The place: Iran.
The time: Two months after US hostages were seized at the embassy in Tehran.
An American spy, disguised as a German traveler, arrived at an Iranian customs checkpoint. He was entering the country to aid the escape of six US diplomats who had secretly taken refuge in the Canadian Embassy in Tehran. The spy had a forged German passport, which included a false name with the middle initial ''H.''
Iranian officials were suspicious. They stopped him to comment that it was odd that a German passport used a middle initial, rather than the full name. They had never seen this done before. They started getting tough with their questions.
The spy, quick on his feet, said:
''Well, my parents named me 'Hitler' as a baby. Ever since the war, I've been permitted to conceal my full name.''
The Iranians, satisfied with his explanation, winked and nodded, and let him enter.
The spy story is just one of many revealing vignettes offered by Jimmy Carter in his new book, ''Keeping Faith'' (Bantam Books, New York. $22.50), which is now appearing in bookstores.
The former President gives us his inside and often very personal view of the hostage crisis, his battles with Congress, his struggle with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy for the nomination in 1980, his unhappiness with the State Department, and his concerns about the ''radical'' policies of Ronald Reagan. Inside Camp David
But the most fascinating part of his story centers on Camp David, and his months of toil to work out the peace accords between a cooperative and enthusiastic Anwar Sadat of Egypt and a stubborn and cautious Menachem Begin of Israel.
Carter obviously loved Sadat. He admired his broad vision for the future of the Mideast. And he respected Sadat's willingness to take chances - even if it involved his personal safety - when the goal was peace for Egypt.
After his first meeting with Sadat in the White House on April 4, 1977, Carter said that he regarded the Egyptian President ''a shining light'' in the Middle East.
''He was charming and frank, and also a very strong and courageous leader who would not shrink from making difficult political decisions. He was extraordinarily inclined toward boldness and seemed impatient with those who were more timid or cautious.''
Carter soon considered Sadat a ''personal ally.'' By the time of the Camp David talks, where Carter was to play a crucial mediating role, he said the biggest problem was that ''Sadat seemed to trust me too much, and Begin not enough.'' Frustrations with Begin
Prime Minister Begin, on the other hand, dismayed Carter again and again. When Begin was elected in 1977, he appeared on an ABC-TV news program. Afterwards, Carter noted in his diary:
''It was frightening to watch his adamant position on issues that must be resolved if a Middle Eastern peace settlement is going to be realized.''
Later at Camp David, in the White House, and in Israel itself, Carter over and over again shouts, pleads, and argues with Begin to move the feisty Israeli toward what Carter considers a just Mideast peace.
Talk between these two leaders often was not very diplomatic. It certainly wasn't what one might expect between a president and a prime minister, especially two allies. But it shows the depth of feeling that Carter and Begin brought to their long struggle for a Mideast accord. Samples:
On the third day of the Camp David talks (Sept. 7, 1978), Carter became angry with Begin's attitude. Carter almost shouted:
''What do you actually want for Israel if peace is signed? . . . My greatest strength here is your confidence - but I don't feel that I have your trust. . . . I believe I can get from Sadat what you really need, but I just do not have your confidence.''
By the sixth day, Carter's frustrations grew. Carter and Begin clashed over a key point, and Carter exploded:
''What you say convinces me that Sadat was right - what you want is (Arab) land!'' Really want a treaty?
On the eighth day, Carter and Begin had a heated and unpleasant talk again, Carter later noting:
''I . . . accused him of being willing to give up peace with his only formidable enemy, free trade and diplomatic recognition from Egypt, unimpeded access to international waterways, Arab acceptance of an undivided Jerusalem, permanent security for Israel, and the approbation of the world - all this, just to keep a few illegal settlers on Egyptian land.''
Six months later, while visiting Israel and Egypt in a desperate effort to push through the Camp David accords, Carter and Begin clashed again. Carter noted:
''I asked (Begin) if he actually wanted a peace treaty, because my impression was that everything he could do to obstruct it, he did with apparent relish.''
