Whatever the future of televised presidential debates, one debate is not over. It is on the question of whether Jimmy Carter seems "mean" when he campaigns. Last week the Washington Post was among those saying that he does. Mr. Carter defended his campaign tone as "moderatec in his news conference the same day. This particular debate will continue unless he decisively abandons the kind of campaigning that led to it in the first place.
Various tactics in various campaigns have led to the charge of Carter meanness. What brought the question to a head last week was an appearance before a black church audience in Atlanta where Mr. Carter was taken to have linked remarks by opponent Ronald Reagan to "hatred" and "racism." The result at the news conference was the spectacle of a President of the United States repeatedly having to deny that he was running a mean campaign or attributing hatred and racism to Mr. Reagan.
The later may have provided an opening by referring to "states' rights," a phrase which has sometimes been used to excuse racial segregation, and associating the beginning of the Carter campaign with its locale in the "birthplace" of the Ku Klux Klan. All candidates bear a responsibility for keeping the campaign from lapsing into the "anti" mode. But in this instance Mr. Carter had himself raised the subject of the Klan before Mr. Reagan's sally. And a member of his Cabinet, Patricia Roberts Harris, had earlier spoken out about the endorsement of the Republican platform by a major Klan group.
With the black vote seen as crucial to Mr. carter's reelection, the temptation to rouse racial fears about Mr. Reagan may be strong. (The President has gotten so trivial as to jocularly tell blacks they'll have a hard time to getting White House phone calls returned if Mr. Reagan is elected.) But the temptation must be rejected in favor of the high-minded appeals of which Mr. Carter has also shown himself capable, if the "meanness" debate is to fade.