When a president goes his own way

Washington's floral beauty this time of year is very difficult for anyone to resist. Little wonder then that Rosalynn Carter is back in the city telling us how much she misses it all, despite the intense discomfort she and Jimmy Carter experienced, for the most part, during their stay here.

Mrs. Carter, who is promoting her new and widely praised book (''First Lady From Plains''), is speculating that if she and Jimmy had ''gone the social cocktail circuit'' while in Washington they might have been able to gain the acceptance in the very same power structure here that, as they see it, made it so difficult for the Carter presidency to succeed.

Then Rosalynn concedes that Jimmy wouldn't go that route, even if given another chance - that it just wasn't his style.

The former First Lady, it seems to me, was coming very, very close to getting at what so inhibited Carter's administration: his lack of acceptance by the bureaucracy, Congress, and the media.

Carter's unwillingness to be palsy-walsy with the power people here was, as his wife suggests, not a Carter posture of independence so much as it was something inherent in the Georgian himself. He is a loner. By nature he goes his own way and, for the most part, takes his own counsel.

But there is a real question whether Carter could have become a part of the group, a real member of the club here, even if he had made the effort.

The power structure here admitted to being less than comfortable with a President who banned hard liquor from being served at White House parties and who spoke openly of being ''reborn'' and of praying three times each day.

The Carter commitment to religion was never regarded even by his critics as being less than fully genuine. Nor was Carter ever accused of mixing his religion with his state functions. And he made it clear, from the outset, that in no way did he feel that he had any ''pipeline to God'' that told him how to govern America. He said his faith gave him strength and support. That was all.

But if this reporter would have to pick out one element in the Carter presidency that led most to his difficulties in pulling the governing entity here together, it was the inability of so many Washington power wielders to feel at ease with Carter's open avowal of religious faith and with his highly moral attitude toward individual conduct.

Jody Powell was telling reporters the other morning that he attributed Carter's difficulties to Congress (and, particularly, the liberal Kennedy element in Congress and the Democratic Party), to the press (and here, he said, he was mainly talking about columnists and commentators), and to the Washington bureaucracy (heavily populated with liberals).

He said that Carter never was able to break down the suspicion and hostility that the Georgian encountered in those circles. He emphasized that Carter's emphasis on religion clearly was an important element in turning these people off.

He concedes that he and his colleagues might have done more to try to heal the breach.

But he contends that the ''nonwelcome'' sign that was there when their administration began was one that would never have been taken down, no matter what Carter did.

Carter, lest anyone forget, was an intelligent, thoughtful, articulate, and skilled political figure. Historians will struggle over the enigma of why such a President wasn't able to make government work better.

Actually, they'll probably find that he accomplished a great deal more than now is being noted, particularly in foreign affairs.

Perhaps those historians will, in the end, conclude that the potential of Carter and his presidency was curbed by the way too many influential members of the Washington community treated this stranger from the South.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's Senior Washington columnist.

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