Divided They Stand: A Portrait of Plains Bares the Roots of 'Billygate'

Rarely have family affairs and affairs of state joined quite as explosively as they have in the past two weeks, as the conglomerate fiasco glibly labeled “Billygate” has grabbed splashy headlines across the country, polarized the U.S. Congress—and, improbably, threatened Jimmy Carter’s very hold on the Presidency. Legally culpable wrongdoing is still unproved, but on the basis of evidence already in hand, both brothers stand plainly indicted: Billy Carter for his crass, negligent liaison with Libya; President Carter for his inability to put a stop to it.

For all its dizzying ramifications—investigations by the Senate and Justice Department and the movement for an open Democratic Convention—the case has its roots in the relationship between two brothers, and attempts to understand it lead naturally to the place where it all began: the Carter family seat of Plains, Ga. (pop. 680). Last week, in the wake of Billy’s quickening troubles and on the eve of his brother’s political reckoning, PEOPLE Senior Editor James R. Gaines and Atlanta Correspondent Joyce Leviton revisited the rural village Jimmy Carter made famous four years ago—and found a town divided not only over its two favorite sons but over its own identity. Their report:

There is no cross inside the Carters’ ancestral church, Plains Baptist—no ornamental altar, no emblems of the faith at all, only a small blue velvet flag beside the pastor’s plain wooden pulpit that reads, in squat yellow letters, EFFICIENCY.

For James Earl and William Alton Carter, that simple tenet is a defining concept, a barricade across which the two brothers stare at each other in blank incredulity. Billy, 43, is the Plains that will not be constrained, the South that will not be made New. He practices the virtues of the Old South—relentless affability and hospitality—as well as its vices. His brother, Jimmy, though older (55), is a New South puritan—intensely private, notoriously tightfisted, but with a deep sense of forbearance and mission. “Oh, there be a heap o’ different ‘tween Mr. Jimmy and Mr. Billy,” says “Miss Gussie” Jackson, 81, who worked in the Carter family fields when Jimmy and Billy were kids. “Mr. Jimmy, he always had to do. But Billy, he just never had no business about him.”

The town still roughly divides the way it always has—between churchgoing teetotalers and citizens who spend Sunday morning recovering from Saturday night. But Plains has changed a great deal since 1976, and so have the Carters. The Carter family has largely taken leave of Plains, driven out by the press and the press of tourism. Cousin Hugh Carter remains at his antique and souvenir store, hawking his published memoir of Jimmy ($12.50, autographed) to anyone who stands still long enough, but he is not on good terms with Billy, whom he accuses of profiteering on his brother’s Presidency. (When Billy brought his Libyan friends to Atlanta, he invited every state senator in Georgia except his cousin Hugh.)

Miss Lillian, 82 next week, has retreated behind the chain-link fence at her “pond house” outside of town and is rarely seen in Plains. Billy has taken wife Sybil—and the four kids (of their six) who are still at home—20 miles north to Buena Vista, signing over stewardship of his filling station to son-in-law Mark Fuller. He has barely spoken to his sister Gloria Carter Spann in the last four years. Her husband, Walter, has been sour on Jimmy Carter ever since the new President spiked their plan to sell five-dollar chunks of Plains dirt as mail-order souvenirs. The other Carter sibling, evangelist Ruth Carter Stapleton, lives in a Christian retreat in Texas. “Right now I feel like talking about Plains about as much as I feel like talking about Libya,” says Billy. “I don’t even go there to see Mama. The people I see from Plains I see here at the Best Western.” This is friend Jimmy Murray’s motel in Americus where Billy breakfasts nearly every day.

Non-famous residents have also felt the change in Plains—and regard the Carter brothers accordingly. Clarence and Anne Dodson used to live across the street from the high school where Jimmy graduated first in his class—and where Billy, 13 years later, finished next to last. The Dodsons were driven out of town to their farmhouse by the tourists, and they rarely go back these days. “The thing I miss most is seeing my neighbors,” says Anne. “I shouldn’t say this, but some of them are too busy to see me—they’re too busy gathering money from the tourists. They want to be sure they’re getting every penny they can.” Many of the people who despair of tourism in Plains blame it on Billy, who got a good share of the early trade and has himself been a major attraction. Conversely, those suffering from the current decline—one Main Street merchant estimates it as a third of what it once was—tend to blame Jimmy’s infrequent and increasingly desultory trips home. “This last time it was like he only came because he had to,” says one source on Main Street. “He did all the right things—went fishing, played softball, walked down Main Street—but he seemed to be grim about it, like he was only doing it for the reporters. He hasn’t got that many friends in Plains to visit anymore.”

