The Carters: rebuilding their lives after the White House

JIMMY and Rosalynn Carter have been hitting the paper trail like a campaign trail for their new book, ``Everything to Gain,'' and the votes are rolling in. On June 22 their book hit the New York Times best-seller list in 10th place for nonfiction; by this past week it had vaulted to fifth place. The former First Lady said of the exhaustive, cross-country media blitz that's helped make their book a best seller: ``The thing about it for us is, we've campaigned, and it's just like a campaign. You go into a city, you do all the media. Instead of a rally you have a book-signing party.''

The Secret Service was there, planted in the red geraniums outside the hotel; the halls were as full of TV camera gear as the White House press room; the advance man waited. In fact, all that was missing was Air Force One as former President Carter and his wife touched down in Washington. They were here for the politics of touting their book, whose subtitle is ``Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life'' after living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

There was a flash of the famous Jimmy Carter grin - an octave of white teeth - as we sat down at a long mahogany table to talk. The ex-President looked fit as a fiddle, his hair now white as salt, but there was the same jaunty walk with the slight roll of the sailor he once was. Several times during the interview his mild blue eyes suddenly flared to an intense blue, like a Bunsen burner flame, as he talked about the moral force of the presidency:

``I think there are certain standards of morality and ethics that never do change, whether you're growing peanuts or in the White House. And they don't change even in a fast-changing technological world. The American people kind of want a royal family in the White House. They like the pomp and ceremony a lot more than I liked it....

``I think the arrogance of power comes when a president thinks that because he's been elected, he's above the law and Constitution and can act unilaterally, even sometimes illegally - as though he was a sovereign ruler. And this was the case obviously with Watergate. I think it's the case with the so-called Iran-contra affair.''

Mr. Carter also pointed out that ``the president can have a major impact not only on budgeting funds but also in the creation of a proper attitude. ... When President Reagan made the statement that people sleep in doorways and on grates because that's their preferred way of life, it sends a signal to state and local government officials and also to those in private life that we don't need to worry about people who don't have a place to sleep.''

Mr. and Mrs. Carter talk just as candidly in person as they do in their new book about the issues that concern them both. It was a tough book to write, they agree. Both have written best sellers separately, but they vow that ``Everything to Gain'' is both the first and last book they'll ever write together. Jimmy Carter says with a grin: ``We thought the final chapter in this book would be really exciting: How a 40-year marriage was broken up in the writing of this book.'' Rosalynn Carter laughs, but says, ``It was not funny at the time. It was really hard to write a book together.''

The couple were posing for pictures on the couch of their cream and rose hotel suite overlooking the White House. An ironing board stood just off camera; Mrs. Carter had been pressing the navy and white slubbed skirt she wore. Every brunet hair in place, she turned her brown eyes toward the camera and whispered to the President that he musn't put his feet on the coffee table; they'd get letters on that.

She spoke softly during the interview, in that voice as sweet and rich as pecan pie, but the words were tough: ``I once said that President Reagan has made us comfortable with our prejudices. And I really believe that is true, because when you see housing being cut for the poor...'' - here Jimmy chimes in - ``...housing, health, education, the aged, the afflicted...'' - Rosalynn - ``...and civil rights laws not being honored, and the rich getting richer, it makes you feel like it's all right if you think about yourself and your own well-being and are not particularly concerned with others.''

But she thinks the pendulum will swing back and people will start reaching out to help others again, as the Carters urged them to do in the most moving chapter of their book.

That chapter deals with their work in the international, nonprofit housing program called Habitat for Humanity. The Carters began by working with dozens of other volunteers in turning a burned-out, six-story shell of a building on Manhattan's Lower East Side into apartments for 19 poor families. This month they're joining 300 volunteers in building 14 Habitat houses in Charlotte, N.C. Jimmy Carter admitted, ``it's terribly hard work - sweaty, hot,'' but said the Habitat time is ``the best week of our year.''

The Carters used the same approach when they began hammering their lives back into shape after leaving the White House. First they built a new attic floor in their Plains, Ga., home, then settled down to reconstructing their lives. In their book they write poignantly of the bitterness and bewilderment of losing the 1980 election and then the shock of learning they were deeply in debt as a result of the ``blind trust'' on their peanut warehouse. They sold the warehouse, paid their debts, and settled down to write their first best sellers in Plains, where their family roots reach deep into the red clay earth. Jimmy Carter was named a distinguished professor at Emory University in Atlanta, and they began the $25 million fund-raising drive for the Carter presidential library, built a log cabin in north Georgia, traveled widely, worked on humanitarian issues, and became involved in the center's health conference, which inspired the Random House book. The Carters refuse, as Tennyson writes in ``Ulysses,'' ``to rust unburnished, not to shine in use.''

A few final words not in their book come from Rosalynn Carter: ``When you get out [of the White House] and look back at this President, it makes you wonder: Was it good to be open with the press and to be accessible to them, or is it better to try to manage it? In my opinion, looking at it this way, if Jimmy were back in office, I would have a huge, big PR firm to manage the press....'' Jimmy Carter breaks in, ``And minimal access.'' Rosalynn Carter nods, ``And minimal access.''

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