Sybil Carter sits in her vaulted-ceiling liviing room puffing on a Marboro Light. The fan above whirs softly -- the only air moving on this sultry summer day. She has turned down Kenny Roger's "She Believes in Me" on the stereo, and has curled up on the sofa and settled in for some good old Southern ire.
Sybil Carter is 42 now, her husband is 43. Raised in a small town in Alabama, she married Billy Carter when she was 16 and has stuck by him ever since.
She is the mother of six children, not counting her husband Billy, who hovers behind her in his gold shorts, almost as a child might cling to his mother's skirts as she berates a school bully.
Billy, Sybil will tell you, is the man of the family.But today it is Sybil who is the ferocious protector ofher wronged husband and God help any fool who gets in her way.
"okay," says Sybil so Billy was out of the [peanut warehouse] business [after Jimmy Carter's election]. But he had to make a living. He was getting offers for speeches and appearances, so why not speak? Sure he could have gotten a job digging ditches. Butit would have been the same. He would still have been Billy Carter, brother of the president. Some people said we were taking advantage and maybe we were. But how many wouldn't?"
She stops talking for a moment to calm down, then shrugs, lights a cigarette.
"nobody cares," she says. "it's like, 'why aren't you like your brother?The public eye in society will not let you be yourself. Cannot accept that Billy is different from his brother."
He has been told not to give interviews because of the ongoing inquiries into his connections with the Libyan government. So Sybil is talking, letting out all the anger that has been building up in her ever since her brother-in-law was elected president of the United States.
To hear her saga is to hear the dark side of the American Dream -- the dream that anybody can be elected president. But what if that anybody is your brother? For the Billy Carters, the glory of the voting booth has become ashes of public scorn, alcoholism, moneyworries, and now political bloodletting. "There've been a lot of heartaches," says Sybil.
Her husband leaves to play golf, silently waving goodbye as if he were a bit player in a major production. She turns back to her coffee and cigarettes and smiles.
Sybil Carter is what they mean in those Country Western songs when they say "good woman". strong, stable, securethere when you need her. She is not glamorous but she has a nice open face and beautiful, luminous blue eyes.
It is not surprising that "she Believes in Me" is one of her favorite songs. "I just love Sybil," says Miss Lillian, matriarch of the Carter clan. "she's my favorite person."
The Libyan scandal now hangs over her and her husband, touching everything they do. The Justice Department investigating, as are the Senate and the House. Her husband may be indicted and already has been accused by various political commentators of being a criminal, a traitor, a liar. His alcoholism has plagued their lives. They have lost all privacy and several sources of income, leaving them near financial ruin. Still, there is no trace of despair in her voice. Only anger and determination.
"almost since the beginning," she says, "when Jimmy was first elected president, people were excited. They swarmed into Plains. They wanted to see members of the president's family. I understand that. Then when the ware-house business was leased and Billy started making appearnaces and speeches, everybody had an opinion abouthim. Taking advantage of being the president's brother."
It was the leasing of the Carters' peanut warehouse in Plains, Ga., that caused the problems to start with, says Sybil. "if Jimmy had never been president," she says, "we'd still be in the peanut warehouse business."
Sybil won't say it, but many of the local people from Plains and Americus feel that the president should have given Billy his share of the warehouse outright instead of putting it in trust."they took Billy's toys away," said one who is sympathetic to Billy.
At any rate, Jimmy Carter's lawyer,Charles Kirbo, was appointed trustee for the president's share of thewarehouse, which was also owned by Miss Lillian.
"that," says Sybil, "was all well and good. But Blly has always been the type of person who ran the business while Jimmy was in politics [as governor]. So when somebody [Kirbo] comes in who doesn't know about it and tells you this doesn't work and that -- Billy knows more and he felt he couldn't work with Mr. Kirbo. There were a lot of decisions made that Billy and Miss Lillian were never informed about.So you sit there and try to make decisions and have somebody up there [Atlanta] tell you what to do -- Well, what should you do?"
Her voice is rising as she get more annoyed and finally she sits up, leans forward and says, "He quit, that's what."
According to Sybil, Billy never talked to Jimmy about the problem. "Jimmy was not allowed to talk about it," she says, "and Billy's not the type to go whining to Jimmy. He's never asked Jimmy for anything. But Billy was made to feel like a complete fool about the whole thing. . . wouldn't you?" w
It wasn't easy for either of them to give up the warehouse. "I worked with Billy for years in the warehouse," says Sybil. "I miss the warehouse. I miss the contact with the people, with the farmers. It is ironic that people are now saying that Billy is the kind of person you can't trust. Back in the warehouse days the farmers would come and I would balance their checkbooks and help them with their income taxes. Times have changed so much from then till now."
