Every presidential election offers a special opportunity to take a reading on the nation and its inhabitants -- what people think about their personal lives and futures; how they view the major issues and the way the country is addressing, or failing to address, them; what they would like to see done, and how they perceive the choices before them.

This year, in particular, promises to be an election in which personal attitudes are more confounding and critical than before. With all the talk about people facing negative presidential choices, it's likely this election will remain in doubt and continue to be volatile up to the election day itself.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Haynes Johnson, who has made many previous cross-country trips during other presidential campaigns, is working on a series of articles that will take him into every major section of the nation. In his American Portraits 1980, he will talk with the people who live in those various regions to learn what the perceptions are.

Along the highway, outside of town, the soybean fields lie withered red and brown while a hot wind blows the parched earth upward in dusty clouds. Over the car radio a male voice drawls out another in an endless series of mournful country songs. "Back when gas was 30 cents a gallon and love was only 60 cents away. . ."

In the lethargic politics of 1980, where no one seems to be listening to the sounds of the campaign, it would seem unlikely that burning sun and; lyrics to a new ballad about lost dreams could offer clues to the election outcome six weeks away. They do, though. The drought sweeping this old cotton-belt section of the South promises to produce the worst crops in half a century. The song reminds all who hear that things aren't as good as they used to be, not so long ago.

Both of these ingredients form political trouble for Jimmy Carter: The farmers blame the president for not doing enough to help them in Washington; the people express the belief that his uncertain leadership has contributed to what they see as America's decline. Add these to other factors -- apathy presaging a lower Democratic turnout, frustration over national and international conditions, lack of enthusiasm about Carter from almost everyone you meet, black or white, who supported him eagerly four years ago, broad desires for something new and better -- and it would appear conditions are ripe for a political rejection of historic proportions.

And this is no isolated corner of the country in terms of its political significance. Carter carried Orangeburg County last time overwhelmingly by 13,652 to Gerald Ford's 8,794. He did so by welding together blacks and whites, each of whom comprise exactly half of the registered voters, in an uneasy coalition that reversed the political past.

In earlier presidential elections this county went the way of the state -- for the Republican candidates Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon. Four years ago the South became the springboard for Carter's victory; to lose his southern base now almost certainly means giving up the White House.

Yet despite all the strong evidence pointing toward defeat, Carter still stands in reasonable position to win Orangesburg and South Carolina again. It is close -- extremely so -- but not hopeless. What Orangeburg demonstrates is that surfaces signs do not begin to reflect the complexities of personal attitudes and political currents present in the nation today. It's also a reminder, in these uneasy times, to be even more wary of superficial impressions and sterotypes when drawing American Portraits, 1980. s The Banker

Wallace Bethea is 86 now and walks with a cane but remains keen of eye and quick of expression. He grew up in the country, the son of a Spanish-American War veteran, grandson of Civil War soldiers and himself a veteran of World War I. When the Depression hit, every bank in Orangeburg County failed. He was in the hardware and mill supply business then, and at the urging of friends went to Washington to persuade officials to open a bank here.

He was told they had too many big banks to worry about, so he came home and organized his own. Today, it has some $90 million in assets.

"I'm a half-way liberal," he says. "I mean by that, good gracious alive, while I'm a banker I'm not an ultraconservative. I don't want to see anybody going hungry in this country. I don't want a sick person over there who is badly in need of help. I want him taken care of. And he can charge it to part of my taxes. That's the way I feel.

"Now from a financial standpoint, I'm worried. Everything I've got in the world is life insurance, stock market collateral and government bonds. If that dollar goes down I've got nothing. You say it can't happen here. Well, I don't know. In 1914, I looked on Germany as the most enlightened nation in the world. 1924, I say. It didn't take long before they led us into the first World War and then the second. How in the world could an enlightened nation like Germany get in the mess it did? Their money went to zero twice. Now I just believe you have to have a sound solvent currency.

"I'm worried about the United States. I really am. I believe in the country, I fought for the country, but I declare, me as an individual, I'll go broke if I spend everything I've got, and don't know there's a great difference 'tween me and my country.

"As for Jimmy Carter, four years ago I wanted to vote for him. He was a southern boy brought up like I was, and I was for him until the very last and then he got to makin' these promises and stuff.

"Many more people are stating they're going to vote for Reagan this year than voted for Carter four years ago. But they're not terribly sold -- or happy over the fact. I mean, they have some feeling in the matter. It's an indefinable thing. They've got worries about him. They have an uneasy feeling."

