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THE ADMINISTRATION: The New Washington

22 minute read
TIME

“Yahoo!” whooped Robert Byrd, the Senate majority leader. Standing on the dais in a crowded Washington banquet room, the usually dour West Virginia Democrat tore off his dinner jacket, rolled up his sleeves, picked up a fiddle and began sawing away. Some 1,300 hand-clapping, foot-stomping guests at the Washington Press Club’s annual salute to Congress followed him through rousing choruses of Rye Whiskey, Cumberland Gap and the new Administration’s anthem, Amazing Grace. “My word,” cried one amused Senator, South Carolina’s Fritz Hollings, “they’re going to have us all born again!”

“They” were Jimmy Carter and the members of his new Administration, all freshly sworn in and now making their first foray out on the Washington dinner circuit. One by one, the freshmen Congressmen at the Press Club bash rose to offer irreverent toasts to the new boys in the Executive Branch. Cracked Ohio Democrat Mary Rose Oakar: “It is nice to know that you can Dial-A-Prayer and get the President of the United States to answer it.”

Firing back good-naturedly, Jimmy reminded the Congressmen that “we were all fuzzy on the issues,” but conceded that as a presidential candidate he had had “a much broader range of issues on which to be fuzzy.” At the end of the evening, as he strolled out in the chill night air, the new President from Plains told some applauding bystanders at the hotel door, “Have fun in Washington—I am.”

By the close of the Administration’s first full week in power, the vaguely defined “new spirit” that Carter had invoked in his Inaugural Address was already beginning to take shape—and not only at banquets. After a transition period that had seemed slow paced and sometimes even wandering in its focus, the new President and his mixed team of Georgia chums and Washington veterans opened for business with considerable flair. Carter obviously meant it when he said during his campaign that he would be a “strong, independent and aggressive President.” The new regime in its very first days not only made concrete moves in economic policy and foreign relations but also set in motion some potentially far-reaching changes in defense policy and in America’s relationship with the Soviet-bloc countries (see THE WORLD). In fact there was some question whether all these new directions were fully understood—and controlled—by the new Administration.

On another, so far much more visible level, Carter moved quickly to set the tone of his Administration’s relations with its constituency. Jimmy’s chief message, delivered with somewhat heavy symbolism: the imperial presidency is past.

At the ceremony in the White House East Room in which eight Cabinet members were sworn in, the Marine Band omitted the traditional ruffles and flourishes and Hail to the Chief, which Carter has banned as too regal. After introducing the men and women of his Cabinet, he underscored his intention of making them his primary advisers and giving them a free hand in running their departments. Said he: “There will never be an instance, while I am President, when the members of the White House staff dominate or act in a superior position to the members of our Cabinet.”

Next day Carter met with his team for the first time around the big mahogany table in the Cabinet Room. Signifying his concern with conserving energy, the thermostat was at 65°. Quipped Press Secretary Jody Powell: “I’m told it was one of the most wideawake Cabinet meetings ever held.”

The meeting lasted three hours, 90 minutes longer than scheduled, as Carter ran through a list of instructions. He called on his Cabinet for “camaraderie, mutuality, friendship and a freedom of expression in debate” and said he would umpire any feuds. He requested proposals for trimming the bureaucracy, particularly the 13,500 lawyers on the federal payroll. Citing his own experience as a businessman having dealings with Government agencies, he complained that these lawyers have too little to do and draw up too many unnecessary regulations requiring “oceans of paper work” by businessmen and local officials.

The President urged the Cabinet to help him stay close to the American people. He ordered them to avoid speeches before large audiences and asked for written reports on how they plan to “get out and see the people of this country.” In addition, he requested ideas for the first of his fireside chats, to be broadcast this week. He is considering an offer from CBS for a Saturday-afternoon radio hot line, in which people would telephone questions and Carter would respond, talk-show style.

Carrying de-imperialization to his White House staff, Carter barred his senior aides from using Government limousines except for official business. On Carter’s orders, twelve leased Chrysler sedans and eight other vehicles were removed from the White House fleet, which is now down to 36 cars for a staff of 485. Henceforth, outside working hours, staffers will have to depend on cabs or their own cars. When someone later asked Powell if he would install a phone in his private car, he drawled, “You’re talking about a phone in my 1966 Volkswagen? It couldn’t carry the extra weight.”