At the same time that Billy was being pushed out by Kirbo, says Sybil, any privacy they may have had was completely gone. They lived in Plains then and had plans to build another house nearby. But it became impossible. They moved to a large house about 25 miles away, down a secluded country road in Buena Vista. They added a wing to the already large house. Outside the house are a swimming pool, three cars, one Cadilac and two pickup trucks.
"you can't believe the people that came to that warehouse," she says. "We had no time to do anything. There werethrongs. Billy would have to leave and take people out in the country in his pickup to talk to them. We couldn't live in our house that we had lived in for 14 years and raised our children in. lPeople would walk in the house without knocking on the door. We'd step out in the yard and people would be taking our pictures. I had a tiny baby. My housekeeper had to lock the door. My children could not ride their bikes in the yard, they could not play in their own yard. It was HORRIBLE! HORRIBLE! We had to move." Teasing the Press
it is Sunday morning in the Best Western Motel in Americus and there Billy is, right on schedule, sitting athis table in his blue jeans and sport shirt, holding court for the press. Hecan't talk, he says, won't talk, his lawyers have advised him. "No comment," he says.
But he stays and the waitress pours another cup of coffee and more reporters gather around the table and the cameras are whirring and clicking and the foam-rubber TV mikes are intruding and he talks -- no interviews you understand, just "shootin' the s---," as he will say later.
The reporters are tantalized. His lips are saying no no no, but his eyes are saying yes yes yes. Will he or won't he? He flirts with topics about the weather, traveling, flying, the Cubans in Miami, the shah's death. Then someone dares a question about the Libyan matter.He hedges, mumbles, smiles, confirms. The prodding gets more intense. "it's all political," he says of the investigation. "there's no need to deny that everything is more political in political years." He's said too much. He smiles and backs off. p"Y'all don't make me start saying 'no comment' to everything."
Well, he is asked, how about a philosophical question?
"i'm not philosophical. I can't even hardly pronounce the damn word." The old Billy Carter redneck line doesn't fit any more . Even he doesn't believe it. It doesn't sound right. He is too skinny, too sober, too scared. Fear of Flying
"i'll be honest with you," says Sybil. "Billy has always said exactly what he thinks. Ask him a question and he'sgonna answer. He loves to kid. People are very naive at times. If a statement is made, people who know him will know.
"when Jimmy was running and elected there were a lot of days when there wasn't any earthshaking news. The press just jumped at his statements. But he was just bulling them. Our life style is different in a small town.There's not a lot going on, a lot happening. To a certain degree, from the beginning, every word you uttered you'd see in print either exactly as it was said or doctored up.
"That has been the problem all along. I have no objection to the truth but there have been a lot of incidents happen where things were blown out of proportion, like the Billy-on-the-runway incident."
She tells about another incident: one Sunday, Billy was sitting at his service station, which was closed, drinking beer out of a cooler when a reporter came along. Billy offered hima beer, which he accepted, only to write later that Billy was selling beeron Sundays.
This infuriated Sybil. She shows several enormous purple and yellow bruises on her arm that she got last week when she and her husband were attacked by the press in their hotel, --pushed against the wall and nearly crushed.
"i could not believe that people would behave like animals," she says. "Animals is what they were. I realize people have a job to do, but after Billy has been so cooperative . . . then to be treated like that."
It has been 16 months, she says since Billy Carter went to the Long Beach, Calif., alcoholism treatment center, an experience Sybil shared with him for three weeks. She says he's changed. Somewhat.
"he has changed to a certain degree. I won't say a lot. He's a very nervous person. He always has been. [When Billy Carter was little, he had a terrible stutter which he cured himself by reading aloud in front of a candle]. He's a lot more patient now.
It takes a long time," she says. "Ihad to realize that alcoholism was a disease and so did Billy. The adjustment has been hard for him We went through this Long Beach thing together. We both learned a lot about each other. I raised a Southerner, to get married, have children, get the meals on the table, that the husband was the boss. I love and respect Billy. I always have. He takes care of us. We've always had a relationship where we can talk about things. Ultimately if a decision has to be made, Billy makes it. I am a homemaker. But Billy respects me, too."
