The Editor's Page

As predictably as the Japanese cherry trees bloom in the Washington spring, Badmouth Time comes to the Potomac near the end of a new President’s first year in office. Mr. Carter is not immune to the tradition. Old Capitol hands snigger at the staff of “amateurs” from Georgia who surround the President. Natty Senator Brooke of Massachusetts sniffs that the White House has taken on a dirty look and, with all those blue-jeaned folks scuffing about, offers an unseemly atmosphere for the leader of the Western world. From the men’s rooms of the Senate office buildings to the tables at Duke Ziebert’s or Nathan’s in Georgetown, older Washington habitués second-guess the Administration’s programs and methods, and shake heads over the failure of the man in charge to deliver on all that heady campaign rhetoric. It should be noted that in their criticizing, the critics rarely suggest convincing alternatives. The reason for that is soberingly simple and one doesn’t need to spend much time in town to discover it: Ladies and gentlemen, there are no new ideas in the nation’s capital.

Neither, it seems, is there much spirit or joy. The place is about as humorless as it was in the Nixon period. Well, let’s not go too far. Almost as humorless. Occasionally Jody Powell brightens a day with an irreverent witticism. (“When they played tennis this morning, did the President bring up any of Mr. Lance’s problems, Jody?” “I don’t know, but if he did it was probably when Bert was getting ready to serve.”) The only other offerings that passed for jokes came, encouragingly, as a form of selfcriticism. “Have you heard about the Polish energy plan?” a White House aide asked me. “No, what is it?” “Same as ours.” And from a high-up man at Treasury: “Word is that things are going so badly here, they’re telling Georgia jokes in Warsaw.”1 An Administration that can tell jokes on itself is not beyond redemption.

As for those “amateurs” on the President’s staff, the problem does not really seem to come from inexperience or ineptness, though the Georgia people are discovering that there’s much more they need to know about the way the Washington machinery works, and some of them, such as Powell and Hamilton Jordan, are given to stepping on toes without apologies. The problem, especially with Lance gone, is that there are not enough of them at the top to help the President contend with the torrent of demands on him.

From what I can discern, no matter what the Badmouthers say, the Carter staff serves its boss with at least as much loyalty and energy, and apparently with less backbiting, intramural jealousy, and turf-protecting bitchiness, than distinguished many on the staffs of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. The staff will better serve the President if he becomes more willing to delegate and to bring in reinforcements from the bodies of experts that have been proliferating in recent years on the staffs of senators, representatives, and congressional committees.

There are, of course, deeper reasons for the year-end compound of disappointment in, and puzzlement over, Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Ward Just, after one of his frequent returns to his old working town, explores some of them in this issue’s Washington Report (page 6).

Second-guessing an Administration is as much a preoccupation in Washington as character assassination and canapé-making, and even the casual visitor is allergic to its pollen. I came back home wondering why the President insisted on pushing for completion and ratification of the Panama Canal treaties this year. In most instances where he is pursuing big policies—the Middle East, Russia and SALT, energy, employment measures, trade negotiation—the President is caught in the tides of necessity. He needs to move on all those fronts because events will move with or without him. In the case of the Canal, many believe Mr. Carter could have held off for another year instead of confronting senators, a third of them up for re-election, with the necessity of declaring themselves on this peculiarly sensitive issue in an election year. The Administration’s argument that Latin American governments were warning that the fuse in Panama was burning ever shorter is a thin one; Latin American governments are always uttering such a warning in public, though that is not how all of them feel about the Canal situation. When Latin Americans talked like that to LBJ in 1964, he told them to go soak their heads.

Mr. Carter, however, has chosen to complicate his already threatened effort toward an important new SALT agreement, the Administration’s efforts toward a Middle Eastern settlement, and other urgent policies by demanding this year a confrontation he might have avoided until 1979.

If the polls can be believed, only a fourth of American citizens favor the Panama Canal treaties. Opponents are far better organized at this juncture than treaty supporters. One day recently, on entering his office, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson found in only one morning’s batch of mail nearly 300 letters, identical in content but individually signed and postmarked. A shiny new penny was affixed to each. “In 1803, proud Americans who refused to pay tribute to their enemies used the battle cry ‘Millions for Defense. Not One Cent For Tribute!’ the letters began. “The penny at the top of my letter is to demonstrate my concern about President Carter’s plans to pay a Marxist dictator to take our Canal from us. I urge you to vote NO to the giveaway of our Panama Canal. . . .”

Presumably the pennies are pouring into every senator’s office, especially those who go before the voters next November. It is difficult to believe that with some time and an energetic educational program, led strongly by the President himself, the popular opinion toward the treaties cannot be turned around. But the Administration has left itself little time: proponents speak of getting a Senate vote as early as February, and in their haste they are surely depriving themselves of several senatorial votes that otherwise could go to ratification. By late November, treaty organizers were calculating they were twelve to fourteen votes short of the necessary two thirds, while opponents needed about nine to defeat. The treaty might squeak through. If not, much ugliness will erupt in Latin America and Washington’s Badmouth Season will surely extend into overtime.

  1. These are varied on a choose-your-own-ethnic-group principle; any of a wide assortment of countries or place names can be, and are, substituted. A congressman from a district heavily populated by PolishAmericans, for example, prefers to tell County Kerry jokes. Also in Warsaw, as related in the Report on Poland (p. 20), the Poles are telling Russian jokes.