One of the first victims of the new policy was National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was refused a car to take him to the Press Club dinner despite his plea that it was official business. Finally, he drove his own car and arrived half an hour late because he had trouble finding a parking place. Carter’s limousine policy will save the Government only $12,000 a year in car-rental fees, but was a potent token of his determination to trim needless expenses and run a down-to-earth Administration. In a similar vein, the President is considering getting rid of some of the 29 presidential planes and mothballing the presidential yacht Sequoia.

The new Carter spirit quickly spread through the Administration. At the Justice Department, Attorney General Griffin Bell unlocked the massive steel doors of the main entrance for the first time since the antiwar demonstrations during the Nixon Administration. Carter explained that they had been locked “because of a chasm that developed between our Government and many of our people” and had become “a symbolic separation of both disaffected and disadvantaged people from the core of justice.”

At the State Department, Secretary Cyrus Vance sent a message to all U.S. posts overseas, noting that the Administration intended to conduct foreign policy “as openly as possible” and in ways that reflect “traditional American values.” In the same spirit, he prohibited his staff from having secretaries secretly record or monitor telephone conversations. The practice was common in the Nixon and Ford administrations (New York Times Columnist William Safire dubbed the transcripts “the dead-key scrolls”). Carter liked Vance’s order so much that he extended it to the White House; other Cabinet members are expected to follow suit.

Vance also instructed the department’s press spokesmen to take the initiative in announcing U.S. positions on foreign policy matters. In the past, the spokesmen were prepared each day with as many as 40 responses, but only issued the ones requested by reporters. If the right questions were not asked, prepared comments were returned unread to the briefing folders.

Defense Secretary Harold Brown, 49, signaled his return to the Pentagon, where he had run weapons development in the McNamara years, by firing off 33 memos to aides on his first day. The memos suggested ways to cut the military budget by $2.8 billion. Among Brown’s proposals: buying 72 rather than 108 F-15 fighters, building five instead of eight B-l bombers, and slowing production of the latest Minuteman III missile and development of still another intercontinental missile known as the MX. Brown was working 14-hour days and had no intention of slackening the pace in the near future.

Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Joseph Califano, known as a driver when he was Lyndon Johnson’s domestic-policy chief, began shaking things up in his new post almost immediately—if in small ways. He decided that signatures on staff memos should appear on the bottom instead of the top; he dismissed as inadequate the daily four-page “green sheet” news summary prepared for the HEW Secretary and ordered up expanded editions of as many as 20 pages. He also dismissed one-third of his own staff, figuring he could get along with about 100 people. It did not seem to bother Califano that as an architect of the Great Society, he was partly responsible for the department’s bloated bureaucracy. His view: “With leadership, this place can fly.”

At the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Secretary Patricia Roberts Harris decided to begin her revolution at the bottom. To her staffs amazement, she insisted on lunching in the employee cafeteria, standing in the chow line like everyone else.

In the White House’s West Wing, where staffers’ offices are located, there was considerable confusion during the first week. Hamilton Jordan, Carter’s chief aide, had no trouble passing through the northwest gate, but guards stopped Press Secretary Powell one morning because he did not have his pass and was not recognized. Powell had better luck at the southwest gate, where a friendly guard piped, “Good morning, Mr. Powell,” and let him in.

Telephone calls were often cut off, lost or left on hold as aides struggled with the unfamiliar telephone system. Top aides can eat in the exclusive and inexpensive White House mess, where a sirloin steak can be had for $2.50, but most of them had too much work to leave their desks and had to send out for a meal or get by with sandwiches and soft drinks from vending machines.

For the most part, the Carter takeover of the levers of power at the White House went smoothly. But there were some glitches. Robert Seamans Jr., a Ford appointee, waited until almost the last minute before resigning as administrator of the Energy Research and Development Administration. He had hopes of keeping his job but got the message when Energy Chief James Schlesinger did not return his phone calls. Another problem occurred when Jordan tried to fire the staff of the White House Council on International Economic Policy. He discovered that he lacks the authority.