The road into Orangeburg runs across the railroad tracks and into the courthouse square where the familiar tall marble statue of a Confederate soldier that adorns most towns of the Deep South towers over the residents. A small metal plaque informs the passerby that the third courthouse built there in 1826 was destroyed by occupying Union forces of Feb.12, 1865, and on the monument itself are carved the words: "To the Confederate dead of Orangeburg. Let posterity emulate their virtues and treasure their memory of valor and patriotism. Erected by the women of Orangeburg County, 1893."

At first glance a stranger finds Orangeburg steeped in the past -- its shops (J.C. Penney's stands next to B&H Thrift on the square) and sleepy atmosphere, its black sections still filled with humble unpainted frame dwellings and other signs of poverty, its pace slow. But the look of old smalltown South is deceptive. In the last two decades Orangeburg, like the South itself, has experienced dramatic change, not always easy, sometimes bloody, leaving behind residues of struggles and problems yet to be resolved. And undeniable progress.

The single economic base that gave Orangeburg its reason for existence as an agricultrual trading center is gone, and with it many of the vestiges of monolithic thinking. New Japanese and German factories dot the countryside alongside relocated ones from such places as New York and California. The closed society of a few years ago has been broken -- but not terminated. (One of the striking aspects of Orangeburg is how strongly the all-white and male structure of community leadership remains solidly in place.) Now there appear as many outsiders as insiders exerting community leadership. Old-timers, who once viewed any strangers with distrust and suspicion, boast of the influx of newcomers. They do so not as much out of a surge of tolerance, but realism. Orangeburg could not survive without them. "Every store and shop here would be closed today if we hadn't diversified," as one citizen said.

While the new economic structures common to the "Sunbelt" were being superimposed on the old plantation economy, a more profound change occurred in Orangeburg. Blacks won the right to public access and, more important, the right to vote. A black now represents Orangeburg County in the state legislature. There are blacks on the county councils. They are now in a position of assuming political control here, a fact that lies beneath much of the tensions of this election.

Other concerns are shared by all citizens, black and white. From the boom of the immediate past, Orangeburg, no less than the nation, has experienced; economic distress. A cotton mill closed down. A lumber company laid off a large number of employes. One of the new corporate plants shut down for two weeks and has since cut out all overtime pay.

"People are frustrated and scared," a white community leader said.

"People are looking for jobs," said his black counterpart. "They need help. It's at an all-time low. I know it's kind of depressing out in the community 'cause it's depressing on me." On top of this has come the searing drought, dealing a blow to agriculture.

In other years, these conditions almost certainly would guarantee a change in Orangeburg are not so sure. They are weighing everything and groping toward an uncertain final decision.

"People that I know -- and I'm in the same coop -- say, 'What are you going to do about the presidential election?'" a businessman who voted for Ford last time remarked. "I'm disturbed. I wish I had an outstanding man. They realize they've had one man they think's not heavy enough for the job. They want a change -- but they want a better change. And they're not sure there. That's honestly the way I see people thinking today. Kind of thinking that way myself."

Their concerns are manifold. All bear on their election choices. They show that the people are shrewdly aware -- and troubled -- and are not going to be won by easy political promises. They know there are no simple solutions to the problems they see facting them and the country. The Teacher

Early in 1968, three students were shot and killed and 27 wounded when guardsmen fired into them at all-black South Carolina State College in Orangeburg. No one was ever convicted, no redress given, and outside of this place no one even seems to remember. The Kent States and other scenes of violence took the national headlines. They remain fixed in the national memory.

Maceo Nance was president of the college then, as he is today. "We can't deal in bitterness continually," he says. "If we did, we couldn't live with ourselves. But I have made the statement that no one has forgotten it [the shootings] and that no one has been forgiven for it -- and I've been criticized for saying that. But I was making a point. There are young people here today who don't have any sense of what people a generation ago went through to achieve freedom. They think it's almost automatic.

"I don't feel very good about the country now. I feel the country's moving to the right. I try to tell myself it's because of the economy, and that's not the way the American people really feel. But I do believe we're becoming considerably more conservative.

"I have considerable mixed emotions about this election. Not about whom I will support but how it will come out. I'm very much afraid of Mr. Reagan.

"As a small administrator who is confronted with problems, I'm always afraid of anyone who has simplistic answers to problems. Even in this small operation there are complicated problems that require more than simplistic answers. I sense that's what he's done as relates to some of our national problems -- the economy, defense, pollution of water and chemicals and so forth.

"I assess President Carter as most people do, as I gain from what I read and hear in the natinal press. That he is an honest man high on morals. I do think he was somewhat naive. You can't bring small-town operators into the biggest operation in the federal government any more than you can do in a large corporation. I would be lost if someone turned me loose in one of the biggest businesses of the country, I'd have to learn what's going on, and I think essentially that's what happened to him.

