"Hodding has always wanted to be a national figure," said one friend recently of Hodding Carter III, who is now assistant secretary of state for public affairs and spokesman for Cyrus Vance. "And once he tasted national politics I think he just didn't see the challeng here in Greenville, anymore.

"No, I don't think he'll come back to Greenville. I think he wants to think he will, but once he finally gets that Mississippi dust kicked off his boots and accepts that he is now a political person, well, I don't think we'll see much of him down here anymore."

Hodding Carter III, scion of the Mississippi journalism family is very ambitious. But he is also smart, articulate, attractive, witty, impetuous and colorful - which make him almost diametrically opposed to his boss. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance.

"Almost everybody around he is opposed to Vance, personality-wise," said one veteran State Department reporter, "Vance is not a mixer. He tolerates the press, but doesn't like it. He's the Secretary of State - period. "What Vance really needed around here was his own Jody Powell - and with Hodding that's exactly what he got."

What Vance didn't get with Carter, however, is a spokesman with any experience in foreign policy, who at first not only "didn't know an entity from a homeland but didn't much care because they were all the same to me."

Seven months later Carter not only knows the difference but has impressed members of the State Department press corps with just how quickly he has caught on. He is also receiving high points for his patience and sense of humor, particularly when it comes to the daily press briefings which are good enough that non-State Department reporters have started dropping in just to catch his act.

Carter's eyes are a piercing blue.The smile is wide and toothy. He laughs a lot. But when he is not laughing there often crosses his face a look of melancholy befitting a Faulkner hero. And, of course, there is the accent. The slow, Southern drawl masking the razor-sharp mind. He is tall and lean, a conservative dresser.

Up until last January "Little" Hodding was editor and publisher of the Delta Democrat-Times of Greenville, Miss., a paper founded by his father, Hodding Carter Jr., in 1936. He spent 17 years there, and when not news-papering, passed his time in politics - civil rights a politics. This began in 1965 when he co-chaired, with Aaron Henry, the new Young Democrats, a coalition of college students - NAACP types like Charles Evers and members of the Freedom Democratic party which would become the base of the organized bloc that would challenge the them all-white Mississippi Democratic party delegation to the 1963 national convention.

Although one of the earliest liberal Southern whites visible in the civil-rights movement, Carter's inclinations came naturally.

His father, Big Hod, had been one of the first Mississippi publishers to say in print that blacks are people, a stance that by 1946 had not only made the family notorious but won him the Pulitzer Prize for his editorial writing on race.

"Hodding," said a friend, "grew up in a bastion of what then posed for Southern liberalism . . . the big house, manners, concersation, books and trying to do the right thing. Not, that is, that Big Hodding as all that liberal. He never called for equality - just equality of opportunity - but in those days that was bad enough. But because of his dad, his dad's life and bearing his dad's name, Little Hodding Carter was a marked child. The reason he turned out so well, I imagine, is largely because of his mother."

Betty Carter, according to one neighbor, "is a fascinating combination of two Tennessee Williams women - Maggie and Blanche du Bois - and definitely a big part of the brains in that family. She ruled that roost."

An opinion concurred in by both Hodding and his brother Philip, who currently edits the Delta Democrat-Times along with his own New Orleans weekly, the Vieux Courier. "My mother," says Hodding "was the exacting complementary half of dad's personal and professional lie. She was researcher to his writer, the active engaged person in the community as well as the motherA, the hostess, the wife."

She was also no dummy when it came to her husband. When tales of Big Hodding's "hard-drinking, hard-living, hard-playing way" reached her, she never, says Hodding, 'closed her eyes to all that. In fact, in those circumstances I'm sure she kicked his ass. But she never took him for granted. Nor did my father her.

"He recognized that my mother was extraordinary and that that wasn't going to come down the pike again at all. "

Nonetheless, life because of father, who Hodding describes as "the bravest guy I knew because he knew how scared he was and what he did despite the consequences" meant that "one of us was always getting our ass kicked by some kid calling us 'nigger lover.' But ours was not a life of social isolation, even though there was also never a sense of not being in combat. We were never desperately close to the bone but there was never a time I didn't realize we were completely out of step with the whites in Greenville."

By the time he was ready for college he had decided on one thing: "I was never going to be 'Little' Hodding. There was no way I was ever going to be a journalist." Instead, he wanted to be a foreign service officer and chose Princeton because of the Woodrow Wilson School of Diplomacy. However, by his senior year three things had changed his mind: advice from a foreign service officer telling him not to go into diplomacy because of the still-prevailing fear of McCarthyism, the Marine Corps, and love. So in 1959, following the service, and his marriage to a New Orleans girl named Peggy, he agreed to return to Greenville for "only one year." It turned into 17.