Everybody wants to know what Billy and Sybil have done with all the money they got from the Libyans. But with six children, a big house, five cars and a lot of traveling for Billy, who likes to travel deluxe, things add up.
Their life style at home is simple. Billy goes to the Best Western Motel every morning for several hours to hang out. Then he plays golf, drives around or reads. He reads voraciously (paperbacks mostly); he says he sometimes has eight or nine books going at once., He rarely watches TV and has seen two movies in the last 25 years.He hates movies. Because he he travels so much, he says he is going to have an addition built on his house and decorate it like a motel room so he will feel at home.
He is terrified of flying and often will wait for another flight if all he can get is a window seat.
When he goes away he often goes to Nashville, where most of his friends are in the country-music business. Those are the people he enjoys the most.
At home they both to to the Tri-Country County Club, an integrated "country, country club" with a golf course and a swimming pool.
Sybil spends most of her time at home taking care of the children -- except for twice a month when she goes to her sewing club in Plains, the Stitch and Chat Club. They almost never go out at night and together have very little social life.
What bothers Sybil the most is that a lot of people don't respect Billy Carter, don't understand him, don't see the difference between his public persona and his private one.
"the biggest difference," she says, "is that he is a very sensitive person. He's a nice person. But there's something inside of him that keeps the nice person from being known. He doesn't want credit for things. He does nice things for people with the stipulation that you don't tell anybody. He would give you the shirt off his back. He isthe most generous person I know. He's very intelligent, very well read, he can talk to you about anything. And he is an outstanding father.
"what bothers me is that people say Billy and Sybil have changed. We have not. It is their attitude, since Jimmy became president, that has changed. I learned in Long Beach that you have to learn to take responsibility for what you do. Most people will not. The cannot accept their own feelings and they blame others."
Sybil says one example of how her husband gets along with so many people is that while he was at the hospital in Long Beach drying out, both the Black Muslims and the Ku Klux Klan sent representatives to wait outside his door in case he needed anything. She also said that there were reports that the eight-week stay there was part of some sort of Libyan coverup.
"it's incredible," she says. "It's so incredible that it's just ridiculous. I was there for three weeks, and I can assure you that it was the hardest thing I have ever done. Other people being experts!" she says. "They don't know what they're talking about. You know what they're talking about. You know, lots of people in Plains don't like us.They don't like Jimmy. The have their reasons. But it doesn't make them experts on us. Maybe they don't lke us because we don't go to church every Sunday. We go when we please. We do and say and think what we want. We care about our children and their education. The general public tries to put Billy in a mold. Okay, you act this way, do this because you're the president's brother."
She is really angry now. Just thinking about it gets her upset, and she is sitting now on her knees on the sofa practically yelling she is so mad. "'You just keep your mouth shut. You have no rights. You just stop breathing and living. You don't have the right to live. You just keep your mouth shut.' I'm not saying Jimmy says this. Don't get me wrong. I don't think anybody could do any better than Jimmy in this situation. But this whole thing has been blown out of proportion. I just don't know what to do. Because of the political year they are after Jimmy. I just don't know." And she drops in momentary exhaustion back to her reclining position on the sofa. The Money Problems
Back at the Best Western Motel yesterday morning, Billy is still flirting with the press. He is on his third cup of coffee and still he says. Still the questions are asked. Just as someone is about to score, Billy pulls back, gets coy. A tease if there ever was one.
"There is only one person who knows the whole story," he says, "and thats me." He talks about his one phone call with his brother, when the president told him to make a full disclosure. He told his brother, he says, "I'm going to decide what to do." He sees nothing wrong with that phone call. "I don't know . . . I am not . . . even though he is the president, he is my brother. What you say to a brother or a sister or . . ." He doesn't finish the sentence. "Let's go back to 'no comment.'"
He talks about his problems with his income taxes, about how they took his records away so he can't pay his taxes, how they took his correspondence away from him and about how broke he is. He talks about the team of three investigators living in Plains to check the warehouse records and how they had to be replaced because they got too familiar with him. He talks about his Libyan loan and the loan he got from Bert Lance because "I'd rather borrow money from a friend than from somebody I don't know. I guess I'm naive. I'm not really bitter about it. I don't think it's right. I don't think you'd find everybody else [being investigated] except major corporations. Everybody seemed to think it was something sinister because I borrowed from Bert Lance."
Then the Libyan question comes up again, and he says only, "I'm not being persecuted."
