Of Carter, 1992, and 'October Surprises'

THE question asked recently in this column about why the Democrats are completely ignoring Jimmy Carter in seeking a presidential candidate has evoked no thunderous response. It did cause some stir in the media - print, radio, and TV.But the party's leaders didn't seem to find the suggestion of Carter's potential availability relevant to their plans for 1992. This careless shunting aside of a president who could serve another term causes some pain among those who were once his top team members in Washington. They see it as a sign of the low ebb to which the Democratic Party has fallen. Commenting on the party's lack of interest in Carter and on its emerging plans for a northern strategy to win the White House next year, one Carter cohort said disgustedly, "The party has a death wish." The philosophical thrust of the Democratic Party is what really bothers these Carter men. Said one: "It will never win the presidency with an agenda which stresses social liberalism. It can only make a persuasive appeal nationwide by running hard with economic issues." Another key member of Carter's team, referring to the still dominant liberalism among party leaders, had this to say: "By so doing the Democrats are forfeiting the presidency." Does Carter himself feel rebuffed by Democrats' failure to even whisper his name in their search for a candidate? "He's past that," says Bert Lance. "He doesn't want to look back." Jack Watson puts it this way: "Jimmy is using his life now in a most constructive and fulfilling way. He is doing things now, as a former president, that he couldn't do as a president. He has an almost unbelievable schedule of good works these days." The "way Carter left Washington" is a basic reason the former president would not want to go through it again, according to another Carter confidant. "He feels he was vilified - by politicians and the press. Rosalyn was particularly bitter - and still is." So Jimmy Carter's future trail is likely to lead him away from a bid to recapture his glory days in politics. But is interesting to speculate what a spirited Carter campaign, supported by that magnificent Georgia-based political team, might do if pitted against George Bush. All indications are that Bush is unbeatable. He's not a Jerry Ford - the president that Carter deposed in 1976. He's a president who is basking in all kinds of triumphs abroad, led by the Gulf war. Even Carter at his best would probably find Bush too much for him. But who of the present crop of Democratic candidates (and their ranks are thinning) would be able, right from the beginning, to grab the national attention that a Carter bid for the White House would claim? Carter associates I talked to all were convinced, as I am, that in the unlikely event that their old friend should get in the contest he would immediately become the Democratic front-runner. If it were disclosed that the Republicans did in fact manipulate the release of the hostages during the 1980 campaign, that could change everything. Did Reagan's campaign manager, William Casey, work behind the scenes to bring this about - as some Democrats are suggesting? I recall that Mr. Casey was particularly preoccupied with what he called the "October Surprise" he feared the Democrats would pull off. Indeed, he told our breakfast group, meeting at the GOP national convention in Detroit in July of 1980, that he thought it very possible the hostages would be released in October, just in time to give Carter the boost in public confidence he needed to beat Reagan in November. In September Casey again told this breakfast group that he feared an "October Surprise." Did Casey then work to hold off the hostage release until after the election? I doubt it. But should this come out in the congressional probe of the subject now slated for the fall, it would probably give any Democratic presidential candidate a surge of voter support - most of all the man who lost in 1980.

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