Carters Survive Trial by Writing : Co-Authoring a Book on Life's Later Years Puts 40-Year Marriage of Former First Couple to the Test

Times Staff Writer

Rosalynn Carter wrote the first chapter, and Jimmy Carter worked on the second. Then they swapped, so each could read what the other had written, and the 39th President, his wife said, "got really upset."

Well, Mrs. Carter said, "the editor told us to write it in the first person. And Jimmy said, 'He didn't say, "Write it in the first person singular!" ' "

And so began a year that sorely tested a heretofore stable, 40-year marriage. The Carters had survived the glorious highs of this country's highest political triumph and had endured the ignominy of thunderous defeat. They had weathered public scrutiny of eccentric relatives and stomached scorn of their Southern accents, their non-designer clothes and their earnest policy of no-hard-liquor-in-the-White-House.

Always, they had written in separate autobiographies, they had been one another's closest confidantes, the very best of friends. Childhood sweethearts, they told each other everything, shared all: the joys, the pains, the struggles, even a child prone to clog-dancing in the White House.

The Formula Faltered

But when they sat down to write "Everything to Gain: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life" (Random House, June 8: $16.95), the formula faltered.

"One thing I hope people will learn from the book," Carter said, sinking into the Wedgewood-blue living room couch, "is not ever to try to write a book together, unless they want to terminate a marriage."

It was that bad?

"It was," Carter said. "We were incompatible authors.

"All of Rosalynn's bad characteristics came out during the writing of this book, and I guess mine did, too," he said.

"We were so frustrated with each other about it that we couldn't even talk about it," Mrs. Carter said. She thought for a moment, then added, "It was not just frustrated. It was angry."

Never known as marital gladiators, the Carters said they fought bitterly as they thrashed out a book that emerged in such separate voices that the initials R and J are used to indicate who is writing what.

"It was as though she was writing a book all by herself, and I wasn't even a co-author," Carter said.

Rosalynn Carter's voice turned steely.

"That was not true," she said, lips pursed.

Briefly, the Carters traded nervous laughter.

"Let's don't start again," Mrs. Carter said. "We can't even talk about it still."

Writing the book, the Carters worked at separate word processors at opposite ends of the little brick rambler, or ranch house, tucked among the oaks and hickories on the 170-acre Carter compound here. There was "no way" they could have worked in the same room, Carter said. "That would have been lethal."

Dueling Computers

So he holed up at his Compaq computer in the old garage he converted into his study. In the unused bedroom she made into her own office, she steamed away at her IBM-PC. Through compatible programming, they communicated electronically, passing terse and often unkind messages from machine to machine.

"Well, we have different styles of writing, and we were writing about things that were emotional and unpleasant," Carter said. His tone was easy, devoid of the taut-rubber-band tension that marked his voice in the final days of his Administration. "Usually," he said, "when you experience something like that, you have a tendency to conceal it, erase it from your memory, modify it, so it seems better than it actually was."

"Not talk about it very much," his wife said, referring to the numbing grief they felt when Carter lost by 10% of the popular vote to Ronald Reagan in 1980.

"Just kind of bury it," Carter said. "And here we were, resurrecting a terrible debt, a political defeat, an uncertain life, a forced return to Plains, all those things simultaneously.

"So one of us would write. For instance I would write about an event and give it to Rosalynn, and she would say, 'It didn't happen this way.' And I would say, 'Rosalynn, I was there. I saw what happened. It happened this way.' She would say, 'I was there. I saw what happened. It did not happen this way.' So then we would kind of ultimately compromise how it happened."

A particular incident, Carter said, "may have been, for her, a highly emotional, distressing sort of thing. It may not have been that important to me. Well, it's OK if one person is writing a book. You can write it your way and let the other one disagree. But when both of you have to sign the book when it gets through, you've got to work it out."

Without knowing it at the time, the Carters had hurled themselves squarely into what they would describe in their book as one of the major issues of later life: Despite their close partnership, the couple had always operated with a substantial degree of autonomy. Suddenly, they were all but tripping over each other.

Writes Mrs. Carter, "For the first time, we were both at home together all day every day, and as much as we care for each other, this sometimes proved difficult. We each had been accustomed to having some space of our own, some free time to be alone, to think and to work independently--which, luckily, we both thought was important. Now, as the days passed, we had to learn to share time."

At first, when they returned home to Plains, that prospect of sharing time was complicated by problems for which the Carters found themselves entirely unprepared.

