Rosalynn Carter's graceful, candid memoir is anything but dull

First Lady from Plains, by Rosalynn Carter. Boston: Hougton Mifflin Company. 357 pp. $17.95. THE diary Rosalynn Carter kept during her four years in the White House aided in the writing of this self-portrait of an activist First Lady who finds it easy to talk about her husband but hard to write about herself.

She managed the task with grace and as much candor as a public figure can summon and still remain a dignified, private person. Her natural reserve and decency are evident - she doesn't tell all. Here are no revelations about the famous; no family secrets; no gossip or maliciousness.

Her high moral tone, plus her belief in hard work and doing good, may tempt some readers to call ''First Lady from Plains'' dull. It is not. Rosalynn Carter humanizes many historic events with her warm reminiscences. And her own diplomatic journey to Central and South America and wifely observations at the meetings on the Camp David accord are high drama.

That she still feels some pain from Jimmy Carter's defeat in his second run for the presidency is evident. The burden of campaigning fell to her in the wake of his self-confinement to the White House during the Iranian hostage crisis.

And she was a fierce campaigner, a role she misses. ''Nothing is more thrilling than the urgency of a campaign,'' she writes, ''the planning, the strategy sessions, getting out among people you'd never otherwise meet -- and the tremendous energy it takes that makes a victory ever so sweet and a loss so devastating.''

She concludes: ''. . . for me, our loss at the polls is the biggest single reason I'd like to be back in the White House. I don't like to lose.'' It seems a forlorn wish.

Rosalynn Smith grew up three miles and three years apart from Jimmy Carter in the countryside of Plains, Ga. The eldest of four children, she was ever the scholar. At 13, when her father died, followed by her grandmother's death a year later, she lost her ''childhood enthusiasm and confidence.''

Young Rosalynn assumed adult responsibilities early, taking on such jobs as giving shampoos. She commuted to nearby Americus to attend college. She ''fell in love with Jimmy's picture'' in his Navy uniform and plotted with her girlfriend -- his sister, Ruth -- to spark the romance that led to marriage in a simple church ceremony on July 7, 1946.

The young Carters drove together to their wedding, even as they walked together, home-folks style, in his inaugural parade years later.

Mrs. Carter's life as a Navy wife foreshadowed her role as a president's wife. She learned to cope with many hardships and thrived on the larger world outside Plains. The couple forged the partnership-style marriage they exhibited in Washington -- a style often criticized by those who urged her to be a ''quiet wife,'' attending to charities and teas instead of delivering political speeches and sitting in on Cabinet meetings.

Although still very much the proud ''wife of ,'' we see her emergence as a person in her own right during Carter's governorship in Georgia and his presidency. She found her own voice on behalf of the mentally and emotionally ill; became a champion of human rights and the Equal Rights Amendment; and secured food and aid for the refugees she visited in their camps in Thailand.

Her eagerness to do well is touching, especially her struggle to overcome shyness and speak in public. Early on, she and her family were shunned for taking unpopular stands on such issues as integration in pre-Civil Rights days. Once at Camp David, when Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat could not agree, she asked her husband: ''Are you willing to be the scapegoat'' to bring them together? Carter's reply: ''What else is new?''

If the book has a flaw, it is Mrs. Carter's almost desperate yearning to justify everything in her husband's presidency -- a wish to have all Americans love the man they turned out of office. Presidencies -- and people -- are not perfect, but would we have her feel otherwise?

What she did not know in Washington, and the Carters may still not realize, is that when the American people are confronted with such obvious goodness, we are uncomfortable. But that is our problem, not theirs.

Realizing anew how savvy and smart this woman is, many readers may wish Rosalynn Carter would someday launch her own political career. Meanwhile, her book is a primer for future first ladies who can look to her as an example of grace in the glare of a ruthless spotlight. And we can all learn much from her unswerving devotion to her ideals and her never-ending hard work to attain them.

Godspeed to the First Lady from Plains.

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