of the playing field by the Potomac.
Is there no halfway point between exultant newcomer, itching to get his hands on the controls, and weary King Lear, with nightmares of World War III, recoiling from the finger on the button?
Mr. Carter is planning to write a book. A lot of officeholders' memoirs are cautious exercises in self- justification -- flower arrangements at the base of the monument. Perhaps Mr. Carter can break the formula. Perhaps he can tell us what the power of the White House looked like in the beginning and what it looked like at the end and why, in between, a President so often cannot seem to do w hat he wants to do, or ought to do.