• U.S.

THE PRESIDENCY: Toward the Third Century

3 minute read
Hugh Sidey

Washington is a lovely city at the end of the year. The President, Congress and a goodly portion of the other population are gone. The capital is left to legend and memories and elegantly decorated old buildings that have watched the republic’s progress almost from the beginning.

The White House last week was whiter than ever, its broad front porch reflecting the brilliant floodlights out into Pennsylvania Avenue: a matron ready to serve her 176th year and shelter the man who will take us into our third century. Across the street, Andrew Jackson bestrode his rearing bronze horse in the center of the pleasant park dedicated to the visionary Frenchman who proved he also could fight: the Marquis de Lafayette. On the fringe of the peaceful scene stood St. John’s Church, the small nave once again echoing with the Christmas carols as it has since John Quincy Adams used to walk over to worship.

In the beauty and warmth of these days, political party lines blur and traditional enemies come together. This has always been a time of rediscovery, of realizing that America has survived yet another year in spite of the Government and the “rascals” who happen to run it right now.

The year-end party at the Federal City Club just a couple of blocks up from the White House looked like a political rest farm. Robin West, a young White House aide, chortled through his eggnog as he noted the PT-109 tie clasps (J.F.K.) and the L.B.J. cuff links still worn by those aging and jowly warriors of the New Frontier and Great Society. Ruddy and smiling John McLaughlin, the former Jesuit who defended the Nixon Administration’s soul, rubbed elbows with presidential aides from other years, such as James Rowe (F.D.R.), Ben Wallenberg (L.B.J.) and Bob Amory (Ike).

From Cabinet officer to clerk, some 2,700 people filled all the seats in the vast Kennedy Center Concert Hall for a sing-in of Handel’s Messiah. The event is regarded as the ultimate offspring of a city that runs on committee hearings, conferences and massed voices of protest or praise. Many of the participants sang off key, of course. But they sang in a singleness of spirit.

There were even a few moments to ponder the uncertain course of 1975. No clear sentiment, no firm directions for America had emerged, no towering leaders or definitive events. Perhaps it was summed up, as Washington’s jovial Richard Scammon suggested, in the conflicting statistics from the pollsters. Above all, it was a year in which Viet Nam and Watergate ended, a time of transition from an anguished era to a future not yet clearly discerned.

Around the fireplaces of Georgetown and out in Maryland and Virginia, the intriguing questions for the presidential year were why Jerry Ford, so amiable and so much like other Americans, was in such low esteem and how Democrat Jimmy Carter, the former Governor of Georgia, had emerged from obscurity to win a place as a serious contender for the nomination of his party.

The truth was that no one had a certain answer. But in the evenings when it was time for brandy and cigars, any person attuned to national politics had to admit to a budding excitement over the prospects that be fore the new year was out, the capital might be shaken more than it had been in several decades.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com