It has been more than six years since Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter grimly left the White House. They were stung not only by the American voters’ harsh judgment that Jimmy had failed them but by the agonizing problems associated with resuming their private lives and the discovery that they were in serious financial trouble. Returning to Plains, Ga., the former President wrote two books and Rosalynn, one. Eighteen months ago they decided to produce a book together in which they would examine their postelection crises and their efforts to build a future. In the process the Carters found that they had different writing styles, work habits and recollections of events. Whenever they couldn’t agree about what ought to be written or wanted to express a personal viewpoint, they separated their comments and identified them with an “R” or a “J.” In the following excerpt from Everything to Gain: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life, to be published in June by Random House ($16.95), Jimmy, now 62, and Rosalynn, 59, speak with extraordinary candor about their bleakness and despair after losing the election.
We were back in Plains where it had all begun. We stayed close, both physically and emotionally, as we tried to help each other through some difficult moments and become reacquainted with the only home we had ever owned. Ours was a quiet bungalow nestled in a hickory and oak grove on the western boundary of our little town, a house built in 1961 following three successive profitable years for Carter’s Warehouse. It had seemed spacious then, but its small rooms were now crammed with our possessions and hundreds of mementos of an abruptly terminated political career. On a cold January day, however, both we and the house seemed strangely empty.
The first few days after we left the White House had been an extension of our previous life: Jimmy immediately went to Wiesbaden, West Germany to welcome the American hostages back to freedom after their long captivity in Iran.
J: Although I had not been to bed for three days during the final hostage negotiations, I didn’t feel the fatigue during our trip to Germany. But I returned to Plains exhausted, slept for almost 24 hours and then awoke to an altogether new, unwanted and potentially empty life.
Rosalynn and I were alone; our retinue of White House staff members and political associates were traveling back to Washington or to their former homes. It was discouraging for me to contemplate the unpredictable years ahead.
Only later would we realize that many people have to accept the same shocking changes in their lives as we did that winter: the involuntary end of a career and an uncertain future; the realization that “retirement” age is approaching; the return to a home without the children we had raised there. And in our case all this was exacerbated by the embarrassment about what was to us an incomprehensible political defeat and also by some serious financial problems. We fully acknowledged the special blessings that we had enjoyed in our lives until then, but this did not alleviate the pain and doubts of the present moment.
Our house had not been lived in for 10 years while we campaigned and spent time in the [Georgia] governor’s mansion and the White House, and it needed a lot of work. Upkeep of the grounds had meant just raking off the fallen leaves early each winter. This had removed protection for the topsoil, which, along with the lawn, had washed away. We had never gotten around to putting a floor in our attic, and there was little space for storing the clothes, photographs, books, files and other items that we had collected. Now boxes and crates were stacked to the ceiling in the house and garage. And we could no longer merely mention a need to servants or someone in charge of buildings and grounds; we would have to do the work ourselves. We had enough physical activity to keep us busy for some time.
The mental challenge, however, was a very different matter. Our thoughts were still about the past; it was not yet possible to envision a full and pleasant life during the coming years. Even though it had been almost three months since we lost the election, we had decided to postpone any serious decisions because we understood the need to pause for a while, to come to terms with our circumstances. It had not always been that way, at least not for Rosalynn.
R: After the election, while we were still in the White House, I had been angry, sad, anxious and worried. Jimmy was stronger. He has always had the ability to let go, even when the worst that could happen does happen, and to turn his mind to the next step. I envy and depend on that trait in his character, even though it may add to my frustration. After the election there were times when I felt he was keeping up a brave front not only for the sake of the country but also for the comfort of our family. I would almost have preferred some private wailing and gnashing of teeth. When one or another of our family lashed out at the press, at the opponent or occasionally at the voters, Jimmy would listen and say, “Well, did we do the best we could?” Yes, we had done the best we could, and not only that, we had done a good job. “Then,” he’d reply, “what else could we have done?”
J: Although I have deep feelings about people and events and sometimes weep openly when I am moved, I have always believed that it is a sign of weakness to show emotion by giving in publicly to despair, frustration or disappointment. I try to hide my own feelings, to reassure others by emphasizing the positive aspects of the situation and to pray for strength and wisdom. Privately I commit myself to overcoming the obstacles or to figuring out a new course of action. This is what I had to do following the election.
Once I was convinced, correctly or not, that we had done our best, then it was easier to accept the judgment of the voters and move on to other things. Rosalynn was not able to do this. The only thing that sustained her was the hope and expectation that I would run again for President and be elected. She found very little support for this from me or the rest of our family.