The critical issue was Israeli settlers, especially those now living on captured Egyptian soil. Begin wanted them to stay. Sadat said no. On the third day of the talks at Camp David, the dispute became so heated Sadat and Begin wanted the talks to end.
At that point, ''I was desperate,'' Carter says. When Sadat and Begin marched toward the door to leave. ''I got in front of them to partially block the way, '' Carter notes. He pleaded with them to keep talking.
Finally, there was success. And from Carter's long and vivid account, a reader can credit all three leaders. Fear about peace
Carter, with a never-say-die attitude, kept things going when all seemed lost.
Sadat, willing to put aside small but potentially damaging details in pursuit of the principal goal of peace, gave Carter the hope to keep trying.
Begin had the courage to approve an agreement which angered some of his strongest supporters, and violated his own cautious instincts about Israeli security. As Ezer Weizman, the Israeli defense minister, warned Carter at one point:
''What the Israelis fear most of all is peace itself.'' Weizman explained that it was difficult for Israelis suddenly to have confidence in their ancient enemies; to be beleaguered was the more familiar feeling.
Carter is proudest of his Camp David success. But the book tells us much more, including things about Carter himself. Nuclear arms race
From the beginning, Carter hoped to make a breakthrough with the Soviets on arms control. He had been critical of Gerald Ford for failing to get a new arms treaty.
''We have to do everything possible to stop this mad race,'' he noted. In his inaugural address, he pledged to work toward the goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons.
Carter failed, of course. He got his treaty, but SALT II was never approved by the Senate.Carter calls that ''the most profound disappointment of my presidency.''
Failure came despite agreement between US and Soviet negotiators and a Carter-Brezhnev summit meeting. Eventually, Carter took a dim view of the Soviets:
''It was amazing how different the Soviets were from the Chinese and others in their treatment of distinguished visitors. I never knew any of our top leaders who did not return from China completely enchanted and grateful. . . . With the SALT II treaty vote approaching, I had been hoping that some senatorial visits to Moscow would be helpful, but they were a public-relations catastrophe. The Soviet leaders were just the opposite of the Chinese . . . - heavy-handed, abrupt, rude, and argumentative.''
It was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan which finally killed all hope for a Senate vote in favor of the treaty. The Panama Canal fight
Pollsters found the public opposed, 78 percent to 8 percent, to the idea of turning the Panama Canal over the Panama. Yet Carter pushed ahead.
Two things motivated him.
* ''Justice.'' Failure to take action violated the promises of five previous presidents and was ''poisoning'' relations with Panama and Latin America, Carter says.
* ''Sabotage.'' Carter couldn't talk about it much in public. But top US military men were telling the President that the canal was in ''serious danger'' of attack from those opposed to US control.
Carter's successful struggle to get the treaties through the Senate are a fascinating slice of American politics. He pulled every political lever to get the treaties passed.
One of the most colorful examples was his effort to win the vote of California Sen. S. I. Hayakawa. In a personal meeting at the White House to discuss the treaties, Hayakawa told Carter that they should consult more often on defense and foreign affairs - that the President needed his advice. Then Mr. Hayakawa gave Carter a copy of a book he had written on semantics.
''It may not have been bedtime reading,'' Carter said, ''but I needed his vote. I read the book that evening, and the next day called to congratulate him on its good points.''
Carter still got no promise. Then later, moments before the vote in the Senate, Carter got a call from the Senate leaders, who were meeting with Hayakawa.
''I knew he (Hayakawa) was listening when they asked me if I needed to meet occasionally with the California semanticist to get his advice on African affairs. I gulped, thought for a few seconds, and replied, 'Yes, I really do!' hoping God would forgive me.''
Carter got the vote he needed. The energy 'war'
When Carter appraises other leaders, he often asks: Will they tackle tough issues - ones that are politically unpopular?
Carter himself often addressed such issues with alacrity. At the outset, energy, human rights, nuclear arms, and the environment were at the top of his agenda.
His willingness to take on such problems, he now concedes, was not always based on a full understanding of the difficulties.
''Standing before the people that (inaugural) day, I could not know the complexity of these issues and how they would affect my administration and my political future.''