But it wasn't until 1964 when the death of the three civil rights workers in Mississippi and his experience covering Barry Goldwater at the Republican convention that Carter himself joined up in the civil rights movement. "I became perfectly clear to me that anyone who did not like what both represented had to more than observers. It was war and time for me to enlist, one way or the other."

But, according to Carter detractors, it was also a path to political action that was impossible for him through traditional Mississippi Democratic politics. "To the regular Democratic party ranks, Hodding's father represented everything they hated - namely the very idea of desegregation," said one Delta politician.

"Even though Big Hod was a yellow dog Democrat (as in: "If the Democratic candidate is a yellow dog you vote for him anyway") Carter would never have been accepted in the existing political structure, which is one reason I suspect he cose the route of the Loyal Democrats of Mississippi."

By 1968 a new political party, the Loyal Democrats of Mississippi, had grown out of the Young Democrats, and with Carter and Aaron Henry again leading it set off for Chicago hell-bent on unseating the regular Mississippi state delegation at the Democratic convention. The result was one of the bloodiest credentials fights in the history of Post-Civil War Southern politics, which ended only when the Loyal Democrats had unseated the regulars to give Mississippi its first racially mixed delegation.

That victory was repeated again in 1972 in Miami when the Loyal Democrats resisted a challenge by party regulars to unseat them in Miami Carter served as co-chairman of the national credentials committee as well as drawing some 500 signatures on a petition for the vice presidential nomination, before withdrawing in favor of Thomas Eagleton. And by 1974 Carter's efforts had come full circle when the Loyal Democrats finally united with party regulars to assure that in 1976 the New York Democratic convention got Mississippi's first interracial united delegation.

"Those were wonderful years," recalls Carter, smiling at the memory. "It was a great battle. Being involved in the fight for civil rights was the kind of encounter you really ought to wish for most people. Everybody should be so lucky to be in a place where it's worth fighting right down the line. That's what happened to me and it was damn good for me, too.

"Of course, the fight is not over. As I used to say to booze and boredom on the lecture circuit, the South has just been brought up to the moral plateau on which the North felt it was always standing, but we've discovered how low that plateau is. So now it's really a hell of a fight because nobody cares about civil rights anymore. It's like Allard Lowenstein used to say - We have to have a Mississippi to sell civil rights in Des Moines." But, of course, now you don't have that Mississippi" Moines.' But, of course, now you don't have that Mississippi."

And there were the good times especially around Carter's house in Greenville, which, according to one frequent visitor "was THE liberal enclave in the South. No self-respecting liberal ever passed through Greenville without stopping at Hodding's.And there was always a party going on because, believe me, nobody ever drank or partied as much as Hodding's crowd."

"Yup," concedes Carter, "that's about right. There was always somebody around. We'd have dinner, drink lots of whiskey tell each other a pack of lies, solve the world's problems by 3 in the morning and then listen to somebody play the piano until 5. We had some great times."

That "we" included, of course, his wife, Peggy, whom Carter married when "we were both 21 and thought ourselves damned attractive and sharing some of the same goals . . ." Which they did, even though politics wasn't one, until a year ago when the two separated leaving Peggy, according to brother Philip, "not only the best tennis player in Greenville, but the kind of woman that every man at a Delta cocktail party wants to talk and flirt with."

"I really don't know what happened to my marriage," says Carter. "I was on the road a great deal but it wasn't just my involvement in political life . . . and there were four great kids . . . I guess the shorthand answer is incompatibility, but I don't know. I don't know how far you pull out the piece of string. . ."

As a result, Carter currently shares a house in Washington with two other bachelors, Georgia Democratic Rep. Wyche Fowler and SPencer Oliver, director of the Helsinki Commission.

"With his looks and money and charisma he could be cutting a real swath here in Washington," said one Washington observer "and that's certainly always been his style, but I hardly ever seen him out and then he's always with Patt Derian."

Patt Derian, the human rights co-ordinator at State, "is just about my best friend," says Carter. Others, however, thinks Derian and Carter are more than friends, a suggestion that makes Carter laugh.