Dealing With Election Loss

Convinced up until "a few days before the election" that he would "prove successful" against Reagan, Carter, in characteristic fashion, kept his shock to himself. To those close to the former President, his confession in the new book that "I have always believed that it is a sign of weakness to show emotion by giving in publicly to despair, frustration or disappointment" comes as no surprise.

Rosalynn Carter, however, made little secret of her emotions. "I had been angry, sad, anxious and worried," she writes of the early weeks after the election. Sometimes she would rage at her husband: "I don't understand it. I just don't understand why God wanted us to lose this election." The former President, his wife writes, was "more mature" in his "Christian attitude." "Do you think people are robots that God controls from heaven?" he would reply.

Holding in his feelings so tightly, Carter came to realize that "with my calm and reassuring attitude, it seemed to Rosalynn that I didn't recognize her pain."

Eventually both Carters signed contracts for separate autobiographies: her "First Lady From Plains," co-written with Linda Bird Franke, was published in 1984 by Houghton Mifflin; his "Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President" came out in 1983 from Bantam Books Hardcover. They had a house and a sizable government pension. Penury was unlikely. But when they first returned to Plains, they were amazed to discover their finances in chaos.

As is the custom, they had placed their personal financial matters in a blind trust during the Carter presidency, "carefully separating" themselves from such concerns as the family peanut warehouse. In their absence, they learned, poor management and a three-year drought had left them "many hundreds of thousands of dollars" in debt. Said Carter, "We just didn't know how we were ever going to pay this debt off."

"It had not really occurred to us . . . that Plains might not continue to provide us with the financial base it always had," they write in one of the few unsigned passages in the book. "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."

Amy Carter, meanwhile, had waited a discreet 24 hours after the election before storming her parents' bedroom to inform them that Plains was the last place she intended to reside. "You may be from the country, but I'm not. I've been raised in the city!" she declared. Sure enough, the child who had moved to the Georgia governor's mansion at the age of 3 soon chafed in the small-town atmosphere. Classmates ostracized her so much, her parents report, that one night "when we called her to dinner and she didn't come, we found her outside in a tree, crying."

For Amy Carter, the solution was boarding school in Atlanta. Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter, 53 and 56 when they left the White House, took a more multilevel approach to their readjustment.

Worked in the Garden

They bought word processors. "It is not an exaggeration to say we were like children with new toys," Carter writes. They fixed up the house and worked in the garden. They jogged, rode bicycles, took hikes. Intent on preserving her slender figure, Rosalynn Carter became a devotee of the "Jane Fonda Workout" videotapes. On trips, she took to packing along an audiocassette workout tape from a spa in Florida.

So stung were they by their loss in the election and the ordeal of the Iranian hostage crisis that for three months they avoided all but the occasional clip of TV news. "I didn't want to watch it," Mrs. Carter said, sitting beside her husband. "In the first place, I just didn't want to see somebody else there, in our house." But when she finally went back to watching the evening news, "I had a really strange feeling of detachment from the whole scene. It was not as though we had never been there, but it was so different that it was not the same."

It was a healing process during which, they would come to realize later, "There is life after the White House!" As Mrs. Carter writes, "We had to work our way through various stages--self-pity, anger, discouragement, anxiety."

As it turned out, groping their way through crises would be a major theme in their joint book.

"We try to give our own personal experiences," Carter said. "Not based on the White House or the governor's mansion, but based on (life in) Plains. Instead of projecting ourselves as a special case, we thought life in Plains would be more compatible with what many millions of other people face. You know, an unexpected change in your life, getting fired from a job, an early retirement, an extreme disappointment, change in career, last child leaving home--." Carter paused. "All of which happened to us at once."

Both trim and blessed with remarkable health, the Carters initially undertook the book following a conference on health issues at the Carter Presidential Center in Atlanta. "The experts, the people there thought that if we wrote a book, we might have some impact, because they put the statistics out all the time, and sometimes people don't pay much attention," Mrs. Carter said. In a move they would regret when they actually sat down to collaborate, the Carters made a public announcement that they would co-write a book on health in the second half of life.

Offering everything from nutritional advice to a virtual sermon on the evils of smoking, the Carters mix scientific data with personal experience as they write about health in the later years. It is a topic to which Carter, drinking coffee after a quick lunch and a morning revival at their church, warms quickly: "Part of the book," he said, "is not to tell people that they can be guaranteed good health, but that the average person can add 11 years to their existence just by following certain very simple rules."