I have to admit to a lot of somewhat artificial cheerfulness during those early weeks. The more Rosalynn was upset, the more I tried to find ways to comfort her. I never admitted how deeply I was hurt, and I still find it hard to do so. We had a few strained and unpleasant moments between us in those early weeks, and now I realize that with my calm and reassuring attitude, it seemed to Rosalynn that I didn’t recognize her pain.
We didn’t talk much about where we would go when we left Washington. We had thoughts about going back to Plains, our only real home, but neither of us knew whether that would work out. We worried that we might be bored and restless in a small town after the exciting life of the White House and the years of political battles. One member of our family had no doubts about returning to Plains:
R: Amy [then 13] came into our bedroom the night after the election and leaned on our high-canopied bed. “I’m sad about this election,” she said. “We’re all sad about the election, Amy, and we all worked and tried very hard to win,” I answered. Her reply came back sharply, “Yes, but I don’t want to go back to Plains. You may be from the country but I’m not. I’ve been raised in the city!” She was right. We had moved to the Georgia governor’s mansion when she was just 3 years old. We told her we had not even discussed what we were going to do and that we might not be going back to Plains after all. Maybe, we said, we would decide eventually to live in Atlanta.
Following the election, we had another serious setback. Before going to the White House, we had put our financial affairs in a blind trust and had carefully separated ourselves from these matters. In mid-November our financial trustee discussed with us what had happened to our estate during the four years we had been in the White House. The farmland had been rented, and Billy had been left in charge of the peanut warehouse operation. Now we learned that due to three years of drought in Georgia and several changes in the warehouse management, we were deeply in debt. The revelation came as a shock, liven now it is uncomfortable for us to disclose this private matter, but it is a crucial part of the story.
We decided that the only chance to become solvent again would be to sell the warehouse operation and stop the high interest payments on outstanding loans before we also ran the risk of losing our farms and our house. It had not really occurred to us before this meeting that Plains-might not continue to provide us with the financial base it always had. Just as almost two decades of political life were about to end, we found that the results of the preceding 23 years of hard work, scrimping and saving and plowing everything back into the business, were now also gone. No one could accuse us of becoming rich in the White House. We had not expected to, but we had hoped at least to be able to leave with what we’d had when we came in. That, too, was not to be. Now we really had no reason to go home to Plains.
As we struggled to recover from this unexpected blow, we decided to step back and count our blessings before we let the disappointments overwhelm us. On a cold day in November, about 10 days after the election, we went out on the Truman Balcony to be alone. Our thoughts were tentative and unformed. With some luck, we agreed, we should still be able to save our home and farmland and regain financial security. Perhaps we could write books, which might be successful, or think of some field of work that would be appropriate. In any case, we still had many assets, including our children—Jack, Chip, Jeff and Amy. We had good health, a relatively youthful and vigorous outlook on life and close friends; we had our religious faith to help us through the rough times. And most important, we had each other. As always we knew we had the principal responsibility for shaping our future.
We also found reassurance in the thought that our wildest dreams had been fulfilled when Jimmy became President and that we had relished every day of our time in Washington. We were even able to laugh a little. Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel had just been to the White House for a long and characteristically thorny discussion about the peace process, and we agreed that it might be good to let the future President deal with him and the Middle East—along with inheriting Sam Donaldson and a few other truculent members of the White House press corps. There were a few positive things about losing the election.
In early December offers began to come in from publishers to write our memoirs, and they were welcome. Not only would the contracts help us repair our financial status, but they would also keep us immersed in difficult and unfamiliar work for a number of months while we dealt with our political disappointments and made plans for the future…. It’s probably a good thing that Election Day comes early in November and Inauguration Day is not until late January. By then acceptance, if not the understanding, of the voting results has come; bitterness subsides amid all the activity. At the end we even had the prospect of bringing the hostages home.
Although no specific words were ever spoken, as the days went by we all knew that when the time came we would go home—to Plains. We were ready to get on with the next part of our lives.
R: Now at home, we set about putting our house and yard in order. Jimmy’s grandmother used to say she enjoyed being in “my house with my things,” and, for a change, we knew how she felt. We didn’t have to dress up every day for cameras. We’d still be working when the evening news broadcast came on, and most of the time we didn’t stop to watch it. And for the first time in many years we were in charge of our own schedules.
One day we were working in the yard, and we laughed when I commented that it seemed astounding that the most important thing in my life at this moment could be whether or not the brick walk we were building from our house to the street was crooked or straight. And it was very important.