"I do think he's been the most hardluck president in terms of what has happened in our national government and society. There are things I don't think anyone short of Jesus Christ could have helped. Now this is the way I see him. From what we have to choose from now, I don't have a choice, other than Mr. Carter." The Politican

Marshall Williams swings around in his chair, chomps on a big cigar, tells little stories in a soft lilting drawl ("if Strom Thurmond were a freckle smarter, he'd be the greatest" and "Now I don't want you to go back up there and tell 'em you ran into the talkingest man you ever met") all the while sizing up his visitor with sharp side glances. He's a farmer and a lawyer, he says, but most of all he's a pol, old southers style. He's now the third ranking state senator.

"I go to the country club and the county barbecues -- I don't exactly run with those crowds, but I can run with anything -- but I go to those places and I hear a wide variety of opinion on whether Carter's doing a good job or whether Reagan's even able to fill the presidency. I don't believe I've ever seen this part of the country as much in doubt. Reagan will get many, many more votes here than Ford got last time. Now I'm not tellin' you South Carolina goin' for Reagan, 'cause I really won't believe that 'till I see it.

"We have people who are substantially against Carter's policies on the ground they don't think he's been a strong leader. But on the other hand -- and this may shock you -- and Anderson has practically no punch, he hasn't been exposed -- but had South Carolina, been a key state for him, and had he politicked down here and got an organization, Anderson might have got more votes than you'd ever think. Now you're talkin' to a fairly enlighteded person who doesn't know exactly myself what Anderson thinks. I'm anxious to see his debate with Reagan.

"Now Carter, I think the fella's tried. I really do. I'm smart enough, and you are too, to know that the president can't make Congress do it -- and I'm very much opposed to some things Carter's done.On the other hand, Lord knows why Reagan'd bringup the China question when he didn't have to. Maybe I'm goin' around the bush in answering your question.

"I say this: Four years ago, knowin' Carter's record as governor of Georgia, I didn't expect him to be a Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson. I don't really know anything that Carter has done magnificently. On the other hand, I think his intentions have been good.

"As between Carter and Reagan, some of the knowledgable people are sayin' if Reagan had just announced and stayed at home and kept his mouth shut, he'd have got more votes than he'll get now. People think possibly the fella's not as well informed as he ought to be. I think they think your mouth gets goin' faster than your brain you're in trouble. Now I'm not against him. He's a nice fella, but I think some of the people down here expected more than they're seeing now. Some of them are worried about what Reagan thinks or Reagan says or Reagan does.

"Yet people think Carter's got something to hide. I think he's made a bad mistake in some people's mind by not debating. They say, 'What in hell.' I think people really think what they want to think unless they're overwhelmed by fact. I've seen farmers if their crops were up high and dry on the hill would say they wanted water to run up out of the creek uphill. But it just can't be.

"If people would tell you the truth today I'd say about 25 percent of this country can be changed, will be changed, may be changed dedpending on what happens 'tween now and November." The Editor

Dean Livingston grew up in the town of North, S.C. -- that's right -- not far from here in a home where his father indealized FDR and Douglas MacArthur. Although still in his 40s, he's been editor and publisher of The Times and Democrat for almost a generation.

"The biggest fear among our readers today is economic security," he says. "So we tailor our page one first to threat to life, second to economic well-being, third to taxation and then on down the line.

"Eight years ago there was a great thrust of people for quality of life. Now it's economic survival. Look at it this way: All my life the richest guys in town were the car dealers. You had a car dealership it was like having a gold mine. They're having a rough time now. This whole area's scared. Whatever you read about the Sunbelt and the great thrust of the South, I don't think people here now see this benefiting them individually. It's the business of expectations again. My wife and I made a trip to Nova Scotia earlier this year, and on the way up the food at Bar Harbor was cheaper than it is here in Orangeburg.

"Patriotism and national security are very strong around here. We see a great distrust in all of Mr. Carter's foreign policy. He has no foreign policy. Other than talking to hard-core Democratic leadership in the county, I cannot find anyone who is going to vote for Jimmy Carter. Just people I know. They're not enthusiastic about Reagan, but they feel they cannot put a stamp of approval on what Carter has done. It's almost a lesser of two evils." The New Breed

In the last four years integration has come to the political controllers of Orangeburg County. Two of the new County Council members in particular, J.C. (Buddy) Nichloson and Fred Mack, represent a sharp departure from the past, Nicholson, a young lawyer from Camden, S.C., and former prosecutor here, is white. Mack, who grew up in the rural areas and went through college much later by working nights, is black. Both agree, in blunt terms, that Orangeburg continues to have a racial. problem.