Carter also had to make a point of soothing some ruffled congressional leaders. At breakfast in the White House, Senate Majority Leader Byrd and House Speaker Tip O’Neill complained that he was not consulting them enough. They were especially miffed that their advice had not been sought on energy policy. “Obviously we should do that, and we will do it,” said Carter softly—with a nod to Frank Moore, his chief of congressional liaison. Moore was criticized during the transition period for not touching enough bases on Capitol Hill and not returning Congressmen’s phone calls.

In reply, O’Neill said to Carter, “The word confrontation doesn’t exist in the lexicon on Capitol Hill, at least for the next six months.” Republicans also had warm feelings about Carter during his first week, but House Minority Leader John Rhodes warned that their honeymoon with the new Administration might be short. Said he: “Carter’s thrown so many dead cats around that we’ve got to start picking up a few of them.” Republicans are especially upset with Carter for pardoning Viet Nam-era draft evaders and promising to cut the defense budget.

High on the staff agenda was the need to develop a system to make the best use of Carter’s time. He has promised to keep his door open to his Cabinet and other top aides. Still, without careful guidelines, Carter’s time could be frittered away to little purpose. He professes to have no need for a chief of staff like H.R. Haldeman, who guarded Richard Nixon’s Oval Office door. But some old hands in Washington expect that Carter will eventually need someone to act as traffic cop.

The most likely candidate is White House Counsel Robert Lipshutz, who at 55 is the Methuselah of the West Wing. With a calm and deliberate manner —sharply different from the laid-back informality of the other Georgians—he presides at the daily 8 a.m. senior staff meetings and mediates when other aides differ. Before going to Washington, he was a highly successful lawyer and a pillar of Atlanta’s Jewish community. He began advising Carter in 1966 and served as his campaign treasurer.

Next to Lipshutz in power are Jordan, 32, and Powell, 33. Jordan, with his no-tie, good-ole-boy image, had a major role in handing out jobs in the Administration, which gives him a built-in constituency in the White House power game. He has already emerged as Carter’s toughest political operative, the man who can smooth or block the way of people seeking favors from the Administration. Powell, who has been an able and amiable spokesman for Carter, now has a mini-empire in the West Wing that includes press relations, photography and speechwriting.

Some others on the staff:

> Margaret (“Midge”) Costanza, 44, Carter’s assistant for special-interest groups. Formerly vice mayor of Rochester, she is responsible for keeping Carter in touch with the people. Says she: “I am his ears, his eyes, his window.” She is the only Northerner and the only outspoken liberal at Lipshutz’s daily shape-ups.

> Stuart Eizenstat, 34, assistant for domestic affairs. He worked as a speechwriter for Lyndon Johnson, which makes him the only Carter aide with previous experience in the White House. He was Carter’s issues director during the campaign.

> Jack Watson Jr., 38, assistant for intragovernmental relations and Cabinet secretary. A law partner of Carter’s close friend Charles Kirbo, he directed the transition staff in Washington, which prepared voluminous background files on proposed policies and personnel for the Administration.

> Richard Harden, 37, assistant for budget and organization. He headed Georgia’s department of human resources, which employed half of the 50,000 people on the state payroll, and was campaign budget director.

> Tim Kraft, 35, appointments secretary. A former Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala, he ran Carter’s successful campaigns in the crucial Iowa precinct caucuses and the Pennsylvania primary. He was also the transition staffs political coordinator.

> Martha (“Bunny”) Mitchell, 36, special-projects director. The only black on the staff, she was formerly information director for the District of Columbia drug abuse council and head of the D.C. Women’s Political Caucus.

Intramural feuds are endemic to presidential staffs, and Carter’s will probably be no exception. Still, in their first days in office, there was a striking lack of bickering among the aides, perhaps because many of them had worked together in the campaign. The early influence centers among the Cabinet and Cabinet-level officeholders are hard to pick. Introducing his Cabinet at the East Room ceremony, Carter praised Schlesinger lavishly, saying that they had formed “an almost instant personal friendship.” The treatment left Schlesinger glowing. But Attorney General Bell and Director of Management and Budget Bert Lance are old Georgia comrades of Carter’s. The President has also shown a particularly high regard in the past for Vance, Brown, Treasury Secretary Michael Blumenthal and Chief Economic Adviser Charles Schultze.