But when he is asked whether he has any plans for the future there is just a tinge of bitterness in his voice as he says, "I don't have any -- there's a hell of a . . . anybody trying to make plans with a Justice Department investigation, a Senate investigation, and a House investigation can't make plans from one day to the next. I'm just looking for guys in coats and ties coming around handing out subpoenas."
Later he says rather forlornly. "I can't help being the president's brother. Blame Mama for that." Brotherly Love
"I don't know anything about government or foreign policy or anything like that," says Sybil. "I don't claim to be educated." But Sybil Carter does not like to be taken for a fool. It irritates her that some people think she and Billy don't know what they are doing in the Libyan situation.
"It's almost unbelievable," she says. "Billy said, 'y'all come and see us.' You know what I mean. They had entertained him and he did the same thing for them. It's funny to me in a way. Mr. Shahadi stayed in our home.He is a very kind man, a very gentle man. My 2-year-old son was sitting on his lap feeding him candy.
"They say he is the most dangerous man in the United States. Now my mama didn't raise no fool. You think I'd let my child sit on the lap of the most dangerous man in the United States? He is the most gracious man I ever met in my life.
"These people are individuals. We've met them as individuals. We liked them. I went on the second trip to Libya and I saw the same things that Billy saw. But Billy never made statements that he agreed with Col. Qaddafi's policies. I doubt he ven knows what it is.
"We are interested in the people and their progress. All it boils down to is the fact that he's the brother of the president and he can't do things. Well, these are Americans living in Libya, teaching children, and there are Libyan students in this country getting an education. What's the difference? lWhat is the difference between their going there and us going there?" And she lifts up and raises her arms to the ceiling, almost in supplication, for an answer.
The Libyans gave the Carters several presents, including a saddle for Billy to use, four gold bracelets for each of the daughters and a brass serving plate. Sybil gets out the plate to show that it is not a priceless object. "That's it," she says laughing. "It's real auspicious," she says. "Don't dare say you like anything to the Libyans or its's yours."
She also does not feel that she and Billy were being used by the Libyans, although this time there is a quiver of uncertainty in her voice.
"I don't know," she says. "I honestly don't know. I'm sure he was invited to go to Libya because he was the president's brother. But now?
"You sit around a table and see their children, see their concerns, that they are a family unit, cousins and families and you share your dreams and hopes with them and they share theirs with you. It's hard to believe that somebody would have an ulterior motive in that situation."
As if all that criticism weren't enough, there was even more of another kind. The Carters, Sybil says, have been long known in Plains as "if you'll pardon the expression, nigger lovers." Now they are widely criticized locally, not for being involved with Libyans but for having black people [libyans] as their houseguests. "Color doesn't mean anything to me," says Sybil."We like people because we like them."
All the Carters have been known for their individualism, their outspokenness.Yet for all this they are not particularly a close family according to Sybil.
"Billy has said we're not a real close family," she says. "That's not to say we don't get along.We do. Every member of the Carter family respects each other, respects the right to do and be as they please. The difference is Jimmy being in office and Billy . . . well, he does not control Billy and Billy does not ask Jimmy for any favors. They respect each other as brothers, they love each other as brothers. They're just not real close. We don't have a buddy-buddy-type family. Everybody was always working to make a living. The whole Carter family have always been hard workers. This situation, I really don't know what effect it will have on us as a family. I don't blame it on Jimmy. I don't know who to blame."
Still, Sybil Carter is Billy Carter's wife and she cannot stand back and watch her husband be destroyed without trying to find an answer, a cause, perhaps a villain. But finally, she is just sad when her anger subsides.
"It's a lesson in human nature, that people can be so vicious, that they could take a human life and do that," she says. "Yes, I mean Billy."
But then, she can't stand the idea of her husband looking like a victim either, so she goes the other way. And she refuses to admit that her husband feels the slightest bit inferior to his brother, the president.
"Things are written like he's competing with his brother," she says. "That is all a bunch of hogwash. If Billy wanted to be president he could get out and run for president. What's stopping him?" She laughs in spite of herself, then grows serious.
"We wanted Jimmy to be president. There's been a lot of heartache associated with it, but there've been a lot of pleasure. I think Jimmy is a fine man. He is good, principled and he's honestly trying to do a good job. I admire him, I love him and I worked hard for him. But I do not think I should be held accountable for the fact that he is president.
"I think he has been a good presiden t and he will be for the next four years. Can I stand it for four more years? Honey, if I've stood it for the last four years I can stand anything. Anything.
"I don't think anything in the world could affect me or hurt me any more deeply than all of this has except the death of one of my children or my husband."