Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter Is the Second Big-Time Author from Plains

The Siamese cat, Misty Malarky Ying Yang, who once slunk down the White House stairs in front of world leaders, now has red Georgia clay in his paws and grass in his coat. The man who once served as the 39th President of the United States recently spent 120 hours crafting a cradle for a new grandchild, his fourth. His wife, the woman the press called the Steel Magnolia, has been baking bread, tending African violets and taking long walks beneath the hickory and walnut trees. Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter are back where they feel they belong—in the dusty south Georgia hamlet of Plains (pop. 651).

It is here, alongside the peanut and soybean farmers they have known since childhood, that the Carters found solace after their bitter defeat by Ronald Reagan in 1980. Fishing for bream and bass in the ponds, spending a quiet evening dining on spareribs, collard greens and cracklin’ bread with Miz Allie, Rosalynn’s 78-year-old mother—these are the rediscovered pleasures of country life.

The former President, now 59, has become a skilled carpenter and spends hours in his garage shop. “My brother brought over a picture for Jimmy to frame the other day,” notes Rosalynn, 56. “Pretty soon I’ll be in the framing business,” says the man who once hammered out foreign policy.

Rosalynn, aided by the family’s longtime housekeeper, Mary Prince, now fixes supper most nights (Jimmy loads the dishwasher and occasionally cooks quail with his special wine-and-Worcestershire sauce). Rosalynn oversees domestic life in their homey redbrick ranch house, with its sun porch, pale green siding and a rooster weather vane on top. Were it not for the hydrants painted red, white and blue along the roadside, the Secret Service guard posts and the heavy metal gates, this might be any house in Middle America.

For the Carters it has been a sanctuary and a workplace. First Jimmy plugged away at his memoirs, entitled Keeping Faith, and was rewarded with a best-seller in 1982. And now it’s Rosalynn’s turn. First Lady From Plains (to be published May 4 by Houghton Mifflin) is a straightforward autobiography of a shy, studious country girl who followed her naval officer all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. To research her book, Mrs. Carter interviewed relatives and old schoolchums and relied heavily on scrapbooks, letters, press clippings, official records and a diary she kept during the White House years. “Richard Nixon was the one who started me on the diary,” recalls Rosalynn. “I was at a Governors’ conference at the White House in 1972, and he just walked over and said: ‘Young lady, do you keep a diary?’ I said: ‘No, sir,’ and he told me: ‘You’d better keep one or you’ll be sorry. These are exciting times.’ ”

When Rosalynn was finally ready to record those times, she toiled dutifully at her Lanier word processor for nearly two and a half years. She had help in shaping the book from Linda Bird Francke, a New York writer. “The words are all mine,” says Mrs. Carter, who regarded her task as not only literary but therapeutic. “I was afraid I would come home to Plains and sulk,” she explains. “When we lost the election, I was mad. I couldn’t watch the news for months. I fussed at everybody and I was in a bad mood.”

Another lugubrious loser in the family was Amy, the child who had come late to the Carters and who had delighted in being First Daughter. (“Meeting Baryshnikov was great,” she remembers. “And the Pope was nice. He told me he liked to swim.”) Hence, when Amy learned on Election Day that her father had lost, the 13-year-old was distraught. “Sure, I felt sorry for Mom and Dad,” says Amy. “But I was more upset that we had to move. I didn’t want to leave my friends in Washington.” Back home in Plains, Amy sobbed in her room at night. She also suffered the trials of not being invited on an overnight camping trip because her peers at Tri-County High School in nearby Buena Vista did not want the Secret Service along.

A more mature Amy, now 16, has since adjusted to life after the White House and is now a junior at a coed boarding school in Atlanta. Proud of her 4.0 average, she hopes to attend Georgia Tech and then graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley. There she will study to be an astronomer. “I like Carl Sagan and stuff. It’s really neat,” she says. As to politics, when Jimmy makes a passing comment on the subject, Amy retorts: “Never, Daddy. I hate telling people what to do.”