As the Carter team unpacked their briefcases in their new offices, the First Family quickly made itself at home in Washington. On their first Sunday, most of them drove eight blocks to join the First Baptist Church, which has about 50 blacks among its 950 members and was Harry Truman’s church. Silver-haired Senior Minister Charles Trentham greeted the Carters with outstretched arms. Said he: “This church undergirds you and surrounds your family with prayers.” Before the service, Jimmy and Rosalynn attended an adult Sunday-school class, where the teacher. Insurance Executive Fred Gregg, exclaimed, “Mr. President, you know this Bible real good—you help me out.” Carter intends to do just that; he said he would like to teach the class once a month or so.

At the White House, the family’s chief discomfort was the 65° temperature. “The only warm place I can find upstairs is the kitchen,” said Rosalynn. “I had to put one sweater over another.” Amy slept in her warmest pajamas, and the dining-room fire was lighted for meals.

Otherwise, the Carters seemed to be having fun. With the exception of Son Jack and his family, living in Calhoun, Ga., where he practices law, the entire clan is under the same roof after two years of constant separations because of the campaign. Excited at the newness of it all, Jimmy Carter rose every morning at 6:30, drank orange juice while he dressed, and was in the Oval Office by 7, reading the newspapers and his daily news summary. Although his staff is a shirtsleeves-style crew, Carter has so far worked in a coat and tie, forgoing the sweaters and blue jeans that were his pre-Inaugural uniform in Plains. To ward off the chill, Carter usually sits in an apricot-colored wing chair near a crackling fire. His first appointment every morning, at 8, is with Brzezinski. The only other regular appointment on Carter’s daily agenda so far is a 10:30 meeting with Powell and Deputy Press Secretary Rex Granum.

Just as he did in Plains, Carter lunches with his family at 12:30 on soup and sandwiches. After his last appointment of the day in the Oval Office, he usually returns to the First Family’s quarters and works in his private office —formerly a bedroom—until dinner at 7. Afterward, the family splits up again —the young couples to their third-floor suites, Rosalynn and Amy to read together and the President to resume the seemingly endless paper work.

Jimmy is not the only Carter with a new life. Chip, 26, has an $8,000-a-year post, working on special projects for the Democratic National Committee; Jeff, 24, formerly a student at Georgia State, is studying for a degree in geography at George Washington University. As for Rosalynn, she has enough First Lady duties to rate her own East Wing office. She meets there each morning with her 18-member staff, including Press Secretary Mary Finch Hoyt, to discuss plans for upcoming state dinners—on Feb. 14 for Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo and on Feb. 21 for Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. She wants to help promote the flagging Equal Rights Amendment and plans to get involved in mental-health activities.

At a family council, the President decreed that they would all take a low public profile; above all, Amy should be allowed to live a normal child’s life (see box). On Amy’s second day at the Thaddeus Stevens Elementary School, Carter excused himself from a staff meeting saying, “There’s only one thing more important than this—I’ve got to see Amy’s teacher.”

Each Carter child has carved out a separate enclave. Amy’s is the girlish, pink bedroom that once was Tricia Nixon’s; Amy’s beloved dollhouse is in the hallway. Chip and Wife Caron have taken over Susan Ford’s corner suite, papering the sitting room with a nursery print for the child they expect in a month. Chip is using Harry Truman’s 7-ft.-high chest of drawers. In a smaller suite across the hall, Jeff and Wife Annette—and their parakeet—have custody of a Thomas Jefferson inkstand and an Abraham Lincoln chair.

But the family is determined not to let life in the White House go to their heads. Significantly, on their first relaxed night at home in the White House, the Carter clan settled down in the damask-covered chairs of the movie theater to watch All the President’s Men. One afternoon, Caron, with her hair in rollers, was hunting in the family kitchen for potato chips when a staff member said, “Just tell us what you want—we’ll bring it.” Caron declined the help.

Both couples have already begun entertaining friends. Jeff and Annette specified that their guests wear blue jeans to a party in the State Dining Room. Jeff has even asked his Secret

Service escorts to dress that way so that they will blend better into campus life.