Along with these more simple pleasures, there were responsibilities that we could not avoid. Working mostly from our home, we organized a small staff and volunteers to handle the mail that poured in. To our vast relief, we soon negotiated the sale of our warehouse business. We were able to ensure that the interests of our longtime employees were protected and that there was a reasonable prospect that the business would be cared for and expanded in the future. We received just enough to pay off our debts and as a result didn’t have to sell any of our farmland. Also, by early summer we had both signed contracts to write our books, and being financially back on our feet lifted our spirits.
R: Our books would be entirely different. Jimmy planned a presidential memoir limited to our four years in Washington, while my story would be about growing up in a tiny South Georgia town, falling in love with my best friend’s brother and forming a partnership with him that led from a peanut warehouse to the White House.
One problem we had at the beginning was privacy. An extraordinary number of people came through Plains to look at our hometown, and many of them expected to visit with us. We enjoyed seeing them, but with several dozen each week, normal life was impossible. So we had an open house for everyone in Plains, including a large contingent of tourists, and when foreign visitors, such as President Anwar Sadat of Egypt, came to town, we invited as many guests as our house could accommodate. It wasn’t as though we were in hiding. Our two secretaries could always tell visitors, “Well, you can come to Maranatha Baptist Church on Sunday morning. Both the President and his wife will be there, and they will be glad to see you.”
We still found it difficult to write for very long without interruptions. Several times we commented wistfully about the serenity of Camp David, the presidential retreat at Catoctin Mountain. A perfect solution presented itself when our friends Betty and John Pope showed us a 20-acre lot, alongside a cold, clear mountain stream, in North Georgia. We decided, together with them, to build a log cabin, and the place is everything we dreamed it would be—isolated, quiet, and beautiful, with a waterfall and small rapids in our front yard. It gives us a secluded place to write, think and be together. It is a retreat in the best sense of the term.
J: Before we left Washington, my cabinet and staff gave me a wonderful gift: a complete set of tools and machinery for a woodworking shop. I had made furniture since I was a high school boy, but for the first time I was equipped to do many things that were not possible before. Now I was able to design and build the furniture for our new cabin. Just a few steps from the word processor, my wood shop gave me a chance to rest and clear my mind as I wrote the book. I also found that it was good therapy—especially when I was turned down by prospective donors for the presidential library or frustrated with recalling crises over OPEC, Iran, the press or Congress—to be able to go to my shop and design, cut, fit and finish a piece that was useful, permanent and sometimes beautiful—or to just bang on something.
Gradually, as we recovered from the exhaustion of Washington and settled in at home, we began to feel that life in Plains might turn out to be satisfying. As nowhere else could ever be, Plains was the place where we could be the same couple we had been before the White House years, doing such things as arranging the flowers at church when it was our turn and teaching Sunday school. Here in all the world were people who loved us for ourselves and not for whatever power or influence we might have had, who had known our names when the rest of the world still said, “Jimmy Who?” and remembered our fathers and still cared about our mothers just as they would have if we had chosen to remain peanut farmers.
But these healing days were not without their relapses.
R: One day my brother Murray, who was a teacher at Amy’s school, called us to say, “You ought to get Amy to bring somebody home with her and make some real friends. All the girls in her class are planning a camping trip this weekend. They talk about it in the classroom and in the lunchroom and during play period, and they haven’t asked Amy to go with them.”
We didn’t mention it to Amy that night, deciding to give her another day to bring it up herself. The next night Murray called again. “That’s all right about Amy. I found out why they haven’t invited her. They don’t want those [Secret Service agents] watching them all weekend long.”
We were relieved a few days later when Amy came home from school and said, “I’m going to be late getting home Monday because I’ve been invited to a birthday party after school.” On Monday she came home at the regular time. “What happened to the party, Amy?” “Well, Mary came to school this morning and said her mother decided if I wanted some cake she would have to bring it to me because she wasn’t going to feed all those policemen!” That night when we called her to dinner and she didn’t come, we found her outside in a tree, crying.
The next school year, Amy went off to boarding school in Atlanta, our last child to leave home. We were lonely without her, and we tried to do our afternoon jogging or bicycling at the time she used to come home from school so that we wouldn’t subconsciously wait for her return. We missed her terribly, but there was no doubt that it had been time to let her go.
Amy had not been happy at home. She was heartbroken when we left Washington; leaving all your friends isn’t easy for a teenager. There were only two people her age in Plains, and they went to a different school^ so she hardly knew them. Most of her classmates lived in another county, where her school was located. After she went off to Atlanta’s Woodward Academy she started to make new friends; the work was challenging, and she was soon involved in many extracurricular activities. One day a few months later when someone mentioned the election and we heard Amy say, “Yeah, but if Dad had won, I wouldn’t know my friends at Woodward,” we knew Amy’s healing process was well under way too.
