Gloom at the top

William Lowther July 16 1979

Gloom at the top

William Lowther July 16 1979

Gloom at the top


president Jimmy Carter, his administration at a crisis point over growing problems with energy and the economy, went into seclusion at Camp David last week for a “domestic

summif"in a desperate effort to find solutions and solace. Carter is in deep trouble. He seems to be foundering when the United States is in urgent need of inspired leadership. According

to the polls, the nation generally perceives him to be a failure. Only 25 per cent of the people now think that he is doing a good job. That’s the lowest rating for a president since modern polling began. It’s even lower than the support Richard Nixon had when he resigned in disgrace.

“Throughout the administration, officials express a sense that this week and the next could prove to be a pivotal period in the Carter presidency,” said The New York Times. And, as if in tacit recognition of that fact, over ihe weekend Carter called Vice-President Walter Móndale, a bevy of congressional leaders and state governors, his press spokesman Jody Powell, White House chief political adviser Hamilton Jordan, image-maker Jerry Rafshoon, domestic policy adviser Stuart Eizenstat and pollster Patrick Caddell to join him at the mountaintop retreat.

An intense brainstorming session was under way in search of energy answers. So Washington gossips were surprised that Energy Secretary James Schlesinger and Treasury Secretary Michael Blumenthal, two men Carter might have been expected to consult before all others, were not called in from the beginning. There was considerable speculation that Schlesinger might be fired in the near future and that Blumenthal would go before the end of the year. By appointing new men to these key cabinet posts, it was argued, the president would at least give the appearance of making a fresh start.

There was also widespread speculation that Carter, in a further effort to regain lost momentum, would make a major energy-inflation announcement this week. High administration officials said privately that among the measures

being considered to fight gasoline lines—hundreds of thousands of people are still queuing two or more hours at a time for gas—was a silent day a week, in which only public service and emergency vehicles would be allowed on the roads.

Schlesinger, Blumenthal and others are known to be urging Carter to let the free market see that gasoline gets to where demand is greatest. If he does not take that step, they argue, the country will continue to be plagued with spot shortages until well into next year—by which time the population will be so

furious that Carter will have no chance of re-election.

Those who oppose the idea, especially Jordan, warn that decontrolling gasoline prices will more surely “kill the president politically.” If controls were lifted totally, they say, gasoline would rise, on the average around the country, to about $1.20 a gallon and then, within a month or so, drop to slightly more than $1 a gallon. However, it also seems likely that further price increases áre in store and $2-a-gallon gas is a realistic expectation for the 1980s. If the president decontrols, it is said, he will be

blamed for these hikes, too.

Carter’s advisers are also split over what other measures he should take to ease the energy crisis. Some say that he should relax environmental controls on fuel burning, push mandatory and voluntary conservation measures and commit billions of dollars to the development of synthetic fuels. Others reject those ideas.

Caught up in the crosscurrents, to say nothing about the real danger that Congress may reject his SALT treaty, on which debate begins this week, the president seems to be dithering. There is a sense both inside and outside the administration that he is out of his depth and that suspicion was only increased last week when Carter cancelled at short notice and without explanation a televised speech billed as a crucial step in his new policies to fight inflation and the energy crunch.

Insiders say that he postponed the speech because his closest political friends persuaded him that he should not announce new policies to the country without first making sure that Congress would accept them. Another defeat on Capitol Hill (see following story) could only make the administration look that much more ineffective—if that’s possible. At week’s end a group of kids playing baseball at home (their parents weren’t prepared to queue for gas to go away) were doing so to a rhythmic chant. The words ran: “Jimmy Carter has a way of messing up the U.S.A.” William Lowther

eral Griffin Bell will resign this summer to return to private legal practice and, though he will never say it, the reason is that he has not been allowed to put through his reforms of the judicial system. The president’s chief speech writer and two members of the White House writing staff all quit a few months ago, claiming they were being misused, and seven members of the National Security Council staff have left after becoming “disenchanted.”

Said one longtime Washingtonwatcher: “The people who are leaving now came in with Carter. They had high hopes that have been dashed. With this administration and its bad congressional relations, it is very hard to get things done. They have contracted a bad case of the midterm blues.”

If so, Kennedy may be a classic example. He had no sooner moved into his new office in 1977 than he was involved in controversy. The FDA had just decided to ban the use of saccharin in diet

was only a first defeat. Kennedy went on to try to ban the use of sodium nitrite—a known carcinogen—as a meat preservative and collided head on with the farm belt. There was no first aid there either from Carter, who feared the political consequences of angering the agricultural industry.

Kennedy ran afoul of the farm lobby again when he tried to ban antibiotics in animal feed. He argued that people should not receive antibiotics indiscriminately, even in very small amounts, because to do so ultimately lessens their resistance to disease. Farmers countered that their druglaced feeds kept herds healthier. They won.

Finally, Kennedy found himself in a struggle with the huge and wealthy drug companies over his attempts to limit the use of prescription drugs and to make sweeping changes within the pharmaceutical industry. And again the legislators let him down. In the end he