The Carter family’s presence in the White House was already beginning to transform the Washington social scene (see following story). But the new Administration’s impact on another feature of Washington’s landscape of power, the big law firms, may be light—and not just because of Jimmy’s own feelings about lawyers. Says Attorney Clark Clifford, the longtime gray eminence of Democratic politics: “If I were a young lawyer from Atlanta and wanted to start a law firm on the basis of my connections with Carter and his people, I’d forget it.” Clifford insists, “It’s what you know, not who you know, that counts in Washington today.” The lawyers who are best skilled in the Government’s intricacies have been well entrenched for years and represent probably the only important power group in the capital that does not stand to be remade by the Carter crowd. Still, says a former member of the Ford Administration: “We’ve got a tsunami of very new people who are sweeping out this town as it hasn’t been swept out since Andrew Jackson’s time.”

Washington could use a good sweeping, many old capital hands agree—and maybe the city even wants it in a way. Notes Fred Dutton, lawyer and old Kennedy aide from the Camelot days: “Washington is like a woman who is always waiting to be seduced.”

Just how willing Carter’s people are is a matter of debate among old Washington hands. Some view the Georgians as Government zealots who prove all but immune to the usual distractions that come with power. Says James Rowe, a Washington attorney who has seen administrations come and go since Franklin Roosevelt’s in 1933: “I think there’s such a cliche about [the social circuit] now that they won’t dare be corrupted. I think Georgetown is going to have a hard time.” Adds another Washington lawyer: “I don’t expect that their sense of being the underdog will give way to lionizing in Georgetown.” The fact that most of Carter’s closest aides come from Georgia adds to some Washingtonians’ sense of them as a breed apart.

But others disagree. They note that few members of the Carter team settled in the outlands of Alexandria or Chevy Chase and that a good many have paid big bucks for fashionable digs in town. For all his aw-shucks country style, Press Secretary Powell is living in a rented house on Foxhall Road only three blocks from the spread that Nelson Rockefeller has put on the market for $8 million. Snorts a Democratic cynic: “Jody didn’t go corn pone. He chose a place halfway between Nixon’s and Rockefeller’s old homes.” Still other oldtimers expect Carter eventually to widen his circle of advisers well beyond the Georgians.

Indeed, Presidents often begin by surrounding themselves with home folks who eventually become part of the permanent Washington Establishment—Roosevelt’s New Yorkers, Truman’s Missourians, Kennedy’s Massachusetts Mafia, Johnson’s Texans.

On the other hand, all these Presidents had past experience in Washington; Carter has none, and neither do most of the top people on his White House staff, which gives some old hands grounds for arguing that the Carter Administration will have neither a very wide nor a very deep effect on the capital. In particular, there is the city’s inner doubt about Carter’s ability—anybody’s for that matter—to demystify the presidency. Says George Reedy, who as Johnson’s former press secretary is an authority on the pitfalls of the imperial presidency: “It’s simply not under his control. There’s a misunderstanding that you can avoid isolation by reading lots of mail and seeing lots of people. That’s not what really happens. No matter how democratic he may be, he is still the President. Carter’s just as isolated walking down Pennsylvania Avenue as if he were in a limousine and unable to hear the crowds.”

Perhaps. But the effort to establish an “open” presidency through such gestures is hard to fault, reports TIME’s Washington bureau chief, Hugh Sidey, even if it is partly show business. “It is clean stuff that deserves a G rating, recalling the old class play from high school days, starring Jimmy and Rosalynn with some kids, a dog, Jody, Ham, Midge, Bert, Bunny and the rest of the gang.

“Dramatic changes, if there are to be any, are still incubating in the minds of the men and women who have taken the power. Meantime the President is in the spotlight, setting tone, mood and style.

“There are many who went through the Carter campaign who wonder whether his Administration will be largely one of mood and style. But reviewing Carter’s beginning, Jack Valenti, the head of the Motion Picture Association and the closest thing Washington has to a movie mogul, says that so far ‘I’d give him an A.’ Valenti believes he knows a good star when he sees one, having not only scanned Hollywood’s best but also served in Lyndon Johnson’s White House. ‘Politics is mounted on symbols,’ he says. ‘Every successful political captain knows it, by God! A President signals to the people what he wants by symbolic acts.’ ”

Carter’s first week has already produced more than symbols—a quick succession of actions and ideas. How sound and successful will these prove to be, along with the many more to follow? That, underneath the relaxed atmosphere, is the central, even passionate preoccupation of the new Washington.

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