"Well, I'll tell you the first time I saw Patt in the mind '60s I thought she was in pain in the ass. I got to know her when I was fighting like hell to keep her from becoming a Democratic national committeewoman. I thought she was too ideological and fought her tooth and nail until she just ran over me like a steam roller. And I was co-chairman of the committee, for Christ's sake."

One friend characterizes the Derian-Carter relationship as "the kind that grew from combat, and Mississippi was combat," and apparently that's just about how Carter sees it, too. "We share perspectives and about 15 years worth of common work. But no, I would not put us down a [WORD ILLEGIBLE] great love affair of our century."

Still . . . "Well, hell, we do go a lot of places together and probably will continue to do so. I would say we're just good friends but then, as I told you, I sure didn't know what she had in mind for me the first time I met her and I've already been run over by that steam roller once . . ."

Derian views the relationship in similar terms. "Sure, we're best friends," she says. "Why, here we are, two country people in the big city filled with strangers, so what more do you need than a best friend? Besides, I couldn't have a more personal, intimate relationship with a man who is married. And Hodding is still technically married."

To some, however, the Carter-Derian duo in civil rights wasn't so idyllic. Charles Evers claims that "blacks did more for Patt and Hodding than they did for us. They used us to get where they wanted to go and then forgot us." Evers' views, however, are not shared by other civil-rights stalwarts like attorney Joe Rauh who characterizes Carter as "being one of the most significant and dedicated people we had in bringing integration to the Democratic party in Mississippi."

For his part, Carter prefers to downplay his role. "Look, I'm not interested in creating or perpetuating any myths. We were not members of the civil-rights movement. We were not the cutting-edge folk. We were people who ran a paper in a small town.

"We survived, and in surviving, we preserved our integrity and tried to move the process forward. We were threatened any number of times but we did not go out of business. Our life was not one in which misery was our everyday companion."

In 1972 Hodding Carter Jr. died, after, says Carter, "never recovering from my 19-year-old brother Tommy's death in 1964. According to a girlfriend who was with him, Tommy was playing around with a gun - Russian Roulette or something - and shot himself."

Last August Carter started working fulltime for Jimmy Carter in Atlanta. By then, he clearly was ready to leave Greenville and through the efforts of friends like Dick Moose, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, was plucked for State, because, says one source, "he was exactly what Jimmy wanted for his administration - a good white Southern liberal."

At his first meeting with Vance, Carter found him to "personify just the type of man who had had the career he had. I like him a lot. And he's given every indication of trusting my judgment, too.

"I don't want to sound like a hustler but I think what's being done here at State is exciting as hell. For instance, I happen to like our human-rights policy very much and essentially I also think we're on the right path in the Middle East.

"But I am also aware that Cy Vance is not a showman. What's going to prove him for history will be the real success or failure of what he's doing, not how he sells it. And I sort of like that. Its sure as hell makes my credibility a hell of a lot better. Listen, I didn't spend 17 years on the other side to come up and play God's gift to flackdom."

Because of spending time on "the other sire," Carter is perhaps more aware of criticism of his new employer.

For example, concerning the notion that the President usurps much of Vance's clout with his off-the-cut foreign policy announcements in the White House Rose Garden, Carter replies that "that is a matter of humor, not a matter of great attention. Yes, sometimes a variation on a foreign policy theme does come out of the White House first, and when a reporter asks me about it I have no response. But that doesn't bother me. It seems to me, after all, that somewhere in the Constitution it does say that the President is the man responsible for foreign policy, doesn't it?"

Clearly, however, it is the press briefings that Carter most savors, "I really enjoy that damn briefing. To me it's the most important part of the governmental process. The government has one job - that's to govern - while the press has the job of interpreting, criticizing and reporting.

"And I have always felt it should be an adversary relationship. It doesn't bother me to be on this side until, that is, such day I'm sent out there to lie, at which time I'll quit. And frankly, these guys that work my room - the State Department reporters - are pros who know a lot more about the subject than I do. Sure, I have direct connection to the immediate word, but they have memory, which I don't."

Its Hodding Carter III interested in running for political office himself.

Says he "There was absolutely no way I could have gotten elected in Mississippi. Sure, I would have loved a shot at the Senate. And it won't be long before it'll be possible for a politician who isn't much more conservative than me to get elected there, but it'll have to be somebody absolutely unmarked by the scars of the '50s and '60s."

"Actually," he concludes, laughing, "that's the only bad thing about Jimmy Carter being elected. Now everyone of us in the South who draw up thinking we had the right to be governor or senator is now going to think he also has theright to be president."