No sane woman wants to be cooped up in some dratted White House, and Lillian Carter was utterly sane.
It's not that she hated the times she stayed on Pennsylvania Avenue during her son's presidency. She did not go around hating this and hating that; but she did perhaps find her visits tedious, since there was nothing she had to do except enjoy herself, and she was one of those women (America is strangely full of them) whose idea of pleasure is to be needed and to make a difference.
She was quoted once that she was bored in Washington.
"It's true," she said, "but I'll never make the mistake of saying it again," because the president started sending her all over the place running her legs off, as she put it, "and I don't like New York very much either."
What she did like was home. Plains, Ga. She was born near there 85 years ago and helped her husband start his peanut business there, and she was a registered nurse there and she was for a time ostracized there and, not to split hairs, she was adored there.
If you visited Plains a few times during the Carter years you soon learned to expect to hear that Miss Lillian this and Miss Lillian that. She was grande dame of the town where the best place to eat was the Poor House (run by Mr. Poor).
When I interviewed her in the White House, a room called the East Reception Room, it was full of coat racks and Miss Lillian, who was not as good at controlling her eyes as she was at controlling her face, clearly was not pleased, but she said nothing and settled into a chair (it, at least, was Chippendale) and kicked her shoes off.
She thought, one might gather, that reporters tended towards idiocy (a thing one cannot refute on a second's notice) and photographers were "bossy," which they are. Her greenish eyes were merry and ready for any fray, and she peered directly to estimate if this reporter was going to give her any sass or put on any uppity airs.
Concluding she had a southern country boy to deal with, and therefore could rattle along in the way of southern ladies without finding a six-inch-high headline the next morning, she figured she could talk about the pope without getting "trapped"--a thing she swore reporters liked to do to her better than anything.
She had gone to Africa, she said, to see how food production was being handled since a drought, and on the way had an audience with the pope, the last audience (she went on) before his death, and though she was a southern Baptist ("I'm not a Catholic, you know, and don't know but one down in Plains") she decided on the spot that she "never felt so close to God as looking at that man's face."
They talked about age. She was 80, he was 81, and he told her, "I am now ready to meet God."
Miss Lillian had concentrated on calling him Holy Father ("I was concentrating on not calling him Your Majesty or Your Excellency" because she had met so many dignitaries on the trip) and decided she might as well be herself for the rest of the audience:
"If you meet God before I do," she said she told him, "tell him about me; and he said, 'I will.' "
She asked him to pray for America and, while she was about it, for she was a practical woman, "for rain in Africa."
"Which he did immediately, in my presence," she said. So she knew it was actually done. And bless Pete if it didn't commence to pour an hour and a half after she arrived in Gambia:
"It just rained and rained. In Senegal it rained. In Mali it rained. Everywhere I went, people called me the Rain Lady." People asked her if the pope's prayer had anything to do with it and she said of course it did:
"Me and the pope and God did it. It rained so much I thought I better call the pope and tell him to lay off."
She had, in other words, a sly sense of humor. You could be almost certain she knew Uncle Remus (folk tales collected by a Georgian) backwards and forwards, since she told stories with punch and wit.
She was not one for trotting about proclaiming she was a Christian lady, but her religious beliefs underlay her approach to the world. She was a nurse to black babies in rural Georgia when it was not the local custom. She had joined the Peace Corps in India, where she was "hungry the whole time."
She spent a good bit of time, she said, picking the legs and wings of bugs out of the bread, until she got to wondering if she was wasting protein.
That very morning a White House aide had been muttering she had missed breakfast and Miss Lillian, who could be direct, said, "You'll live."
Resistance to integration was nowhere stronger than in the rural South, and nowhere stronger than among southern Baptist congregations. But after a time, they considered the question of whether blacks should be admitted to their churches. The vote at Plains Baptist Church was 47 to 7 to keep blacks out. Six of the dissenting votes were from the Carter family.
It is one thing to be "liberal" in Philadelphia or New York or Old Lyme; it is something else to be liberal in Plains. It was easy for Miss Lillian, however, since it was right, and if it's right, then it's easy--you don't have to sweat about what you should do. She did not say this, and you could roast her over a fire before she'd confess to fine acts of virtue, but facts are facts and Miss Lillian was a Georgian who was on the right side of them in her life's time when it was not easy.
For a time she was thought odd, all this business of equality. I asked her what she thought of the effect of a "human rights" policy on, say, American relations with the Soviet Union.
"Russia!" she exclaimed. "Who's talking about Russia? I asked the pope to pray for human rights in my own country, the South. To me, human rights just means the chance for everybody to make the most of himself. The thing that has always bothered me the most is to see some people so very rich and others so poor."
You can say it, maybe, if you've nursed blacks in Georgia and been an old lady working in India. And of course if you've made the pope make it rain.
She was entertained at a feast in Africa where hungry people broke in and ate up a lot of the food. She got a letter apologizing for that.
"I wrote right back and said, 'Listen, I was delighted for hungry people to eat.' Much is said about vitamins and so on, but I want people to have their stomachs full, nutritious or not."
Once at some function she was given a gourd the size of a watermelon and "Guess what, it was full of peanuts. I said, 'I'm not interested in eating peanuts.' I had a fine aide who was a state trooper and I said, 'Take them to their headquarters. Fourteen young men will eat anything.' "
She liked young men, and she had been a housemother at a college fraternity for some years. She liked to see them eat. She liked to see anybody eat. She put you in mind (as she chatted along in her wonderful manner) of the person who gave a feast and not enough people showed up, so they went out and beat the hedges to round up more, that the table should be loud and the house should be full.