There was another adjustment that we had to make. For the first time we were both at home together all day, every day, and as much as we care for each other, this proved difficult. We had been accustomed to having some space of our own, some time to be alone, to think and work independently—which luckily we both thought was important.
R: Jimmy would get up very early, most often at 5 a.m., and work for several hours before breakfast. I’m not an early-morning person, and after I joined him for breakfast at 7:30, I liked to take a bath leisurely and get ready for the rest of the day. Jimmy would leave the breakfast table and go back to work on his book, and inevitably by the time I sat down to get started on mine he was ready for a coffee break!
I was also trying to keep everyone from bothering him so he could write—isn’t that an expected wifely duty?—which meant that I was answering the telephone, keeping any guests and family members away from him and deciding what to have for lunch or dinner.
I started my own writing in April. One day in August I went into my office early in the morning and called up the current chapter on the word processor. With one interruption after another, by 4 o’clock in the afternoon I hadn’t written one new sentence! I was so exasperated that I went into the backyard slamming the door, and walked for a while. I picked up the water hose to water the flowers and shed a few tears while I worked through my frustration.
When I came back inside, Jimmy and my daughter-in-law Judy were waiting for me: “We’re going to help you discipline yourself to get your book written.” They made a sign that said, WORKING HOURS 9-12 A.M.—DO NOT DISTURB and put it on the door of my office. “Does this mean you too?” I asked Jimmy. “Yes,” he said.
It worked. And with the undisturbed hours in the morning that allowed me to become engrossed in my writing, I found I could write for the rest of the day even with some interruptions. My secretary stopped calling until the afternoon. Family members knew when to come to see me. It was wonderful. I could shut the door to my office and be alone. I could laugh out loud, I could cry. I even surprised myself with some of the things I could write. If I got tired, I could go outside and walk in the yard. Jimmy helped me have that time too. My mind didn’t stop working even though I was tired of sitting and typing, and I didn’t like to break my train of thought. And sometimes I even wanted a coffee break with him.
J: Never since childhood had I spent any working days around the house, so being at home was a strange experience. With the book to write, the plans to be developed for the library and the need to raise funds for it, I never felt the aimlessness that might come with being so newly and suddenly retired. I was busy from the first day, and once I began to unwind and realize that for the rest of my life I could work on whatever I wanted—when I wanted—I began to relish the freedom. I agreed with Rosalynn on how important it was to learn to respect each other’s privacy, to “do our own thing,” but I came to depend on having a standing date for late afternoons, when we could relax together.
R: After a few months of writing I had done the easier parts, and it was time to tackle the difficult ones. I began to have aches and pains, which I thought came from sitting at the word processor day in and day out. My back hurt and my legs were stiff. When I got up from my chair I could hardly straighten up, as though I had been molded to fit in it. I began to run a constant low-grade temperature. The pains got progressively worse, spreading to my neck and shoulders and then all over. I had always been healthy and active, but now I had to give up my exercising.
I was determined not to give in to this mysterious affliction. When it kept getting worse, I finally went to a doctor at the Emory University Clinic in Atlanta. He put me in the hospital, and I think I had every test there is. The results showed a thyroid deficiency that the doctors said could be controlled with medication. But there was no agreement on a precise diagnosis for my rheumatoid arthritis symptoms. There was, however, a consensus that I was suffering from polymyalgia rheumatica, an inflammation of the muscles. My doctor thought it best that I not take steroids to control the pain, and said that if I could treat it with anti-inflammatory drugs he was sure I could wear it out. I did wear it out, but it took a long time. It was maddening not to be able to do the things I had always done. My spirits suffered, and my book suffered.
After six or eight months when I had lost all flexibility, I knew I had to do something or I would never be able to move freely again. I got several exercise videotapes and tried to go through them. I finally settled on a Jane Fonda workout, one I liked because so much of it involved the stretching that I needed. And though I couldn’t possibly keep up with Jane or stretch half as much as I should have been able to, I kept at it every day when I got up in the morning, and slowly I began to be able to move more comfortably. I’m sure I was “wearing out the disease” as the doctor had said, but I am also sure that the exercises were partially responsible for my recovery.
I wondered then and still do whether all the pent-up emotions from our defeat and our new circumstances could have been the culprit for my illness. Though I thought I had come to terms with these pressures, had I just been forcing myself to put them out of my mind instead of dealing with them? I will never know for sure what happened to me, but I recovered. I guess the body, the mind and the spirit are connected.
