ONE OF Jimmy Carter's first decisions as president-elect in 1976 was to send his 9-year-old daughter, Amy, to a public school in Washington, D.C., whose student body was largely black.
It was regarded at the time as a highly symbolic act, showing his concern for the ideas he had advocated as a candidate for president.
His Democratic Party had long been a staunch supporter of integration and public education. That is, Democrats in government in Washington supported this in principle. Most of the senators and representatives who had consistently voted for busing and other social and education programs that had helped turn most urban school systems black and poor chose, as Bill Clinton has just done for daughter Chelsea, to send their children to predominantly white private schools in the city or predominantly white public schools in wealthy suburbs.
Wracking my brain, I can recall only one liberal Democratic senator who sent his children to public schools in D.C. in those days. That was Henry Jackson of Washington state. More typical was Mr. Busing, himself, Sen. Ted Kennedy. So now we know that in one respect at least, Bill Clinton is a Kennedy Democrat.
Amy Carter stayed in public schools in Washington throughout her four years in Washington. First she went to Stevens Elementary and then to Hardy Middle, also a predominantly black school.
She must have got a good education. In October 1980, President Carter said in his debate with Ronald Reagan, "I asked Amy the other day what the most important issue was. She said, 'nuclear weaponry and the control of nuclear weapons.' " How many 13-year-olds at Sidwell Friends, where Chelsea will go, are experts on such matters? I'd bet Amy even knew what throw weight was. People laughed at the president at the time, but look at the result: START I and II!
Just kidding, but it is no joke that in addition to the symbolic importance of sending Amy to public schools, it was also helpful to the president. Here's what Jimmy later said: "I derived useful information from Amy as she described her experience in the public schools. What would improve the lunch program? How could we help the children who could not speak English? Were the students being immunized against contagious diseases? What was being done to challenge the bright students in the class or to give extra help to the slow ones? Some of these were the normal questions of interest to any family, but we were in a unique position to act on the ideas."
Such a position could have been helpful to President Clinton.
No criticism of Sidwell Friends intended. I read in the Washington Post that it's some school. The Post yesterday quoted JoAnn Coleman, mother of a student there: "I was amazed at what they offered. For example, they have a wonderful program in Chinese. My daughter took a course on the Vietnam War."
Hey! Maybe Chelsea can take that one, and tell her daddy about it.