Jimmy Carter: Plains Speaking

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 31, 2000

The row of attached, two-story buildings, just down the road from the Plains, Ga., train depot, looks like a Hollywood set for an abandoned mining town.

The 100-year-old structure houses the town's commercial center: five stores, including a shuttered bait shop. Only two are open this Sunday afternoon. Out front, the dusty little main street is empty.

But a remarkable thing happened here. From the tiny wood-plank depot, Jimmy Carter launched a presidential campaign that embodied the most profound and treasured principle of the American Dream: that anyone can grow up to be president.

Sam Donaldson, Tom Brokaw and Robert Redford no longer visit Plains. But cars and buses filled with tourists from around the world still come. For many, it is a pilgrimage.

The entire town of about 600 souls, including Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, is a National Historic Site. Carter's Sunday school class, open to all who come, has been a tourist attraction for years. And last month, the National Park Service added what it hopes will be another draw: the farm where Carter spent his boyhood years harvesting peanuts and shoeing mules alongside the black farm workers his father employed.

Carter's library in Atlanta tells the story of the 39th president's administration. The town of Plains and the nearby farm tell the story of the place that made the man.

The 31/2-hour drive from Atlanta to Jimmy Carter's home town is a reminder of how far Plains is from Washington, in more ways than one. Just a few miles from Atlanta, you hit a gigantic farmer's market. A short while later, the highway begins to ribbon past miles of rich red dirt and white puffs of cotton left behind by picking machines.

Since the only guest house in Plains is closed until March, I head to the nearest big town -- Americus, population 18,000. It's nearly dark when we hit, just outside the town, a gas station plastered from top to bottom with handwritten Bible verses, most of them about God's ability to heal.

The next morning, I drive the 10 miles to Plains and enter the sanctuary of Maranatha Baptist Church. It might seat 250 people, if they aren't too stout. Some weeks, 800 or more people come and spill into the aisles and fellowship hall, where Carter's class is carried live on video.

The simple sanctuary with avocado green carpeting, which could have come from a 1960s basement rec room, holds just over 100 people this Sunday, a week before Christmas.

Rosalynn Carter, in a simple red dress, is already in church talking with friends when Jimmy Carter, wearing cowboy boots, brown slacks and a sports coat, arrives. He asks people who are new to the church to raise their hands and tell where they are from. Most hands go up.

He points and people respond: We're from Oklahoma, Japan, Illinois, Russia, Maine, Oregon, Australia, Korea. Then Carter calls on my 8-year-old daughter, who says, "Washington, D.C."

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