It was a proud day for me when I finished my book. I am one who wouldn’t even let Jimmy read what I wrote in Christmas cards when we were first married. It had taken longer than I’d ever dreamed it would take—almost three years. Jimmy, who is more disciplined than I, had finished his [Keeping Faith] in a year. But I tease him. My book, First Lady From Plains, was No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list; he always had Jane Fonda’s Workout Book and Mega-trends ahead of his. Our friendly competition goes on.
Planning and dreaming about the presidential library had taken a lot of our time, almost from the day we came home. We had found the perfect site for it in the heart of Atlanta—30 acres located between downtown and Emory University, only a short distance from each. It is an area that was cleared for a highway intersection in the early ’70s, but the highway was never built. We felt very fortunate, except for the burden of raising the $25 million necessary for construction. Gerald Ford told us that his fund-raising effort was the worst job he had ever had to do, and we can sympathize. While this mission was being accomplished, we were still pondering what the library should be, and how it could be used. We certainly didn’t want it to be a lifeless memorial.
R: One night I woke up and Jimmy was sitting straight up in bed. He always sleeps so soundly that I thought he must be sick. “What’s the matter?” I asked. “I know what we can do at the library,” he said. “We can develop a place to help people who want to resolve disputes. There is no place like that now. If two countries really want to work something out, they don’t want to go to the United Nations and get 150 other countries involved. I know how difficult it is for them to approach each other publicly, and they take a chance on being embarrassed by a rebuff from the other party. We could get good mediators that both sides would trust, and they could meet with no publicity, no fanfare, perhaps at times in total secrecy. If there had been such a place, I wouldn’t have had to take Begin and Sadat to Camp David. There’ve been a lot of new theories on conflict resolution developed since that time too, and we might put some of them into use.” He talked on enthusiastically about other areas where negotiation might help—in domestic disputes and in dealing with civil laws. A center to settle disputes. We also discussed helping with Middle East peace, environmental quality, human rights, nuclear arms control, health care and Jimmy’s teaching at Emory University. For the first time since our return to Plains I saw Jimmy really excited about the future.
J: “Who knows what we can do if we set our objectives high? We may even be able to do more than if we had won the election in 1980!”
We looked at each other and began to laugh. If we could begin to minimize the defeat, then we must be in good shape. We were happier that morning than we had been since we left the White House. We now had something tangible to work toward.
We have been with a number of married couples who look adoringly at each other and make such comments as “We’ve been together for 38 years and never had a cross word.” Either they are stretching the truth, or they are completely different from us. We’ve had some heated and extended arguments, but we’ve always been able to weather them because our basic love affair has not diminished in depth over the years. Interestingly, as we passed our 40th wedding anniversary, we realized that the arguments have become more infrequent and less intense than in earlier years. Maybe we have exhausted most of the points of disagreement or at least rounded nil the edges of those that persist.
J: There was one aggravation that had persisted during our marriage. Perhaps because of my Navy training, punctuality has been almost an obsession with me. It is difficult for me to wait for someone who is late for an appointment and even more painful if I cause others to wait. Even during the hurly-burly of political campaigns I rarely deviated from my schedule, and staff members had to go out of their way to ensure that these demands of mine were met. I was difficult on this issue and I know it.
Rosalynn has always been adequately punctual, except as measured by my perhaps unreasonable standards. All too frequently, a deviation of five minutes or less in our departure time would cause a bitter exchange, and we would arrive at church or a friend’s house still angry with each other. For 38 years it had been the most persistent cause of dissension between us.
On Aug. 18, 1984, I went into my study early in the morning to work on a speech and turned on the radio for the news. When I heard what the date was, I realized it was Rosalynn’s birthday, and I hadn’t bought her a present. What could I do that would be special for her without a gift? I hurriedly wrote her a note that was long overdue: “Happy Birthday! As proof of my love, I will never again make an unpleasant comment about tardiness.” I signed it and delivered it in an envelope, with a kiss. Now, more than two years later I am still keeping my promise, and it has turned out to be one of the nicest birthday presents in our family’s history—for Rosalynn and for me!
In a somewhat modified form we have learned to address similar disagreements more directly instead of letting them fester. If direct conversation results in repetitions of arguments, we have learned the beneficial effects of backing off for a while. A good solution, we have found, is for one of us to describe the problem in writing. It’s surprising how ridiculous some of the arguments seem when set down in black and white, and it’s much easier to make the small concessions that can end the disagreement. But what is life if not adjustment—to different times, to our changing circumstances and to each other?