Rule No. 1, Carter said, "is not smoking."

"And not drinking to excess," his wife said. "Fastening seat belts, and so forth."

One thing the Carters do not write about is what to do about a college-age daughter who has made headlines for her involvement in demonstrations on behalf of social causes. In person, the Carters are quick to defend their daughter, now finishing her sophomore year at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

"We're very proud of Amy," her father said. "And basically we share her concerns about apartheid and the activities of the CIA and our government in Central America.

"We've been amazed at her degree of activism because naturally she's a very retiring and private and shy person. It's painful for her to confront the press or the public. It's very painful."

"I felt it was very courageous of her," Mrs. Carter said.

"Well, she always has felt very deeply about issues," Carter said.

Amy Carter's political stance was thrust into the public eye in November when she was arrested with, among others, veteran protester Abbie Hoffman in an anti-apartheid demonstration at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Rather than pay a fine, Amy and her cohorts opted for a trial, hoping to bring attention to the issue for which they were arrested. Along with her fellow defendants, Amy was acquitted.

"She's a little embarrassed that she's singled out for all the news attention," Carter said, "instead of the cause."

'You Could Be Arrested'

Even as a high school student, her mother said, Amy, now 19, looked forward to demonstrating against apartheid with her brothers. "When she called the night before, I said, 'Well, Amy, you know, you could be arrested,' " Mrs. Carter said, "and she said, 'Do you really think I could be?' "

But as Carter observed of his only daughter, "this is one who always wished she had grown up in the '60s when her brothers did, when so much was going on."

Like daughter, like father: Carter, too, has spent much of the last six years since he left the White House focusing on issues: peace in the Mideast; dispute resolution through negotiation; environmental quality; housing; nuclear arms control; hunger. "Well, the Carter Center work is really an extension of the goals we have," he said. "We're able to bring together experts on many subjects, plus people who can actually implement actions."

As private citizens, the Carters say they have traveled far more than they did in office. The "Jimmy who?" syndrome, the prolonged period of semi-obscurity following his departure from Washington, amuses Carter somewhat: "This last trip to the Middle East was highly publicized, but it was no more significant than the other trips there we've done. This trip was on the evening news every night. Four years ago we did a far more extensive trip, and it was totally ignored."

In Carter's view, "Reagan's foibles and so forth in the last six months have brought into a better perspective what we did."

Still, the memories flood back as Carter watches and reads each day of yet another hostage crisis plaguing yet another administration.

"It is ironic," Rosalynn Carter said, "that the hostages in Iran would affect two presidencies."

No Bitterness

But even as he sits there in Plains, far from the splendor and the stress of the White House, Carter insists he feels no bitterness. "We've always felt fairly confident that what we did was right," he said. "Our goals were the proper ones. We had a lot of good achievements."

"If asked," Carter would "be willing" to serve as an official negotiator in some future administration. For now, however, he is concentrating at once on his work at the Carter Center, his volunteer work for the homeless with the Habitat for Humanity and his fledgling efforts as an occasional magazine journalist.

For her part, Rosalynn Carter is busily planning a Carter Center conference on "Women and the Constitution," scheduled for February, with former First Ladies Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon and Betty Ford as co-chairwomen.

"And there's a lot to be done for the mentally ill, the mentally afflicted, and on women's rights," she said. "We have a grant at Emory (University in Atlanta) for me to do a seminar on mental health issues every year for four years."

New Challenges

Having worked out what Carter calls "almost a constant partnership" in their marriage, the Carters continue to follow their own advice: Take on new challenges, find new hobbies, do things together. Last winter, Carter said with no small measure of pride, the two wintered in Taos, N.M., and took up skiing.

"It was great," he said, beaming.

But some things do remain separate. "When she goes shopping," Carter said, now gently stroking the arm of his wife, "I don't go. I'm a terrible drag on her as a shopper, and it's absolutely painful to me."

Rosalynn Carter laughed, remembering the journalist who had tried to present a case that Carter was in some kind of exile in Plains because "he didn't even go to the store to buy his own clothes.

"Well the only time I've ever known Jimmy to buy his own clothes was once when we lived in Norfolk, (Va.,) and he went with me one day and bought a sport coat. That was the only time in his life," his wife said, "I think, that he's ever been to the store."

Certainly they pride themselves on their partnership. But one more area will definitely divide them in coming years, the Carters agree.

Said Carter, his tone offering no room for disagreement, "We will never write another book together."

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