Nor does he have many enthusiastic supporters on the farms that surround his hometown. “Jimmy has sat up there on his butt and let them do away with the peanut allotment,” complains Malcolm “Chicken” Wishard, 45, who brought in 270 acres of peanuts last year. “That’s going to be a disaster. Jimmy hasn’t done a thing in the world for farmers, and he’s done things to make the farmer mad—the grain embargo for one thing.” A good Southern Democrat, Wishard will vote for Jimmy again this year (“You can’t trust the Republicans”), but the widespread suspicion is that others will not. “They won’t talk about it in public,” says one wavering farmer. “You know, this is still Jimmy Carter country. But they’re mad as hell. We figured we’d put a farmer in the White House, and he hasn’t done nothin’ for us.”

With the self-described rednecks of Plains, Billy’s stature has increased in recent days precisely because of his troubles: They are perceived as bringing him back to them from the high life. Allies trace his financial and perhaps psychic problems directly to presidential brotherhood—specifically to the blind trusteeship forcing Billy to divest control of the Carter peanut warehouse, which he had been running pridefully and profitably since 1966. Says Chicken Wishard, echoing the sentiments of many in Plains: “I don’t see where Billy did anything wrong in dealing with the Libyans. They took the warehouse from him and he didn’t have a damn thing to do. I’m waiting for the Libyans to call me—maybe I could bail out of this farm.”

Chicken has always loved Billy, but others in Plains love him more now because he is humbled. They also love him for trumpeting to the world echoes of the vividly ugly strain of racial dissonance that abides from the Old South and may still be heard at the ironically named Plains Country Club, a beer joint up the road from Plains favored by some farmers and field hands. In town the most poignant symbol of lingering racial enmity is the relatively new Maranatha Baptist Church, which was formed in the wake of a rancorous dispute within Plains Baptist about accepting black members. “Plains Baptist says now they’ll take blacks in,” says Mary Lou Brown, editor of the weekly Plains Monitor, “but they don’t. Don’t let anyone fool you—things are just as they always were around here. Blacks do just what they’re told, their boss is their master. This place is just full of bigots.”

Mary Lou Brown is decidedly unpopular in some corners of Plains, and felt to be a breath of fresh air in others. Some base their disdain on the Monitor’s association with pornographer Larry Flynt, who bought the paper in 1978 and installed Brown as editor. But the town’s more progressive citizens applaud her coverage of the issues. Much of black housing in Plains is vastly overcrowded and still without indoor plumbing. As for education in Sumter County, 85 percent of the students in county public schools are black, the school board members are all white, and neither they nor the white superintendent send their own children to the schools they represent. Editor Brown sees a promise of change. In elections to be held next week black candidates have their best chance yet to be elected to the school board, and there is also, for the first time, a black candidate for Sumter County sheriff, William Hoston. “I’d like to think racism is on the wane,” says Hoston, who was born and raised in Sumter County, served 28 years in the Detroit police department and now has a cattle farm in Leslie, 20 miles from Plains. “I see definite signs of progress.”

Yet Plains, like most small Southern towns, is mightily resistant to change that reaches below the surface. At twilight, Plains settles still into the deep quiet that visits every rural crossroad. One resident proudly reports: “This is the only town in America where folks slow down to make a red light.”

Even the divisions over Jimmy and Billy and what they represent to the townsfolk may finally succumb to the binding power of shared history. The elders of Plains remember that Jimmy was always more diligent than Billy, that his 13 years’ seniority made him a surrogate father, that he was a fierce disciplinarian who once beat Billy cruelly on the railroad tracks in downtown Plains, in full view of all their neighbors. “Miss Lillian never punished Billy,” says an old family friend, “so Jimmy felt he had to do it.” They remember too that when their farmer father, Earl, died and Billy, at 16, became the man of the house, Jimmy came home from the Navy to run the warehouse and stole Billy’s thunder. That eventually drove him out of the house into eight years of drifting—through the Marines, college (less than a semester) and odd jobs.

Those with access to such memories tend to see the crisis over Libya of a piece with the brothers’ history—to perceive that Jimmy and Billy were compensating for the past: Jimmy couldn’t play the disciplinarian anymore, they say. Billy was insistently himself.

“The farmers are going to realize their problems just came from the weather these last four years and they’re going to vote for Jimmy,” Chicken Wishard predicts. Another Plains farmer is not so sure, but he gives the elder Carter brother a loyalty deeper than his vote. “I’ll tell you one thing Jimmy and Billy have in common,” he says. “We don’t like them because they’re good boys, or rich and famous or nothing like that. We like them because they’re ours.”

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