"I can't stand here tonight and say this doesn't hurt," Carter said in his concession speech. "I wanted to serve this country because I love this country and I love the people of this nation." But as Americans clicked off their TV sets that night, how many of them clicked the 56-year-old Carter out of their thoughts for good?
Now, as the sun starts to set on the Reagan administration, Carter appears determined to step out of the Reagan shadow and claim what he believes is his rightful place in history. And if his latest book, Everything to Gain, is any measure, the love he professed on election night for this country and "the people of this nation" was genuine and enduring.
Since leaving the White House, he and his wife, Rosalynn, have devoted themselves to such causes as feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, eliminating disease and developing methods of conflict resolution that they hope will complement the peacemaking efforts of the United Nations.
They have literally swung hammers and sawed wood as they built houses for the homeless in New York, Chicago, Nicaragua and Peru. They have set up model farms in Ghana, Tanzania, Zambia and other African nations, in an effort to teach improved agricultural techniques to local farmers. And they recently vowed to lead the fight to eradicate a gruesome freshwater parasite, the Guinea worm, that plagues an estimated 100 million people in India and Pakistan. History may or may not remember Carter as a great president, but he appears destined to be remembered as an uncommonly good man.
The Carters' newfound sense of purpose did not come easily, however. Everything to Gain, which Carter co-authored with his wife, is the couple's story of their struggle to find direction after the shock and pain of the 1980 defeat.
"We had been through a crisis in our lives and realized maybe most people have some kind of crisis," Carter, 63, said in an interview in New York last week. "If we could write about how we reacted to ours and how we lived through it, maybe we could help," he said as he sat with his wife in a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
He wore a tweed jacket and gray slacks, often leaning forward as he spoke and leaning back during his wife's replies. His hair is a sandy gray, and his face is fuller than it appeared in the White House. He flashes his broad, famous grin often as he speaks, but a steel-hard seriousness shows in his eyes at times: a reminder that this was once the most powerful man in the world.
Everything to Gain began as a book about a health conference called ''Closing the Gap," held in October 1984 at the Carter Presidential Center at Emory University in Atlanta. The Carters - who lost their fathers to cancer when they were young - say they were particularly struck by the realization that Americans who exercise, quit smoking, wear seat belts and cut down on fats, sugars and alcohol will live an average of 11 years longer than those who don't. They decided they would write a book about the health factors people can control.
"So we started writing some," said Mrs. Carter, whose 1984 autobiography, First Lady From Plains, had topped the best-seller lists, "and it was dry and boring and preachy, with lots of statistics. . . . If we wrote a chapter about smoking, we realized that people who smoke probably weren't going to read it."
They asked themselves instead what people can do with the opportunities that a longer, healthier life has to offer. "And finally," she said, "after talking with several publishers, we decided to write it this way."
They compressed the health message into just one chapter and devoted much of the book to a personal account of their experiences since leaving the White House, beginning with their immediate post-election discovery that their once-prosperous peanut warehouse in Plains, held in a blind trust during the presidency, was bankrupt. Their future seemed bleak indeed as they rode to Reagan's inauguration and departed Washington for Plains, population 600.
The Carters had not lived there regularly since 1971, when they left for the Georgia governor's mansion, yet Plains was home. "Here in all the world were people who loved us for ourselves and not for whatever power or influence we might have had . . . and who had remembered our fathers and still cared about our mothers just as they would have if we had remained peanut farmers," they wrote.
They promptly sold the peanut warehouse to pay off its debts. They saw their daughter, Amy, off to boarding school in Atlanta, and, to mask how much they missed her, they would go jogging at the time she used to come home from school. They fixed up their house, gardened and began work on their memoirs. Carter built furniture with the woodworking tools his staff had given him as a farewell gift.
And yet they still anguished over the 1980 defeat. Mrs. Carter said she had a particularly hard time of it, often asking herself, "Why did God want us to lose the election?"
Carter found he dreaded the fund-raising necessary to build a Carter Library, and later was so dissatisfied and embarrassed by the first architects' original plan for a grandiose monument of a building that he briefly - and angrily - decided he would have no library at all. But suddenly, unexpectedly, their lives took a change.
"We both had been going through this torturous process of deciding what are we going to do with the rest of our lives," Carter recalled in the interview. "And one night we woke up and we began to talk about all the things we could do to resolve international disputes, (find) Mideast peace, alleviate hunger in Africa and change the health habits of our nation and the rest of the world."
Instead of building just a grandiose library, they wondered, why not also create a center devoted to solving these world problems? They stayed up talking excitedly for hours about what this facility might achieve. "And finally," Carter recalled, "I said, 'Well, maybe we can do more after the White House than we could do if I was still president.' So we laughed about that."
Mrs. Carter nodded. "We decided that if we could rationalize it like that, then we must be in pretty good shape," she said with a laugh.
"Neither one of us truly believed that a private citizen could do more than a president," Carter added. "But at least we had a new life."
Carter quickly threw himself into the fund raising for what would ultimately become the $25 million Carter Presidential Center at Emory University, dedicated last October, which houses the Carter Library, a museum and the archives of his administration; and the adjacent Carter Presidential Center, where Carter and a staff of eight senior fellows administer programs intended to improve world health, agriculture and peace.
"I think the Carter Center has given us a base - a permanent base of operations - equivalent in some ways to what we experienced in the governor's mansion and in the White House," Carter said when asked what was his proudest achievement since leaving the White House. And he spoke enthusiastically about the center's dispute-resolution program, modeled on the private negotiations he engineered in 1978 to produce the Egypt-Israel peace agreement known as the Camp David Accords.
Whether or not it was their intention, Everything to Gain ultimately serves as a reminder of the small-town sense of community that Carter - once a scoutmaster and Baptist church deacon in Plains - took with him to the Sumter County school board, to the Georgia Senate, to the governorship of Georgia, into the White House and to the creation of the Carter Center.
In Plains, "people just cared for each other when somebody was in trouble," Carter recalled in the interview. "Everybody knew it, and everybody helped out. If somebody was sick . . . everybody gathered around, took them food, stayed up with them at night. So I think you grow with that kind of sense of community, of caring for each other, because it was just part of my life . . ."
"I think that in historical terms, those truisms about moral and ethical standards and truthfulness and decency and compassion and competence, you know, they don't change. We don't put ourselves up as a perfect couple or a perfect presidency, but I feel pretty much at ease with how history will treat our term, our efforts," he said.
"A lot of people thought that my emphasis on things like human rights and peace and arms control and negotiation in lieu of combat was a sign of weakness, and that our nation has to exert its military might to prove its strength. I never had that feeling, and I was criticized because of that."
"That's one of the reasons we were able to accept defeat," said Mrs. Carter. "It was hard. But I've always been so secure about his place in history. Look at the things he accomplished during difficult times: the energy crisis, hostages and those things that happened to our country . . .
" I've always thought that if he had bombed Tehran, he would have been re- elected," she said. "But he had the strength to resist those kinds of things, to work on problems. And his accomplishments are there for people to see. . . . I've always been glad that he was the one in control."
Carter grinned, and then laughed. "And this," he said, pointing his thumb at his wife, "is from a completely unbiased analyst!"