NICHOLSON: There is prejudice in Organgeburg. There is prejudice in the black community and the white community.The problem I see in Orangeburg is there's no interaction.We've got integration in the schools on the surface, but there's no meaningful integration socially between the black and white communities. There's not but a few people who communicate on behalf of the blacks, and it's very difficult for me to relate to Fred what are the real feelings of the black community and visa versa. There are just several spokesmen, but no real intermixing. Such as your civic clubs: Kiwanis just in the last year took in two blacks, Rotary has none. (Rotary meets weekly at the all-White Country club.). In Orangeburg it seems like it's a picture window of intergration."

MACK: "I guess I view the problem as more rural-urban than I do black and white. I'm not saying there aren't race problems, because there are. The two races still have some apprehensions about dealing with each other. I consider Buddy my friend. He surely considers me his friend. But we still got a little suspect in the back of our minds about each others motives. That's evident throughout the country and throughout the state."

They also agree on the problems of governance.

Orangeburg, as is true of most smaller communities, derives a substantial part of its revenue from deferal funds passed down from Washington and through the statehouse. Money for half of the funds for the sheriff's department, all of the county garbage collection and an important program to support minors here comes from the U.S. Treasury. In all, between 30 and 40 percent of the county money comes from outside.

He adds: "I think for years and years people looked to government as a panacea to solve all the problems. They've got to realize that government can't do it all. They've got to deal with them themselves."

Mack sees a more realistic change in attitudes. "People are beginning to realize it's not the guys in Washington that are the problem. One of the things that caused a rude awakening was talk about cutting certain dollars out of the federal budget. In the end it means local people have to pick up the tabs. It's a matter of paying for it out of Washington or Orangeburg County. People are beginning to see that now.

"I think one of the things the American people must realize is that all politicians in Washington are not bad. You read about the bad ones, but we have to have faith in the ones that are up there. I don't feel like an outsider can go into the Washington establishment and get things rolling, cause you have to learn how to get things going there with the house and the Senate. I would personally like to see somebody out of those circles as president."

They share common political views. Both were for Carter last time. Nicholson rode around town in a van, knocked on doors and passed out literature for Carter. When the "Peanut Brigade" came through town "we hauled 'em all over town. We really worked for him. But the enthusiasm's not there now."

MACK: "Four years ago I worked real hard for Carter, to. I'm not quite as enthused about him now. I don't think of him being as strong as he should be. But I'm not sure if it was Ted Kennedy, Tip O'Neill, Gerald Ford, John Connaly, George Bush or anybody else in the White House the last four years things would have been much better."

NICHOLSON: "I'm sort of like Fred. It doesn't really make that much difference who was in the last four years. I think Carter's sort of a victim of circumstances -- a victim of the economy and the world. I don't want to make excuses for the last four years, but he hasn't ben explaining that to the people.

"I would support Carter generally but the problem with Carter in my opinion is he's too wishy-washy. I don't think we can survive unless something's done about inflation. That is self-destructive. It's just a question of the politicians making up their minds on what we have to be. We've got a double standard in the way we deal with the world. Maybe this is hard and cruel what I'm saying, but we've got to get rid of it. We've got to start looking out for number one. We've got to start saying it's in our best interest to take Iran -- to hell with the hostages -- for the oil. We've got to quit preaching these great idealistic sermons. Ideally, maybe that's what we should strive for . But I think we're losing sight of reality, of what's good for this country in the next 10 years.

"So Reagan is supposed to be our salvation, and all of a sudden he comes up and starts making blunders. If Reagan would stay home and keep his mouth shut he'd take Orangeburg County and South Carolina. But he's running his mouth off. I think people think he's putting his foot in his mouth, like this Ku Klux Klan thing. He keeps making stupid statements that make you say, 'Well, is Carter so bad?' It makes me say that. The Election

For all his perceived faults -- and many more are expressed than have been reported here -- Carter could carry this country today by the slimmest of margins -- say 1,000 or 2,000 votes. He has been gaining strength while Reagan has been declining. The black vote will be critical.

Beyond the characterization of the candidates, the tone here is instructive.

There seems no passion, no anger, little emotion. The certainties you would hear voiced during other campaign swings is absent. People have been sorely disappointed. It's almost as if they don't want to let themselves believe in someone totally again.

Buddy Nicholson's words spoke for many more than himself.

"I think what this country needs as president is somebody people can have hope in," he said.

Then, a pause, and that guarded note was struck again:

"Not necessarily a man who is going to be capable of doing it, because the problems are so great no one man can do it. But we need somebody with enought charisma so we can have hope and think positively. I preferred John Kennedy. I can't tell you why. But he had charisma. You could listen to him and he made you think it was going to happen."

Even if it isn't, that is. Perhaps that is a rather melancholy reading on present American aspirations -- or perhaps it signals the dawning of realism.