Her father, as much as he enjoyed politics, says he has no intention of ever running again. “I hated to lose as much as Rosalynn did,” Jimmy says, “but maybe I look to the future a little faster.” He is staunchly behind his former Vice-President, Walter Mondale. However, the Carters will support the Democratic candidate, whoever he may be. Of Ronald Reagan, Rosalynn pronounces: “Anybody would be better than what we have now.” Reagan, for his part, has not chatted up the Carters. “I don’t expect him to call,” says Rosalynn. “But what really bothered me was when he killed the funding for my mental-health programs.”

Jimmy’s future plans are focused on the Carter Presidential Library and Carter Center of Emory University in Atlanta. The center will be a think tank and research facility, where world statesmen, scholars and experts in national and international problems can study and formulate policy proposals. “Jimmy thinks he can accomplish more at the center than he could in a second term,” says Rosalynn. “I don’t know if I necessarily agree with him.” Concedes the former President: “Maybe it’s part rationalization.”

Whatever the case, the Carters appear content. Jimmy’s steely glare is gone and Rosalynn is gentle and soft-spoken, even a little shy with strangers. Yet the woman who was once nicknamed “the second President” occasionally shows a flinty spark. Does she still think she was right to sit in on Cabinet meetings, an act that stirred up controversy? “If you had to choose between pouring tea or attending a Cabinet meeting, what would you do?” she asks. Is it true that she is more political than Jimmy? She nods emphatically. When Jimmy proposed cuts in federal spending for social welfare before the New York primary, Rosalynn protested: “Why do you have to do that now? I’m the one that has to campaign in New York and see all those people.” What was the greatest frustration of the Presidential years? “Nov. 8, 1980. For me, our loss at the polls is the biggest single reason I’d like to be back in the White House,” explains Rosalynn. “I don’t like to lose.”

Sitting in the family room, arranging daffodils her husband has picked from the lawn, Rosalynn seems far removed from Washington and politics. One apparent joy of the Carters’ tranquil life is their togetherness. “I’ve been in love with Rosalynn since the first date,” says Jimmy, explaining their close bond. “We’ve always treated each other like equals, and we’ve never had love affairs with others.” The Carters try to do something together each afternoon, whether it is bike riding or putting up birdhouses (made by Jimmy) amid their chinaberry trees.

A short distance away on Main Street, the Plains townsfolk have accepted the return of their unprodigal son with complacency. They listen to the former President teach at the Baptist church on Sundays and wave as they see him jogging or riding in a Secret Service car. (The Carters sold their 1975 Oldsmobile to Rosalynn’s brother, Murray, in 1977.) When Jimmy pops into Norinne Lowell’s trailer beauty shop for a trim ($7), it doesn’t cause a stir. And the waitress at the Kountry Korner isn’t fazed when he orders an extra helping of corn bread and crumbles it in a canning jar filled with buttermilk. “An old country dessert,” Jimmy tells a Yankee visitor as he spoons it down. Along the shopping strip, the merchants still stock boiled peanuts and Jimmy Carter key chains and ashtrays, even though tourists no longer jam the town. “This is home. This is where our land is. Our ancestors are here,” says Jimmy. He likes to tend to correspondence in his Plains Presidential Office (the home of his late mother, Miz Lillian). Jimmy works at home on his new book about the Middle East (written in “peanut farmer language,” he says) and on the one about “my increasingly broad experiences as a fisherman.”

However, the Carters’ duties and stature still pull them away. In Atlanta, the former President works on blueprints for the library and center and is involved with fund-raising and planning projects. He also lectures two days a month on a wide range of topics at Emory. Rosalynn intends to speak out on mental-health issues and chair seminars in that area at the Carter Center, which is expected to open in the fall of 1985. Would she ever take the mantle from her husband and enter politics? “I don’t know. I don’t think so,” she says. “But if something came along I was concerned about and I thought I couldn’t do anything about it in another way, I might run for office.”

For the moment Rosalynn is readying a book tour to 17 cities. She regards it as “a campaign” and is restless and eager to get out and tell people what it was like to be a First Lady from Plains.

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