THERE are some poignant overtones to a visit from Jimmy Carter. The former President -- ever polite, friendly, knowledgeable, and articulate -- raised that same old haunting question: Why -- many of us were asking after listening to Mr. Carter hold forth impressively on a wide range of subjects -- didn't he fare better in the White House? Of course, history may say that Carter did much better as President than his current critics are saying. And Carter himself obviously thinks he did well. He cites his Camp David performance, together with normalizing China relations, and the Panama Canal treaties, as part of a record of which he is proud.
But Carter feels both disheartened and sad over the prevailing public view that his presidency fell short of being successful. Carter seems to put much of the blame for this perception on the press.
``I think that President Reagan has been treated better by the press than any president that I can recall -- with the possible exception of President Roosevelt, who I hardly remember.
``Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Kennedy have gotten very good press coverage and very little sharp criticism and denigration. I would say that Truman, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and I were treated poorly by the press.
``There's been a scholarly analysis made that shows that I had the worst press of all. And out of the 48 months I served as President, only one month did I get an overall favorable press. That was the first month I was in office.''
``There was another study made throughout this century of all presidents. And what they did was analyze the major headlines of the periodicals each month as to whether they were basically positive, negative, or neutral [toward the President at that time]. And my press was worse than Nixon's during Watergate or Truman's. Even during the month we had the Camp David accords, the press was basically negative.''
But during his 1976 campaign Carter got a pretty favorable press. ``I was, first of all, a curiosity. I was a Southerner, a Baptist, a relative unknown. And I had some surprising victories. After Iowa, I got a very favorable press. And I was pleased with it, of course.''
Mr. Carter admitted that, as President, ``in retrospect, we tried to do too much, too fast. We did have successes. Some of them were notable. But they were counterbalanced in the public's mind by a new controversy or series of controversies ongoing at the same time.'' He continued:
``We had too heavy an agenda. This is particularly true in foreign policy -- because we were simultaneously sometimes working on Middle East peace, Panama Canal treaty, normalizing relations with China, the SALT II treaty, and so on . . . There was always a turmoil there.''
So maybe Carter did indirectly provide an answer to the question about his public image as reflected in the press. Maybe his style of getting personally involved with the details of a lot of problems all at once blurred his record and made his successes short lived, in the eyes of the public.
But Mr. Carter wasn't apologizing. ``Even if I had to do it over again,'' he said, ``I don't think I could change my basic character. It was my nature to analyze problems that I see and try to approach them all as rapidly as I can.''
``Would he,'' a questioner asked, ``once again act as a US negotiator in the Mideast?'' Carter was willing. ``But I don't think that's likely,'' he added.
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.