Five years later . . . another view of Carter

HARRY Truman had his comeback in history. So did Dwight Eisenhower -- and even Richard Nixon, to a degree.

Now it may be Jimmy Carter's turn.

As presidential historians have said all along, it would be only a matter of time before the country began to reassess the Carter presidency and perhaps revise its view of the maverick Democrat from Plains, Ga.

That now appears to be happening. Evidence is mounting of changing perceptions as scholars research the Carter years, as news media run retrospective pieces about the former President, and as Americans take another look five years later.

The latest indication of a possible comeback comes in a Washington Post/ABC News poll of 1,500 people published this week. It shows that Mr. Carter has gone up in public esteem, with an overall rating of 55 percent favorable and 39 percent unfavorable.

``He seems more highly regarded now than during most of his presidency, and his rating is almost the reverse of what it was in December 1980, as his term drew to a close,'' writes Barry Sussman, the newspaper's pollster.

Most of the renewed support, says Mr. Sussman, comes from blacks (85 percent favorable), liberals (65 percent), and Democrats generally (70 percent). Republicans and GOP-leaning independents still rate him unfavorably (57 percent), he finds. Carter does poorly among most conservatives; in the West; and among people earning more than $30,000.

Political experts suggest that the turnabout is due in part to the fact that Ronald Reagan is such a polarizing figure. Blacks, for instance, many of whom feel they have done poorly under the present administration, like Carter better now than they did during his incumbency.

The Beirut hostage crisis may also have had an effect on popular attitudes. President Reagan studiously avoided the image of a beleaguered leader as Americans were held captive for two weeks. But he, like Carter during the grueling Iranian hostage crisis, was unwilling to resort to military force to resolve the problem.

``Having seen a different president with a different philosophy wrestle with the same problems, people may have a better understanding of the things Jimmy Carter faced,'' comments Jody Powell, White House press spokesman during the Carter administration. ``And people who were upset with Carter in 1980 because he was too conservative have now seen what the hard right looks like.''

The press, which tended to be sharply critical of Mr. Carter while he was in office, is also doing some reappraising. A spate of articles has appeared this past year in various periodicals, including Time magazine.

Frye Gaillard, who wrote a five-part series on the Carter presidency for the Charlotte Observer, recalls how he came to undertake the project. He went to cover a speech given by Carter at Wingate College. The small Baptist institution is on the edge of Monroe, N.C., the hometown of ultraconservative Republican Sen. Jesse Helms and, as he relates, ``hardly a bastion of liberalism.''

It was a cold night in February, says Mr. Gaillard. Yet the auditorium, which seats 2,000, was filled to overflowing. The reception for Carter was so warm that the reporter felt prompted to check if this was happening elsewhere in the country. He found it was -- at colleges in Connecticut, Dallas, and Minnesota, according to newspaper accounts.

``So a case can be made that a reassessment is going on in the hinterlands,'' Gaillard says.

Academic research on the Carter presidency is also providing new insights. The White Burkett Miller Center for Public Affairs at the University of Virginia has concluded a 3,000-page oral study of the Carter White House based on interviews with some 60 people. Three scholars are writing monographs about Carter based on this valuable raw material.

``What emerges from the oral history is that [White House] actions that seemed to reflect disorder and confusion at the time now seem to have a more rational basis,'' says Kenneth W. Thompson, director of the center.

James Sterling Young, who headed the project, expects a long-term historical revision that ``will be a different-looking presidency than it seemed at the time.''

``The image of the Carter people as not particularly knowing what they were doing and not having a strategy will be very much revised,'' says Professor Young, who is preparing one of the monographs.

``Whether it was effective or not, you'll see there was a consistent approach. . . . The picture of incompetence will probably vanish, to be replaced by the reality that there was a `Carter way' -- though it was different, say, from an LBJ way.''

Whether the swing in public opinion represents a change of view about the Carter presidency or about Carter the man is far from clear.

Some analysts suggest that in the future he may be looked upon as a good man as President but not necessarily as a good President.

Americans may simply have a better feeling today about a man of high intelligence who sought to do his best but was not effective in political terms, even though he piled up many solid achievements, especially in foreign policy.

``The revisionism is probably more with the person than with the presidency,'' says Charles Jones, a University of Virginia scholar who is also writing a monograph on Carter and Congress.

Professor Jones finds that the record was not as bad as projected but that Carter's relations with the legislature were poor. Still, he says, Carter considered this a strength, not a weakness, because he felt he was in office to represent the public interest and tackle difficult problems.

``He intended to get Washington politicians to think in different ways, and he thinks he accomplished some of that,'' Jones says.

``He was pretty consistent. He felt he had a mandate from the people . . . and thought he had made clear that he did not intend to do politics in the ordinary way.''

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