SHORTLY after Jimmy Carter had such an important - and widely acclaimed - role in putting together the Camp David accords, I encountered one of his top aides in the White House. All smiles, he said something like this:
"Jimmy has made it to the top and nothing now can keep him from being a big success as president. Even though the next election is a few years away, I'd say he's now a cinch to win."
I must say that I didn't see any reason to put up any argument at the time. Everyone was singing the praises of President Carter and his Camp David diplomacy. Politically, he was on a mountaintop. Yet in a relatively short time Carter's apparent invincibility was being shattered on the rocks of a faltering economy. And, finally, there was the Tehran hostage crisis that made Carter look so helpless. He ended up not only a defeated president but also one on whom many in his own party had turned their backs .
George Bush's slide from his Gulf war mountaintop down some 30 percent in the polls is a reminder of what happened to Carter. No doubt about it: President Bush has had a rough ride of it in his third year in the White House.
Only a relatively few months ago his masterly management of the war won him plaudits from around the world. Many observers were predicting a "sure" reelection victory in 1992. And then a sluggish economy smacked Bush right in the face. And down he's been going ... down and down.
But while Carter's experience is a reminder of what is happening to Bush, it is far from being the same. Carter's decline brought him down to record lows in public opinion. I even saw a California poll that gave the discredited ex-president Richard Nixon a higher standing with the public than Carter.
Carter himself appeared to concede that he was ineffective by calling together political and opinion leaders (even journalists) to instruct him on how he could do a better job of governing. He seemed to think that Americans themselves were to blame for his problems - that there was a lack of interest out there in making things better.
Now, Bush's fall in the approval ratings has been rather spectacular. But he still retains a respectable standing with the public. And he continues to be widely regarded as politically potent and a likely winner next fall. The same "experts" who were predicting he would win "big" a few months ago are still viewing him as a probable victor. The only difference is that today they see a "close" race.
Perhaps the best evidence of Bush's continuing popularity is the reluctance of well-known Democratic public figures to take him on. One by one they have been dropping out of the race even before really getting in. First there was Richard Gephardt, then Bill Bradley, then Albert Gore, then Sam Nunn, then Tom Foley, then Lloyd Bentsen, then George Mitchell, and then Jay Rockefeller. The Rev. Jesse Jackson said he would prefer to sit out this dance; he'll moderate a TV program instead.
Then the most publicized dropout of them all came about when Mario Cuomo decided that this would not be his year. And then, just the other day, Douglas Wilder departed from the race.
All these men had "other reasons" for not running. Naturally. None admitted that likely defeat was a persuasive element in his decision. Indeed, they all said that Bush was vulnerable and that some other Democrat could well run and win. Political writers are used to hearing such talk.
Also, Bush - unlike Carter - is receiving no significant defection among people of his own party. Party leaders all across the United States are strongly behind him. And - at least up to now - the Republican voters appear ready to give him their support.
Those in the right wing of the party have always had some reservations about Bush. Pat Buchanan thinks there's a conservative protest vote just waiting to be tapped. But he conceded to journalists the other morning that in the end he'll probably be throwing his own support behind Bush ("an old friend") and with it the backing of whatever protest vote he's going to stir up in the primaries. That sounds far different from Ted Kennedy's angry challenge of Carter in the 1980 primaries.