A DOZEN years ago the White House greeting card read "With best wishes from our family." It was signed "Jimmy Carter" and "Rosalynn Carter." The cover showed "the President's House, Washington" from the rear lawn, with the winding steps and semicircular portico, an 1860 watercolor by Lefevre Cranstone.
Politically speaking, "family" is the rhetoric of belonging, comfort, offguardedness. It is the "us" of us and them, the basic political dynamic. From his inaugural walk to the White House to the chats, in sweater, to the nation, Mr. Carter worked that image.
George Bush has worked that image too. He put a horseshoe pit on Mr. Cranstone's lawn. He ribs himself about how Millie, the first dog, has bested him on the bestseller lists.
But for now Mr. Bush has taken up the rhetoric of revolution. An electronic word search of Bush's public speeches in April, by the New York Times, showed the president using "change" and "reform" 188 times, " revolution" some 17 times - 10 times in one Allentown, Pa., speech alone. "We must rekindle a revolution," says the man who has been in the White House administration since January 1981, "a revolution to bring change to the country that's changed the world." The hyperkinetic leader enthuses: "The ne ed for reform won't wait." "Change is sweeping America, just as it is sweeping the world. It's exciting what's happening." In all of last year, Bush spoke of "change" only 57 times, and then mostly in reference to other parts of the world.
Revolution, of course, is hard on families. So it is not surprising that family, rhetorically or otherwise, has come on hard times.
Many in Congress want out. Civility - the ability to disagree agreeably, without personal attack - is on the wane. The House bank inquiry is extending its tentacles through a 39-month period from 1988 to 1991; the Justice Department has just demanded all financial records of all House members' transactions for that period. Congress is no longer a club nor yet an efficient legislative organization; it lays blame elsewhere, chiefly on the White House for ineffectual leadership.
Reform of the presidential selection process has reduced the role of the parties. The parties had been the overarching political family unit in America. The special interests they quietly brokered have set up fancy residences in Washington. The growth of nongovernment institutional offices in Washington, each with direct access to the media and to committees, and with fund-raising operations, has been phenomenal over the past two decades.
Private enterprise is undergoing its own revolutions. You have to be a big enough enterprise to undergo a "revolution," of course, and so what General Motors is going through undoubtedly qualifies. GM has overturned the management structure it put in place only in 1984; it is consolidating into two divisions, autos and light trucks, except for its experimental Saturn plant; and it is offering up to 57.5 million shares of common stock, to raise $2.3 billion. GM, long the symbol of private-sector continuit y, is undergoing the same aftershocks of the rest of the economy, as world trade barriers slip and technologies advance.
Publications are enduring change. Weekly news magazines had lost their news peg some years ago; now the national dailies are beating them to the analytical features, as the dailies defend themselves against the constant availability of broadcast news.
This is rhetorical revolution compared to what the first president had led the colonies through. Even George Washington is remembered as much for the continuity he launched, the American experiment, as for the war he commanded. Lincoln waged war, about the time of Cranstone's pastoral White House watercolor, to insist there would be no further revolution.
Instead of riling things up by joining the angry voter chorus, why not settle things down? Americans want to belong. They want peace in the House and between the government branches. They want competent leadership, jobs, education, a horizon with a balanced budget that is more than a mirage. They want to hear less about abortion, less about crime.
The great presidents help the people ride out change, articulating values that endure; they let others lead the charge.