Carter admits now he was in too great a hurry. During the early weeks of his White House term, his own close aides, such as Hamilton Jordan, worried quietly to reporters, including this one, that they were trying to do too much, too fast.
Energy was one such issue. Carter staked much of his reputation in that first year on a comprehensive energy bill. He called his program the ''moral equivalent of war.'' But the first year ended in a deadlock.
Eventually, of course, Carter got much that he wanted. But in doing so, he used up his credits on Capitol Hill - and found few new friends in Congress. Relations with Congress
In fact, relations with Congress was one of the most difficult parts of the Carter reign. It is interesting now to read the Carter confessions about Congress, for it shows that however belatedly, he now realizes what so many were trying to tell him then.
His drive to pass unpopular bills, his opposition to major water projects, his failure to pay simple political courtesies to congressmen, his denunciation of Washington insiders - all worried and eventually alienated many on the Hill.
''There is no doubt that I could have done some things better,'' he concedes.
''Now I can also see more clearly the problems we created for the legislators. In looking over the list of our proposals that were approved, it was hard to find many goodies for the members to take home. They showed great courage in voting for government reorganization, civil-service reform, ethics reforms, our energy bills, strip-mining controls, deregulation of airlines, trucking, railroads, financial institutions and communications, reduction of international trade barriers, Panama Canal legislation, the new China policy, foreign aid proposals, and - eventually - a sharp reduction in water projects. There was really little in the list to attract constituents, but much to alienate some of the special-interest groups that play such a strong role in financing election campaigns. Senate minority leader Howard Baker exclaimed to me on one occasion, 'Mr. President, if I vote right many more times, I'm going to lose the next election!' '' Carter, the man
There are several such confessions in this book.As already noted, he tried to do too much, too fast. And he failed to recognize reality on Capitol Hill, where compromise, and small but important political courtesies, are a way of life.
But there are also some revelations that historians will ponder. For instance, Carter concedes that Iran and the hostages became almost ''an obsession with me.'' Even as he drove to the Capitol where Reagan was about to become president, Carter was hounding his closest aides from his limousine by radio-telephone to get the latest word from Tehran. For months, Carter refused to campaign, refused to go out into the country because he was pouring every ounce of his strength into the hostage crisis.
Also revealing is Carter's penchant for looking into every detail of major events he is involved with.
- When the US and China were moving close to recognition, Carter notes, ''I worked on every line of the communiques going to (US Ambassador Leonard) Woodcock.''
- When negotiations were under way to get free the hostages, Carter personally pored over fine details of the Iran-US deal.
- During Camp David, it was Carter himself who plodded through the agreement, point by point, day after day, searching for agreement.
All this personal involvement may have helped Carter stay on top of certain problems. Historians may ask, however, whether he should not have left more of the detail to subordinates while he kept an eye on the overall picture. This 'n that
* Carter often called upon God for help during his White House years. But he was very surprised to hear Soviet President Brezhnev say to him at the beginning of their nuclear arms talks: ''If we do not succeed, God will not forgive us!''
* If the Soviets had attempted to seize Iran during the Khomeini crisis, Carter says he would have responded, if necessary, with a military counterattack. That response, he adds, would not necessarily have been confined ''to any small invaded area or to tactics or terrain of the Soviets' choosing.''
* In 1979, Carter revealed, the Soviets agreed not to execute a US spy as part of a deal that included the release of two ''minor'' Soviet spies convicted in the US in 1978.
* Many Americans were worried that the US hostages in Iran would be mistreated after the failed rescue mission. Just the opposite happened. The rescue mission frightened the Iranian guards into treating the Americans better, Carter reveals.
* Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko said to Carter on Sept. 23, 1977: ''If we can just establish a miniature state for the Palestinians as big as a pencil eraser, this will lead to a resolution of the PLO problem for the Geneva Conference.''
* At a Cabinet meeting, national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski noted that under Lenin, the Soviet Union was like a religious revival, under Stalin like a prison, under Khrushchev like a circus, and under Brezhnev like the US Post Office.