Just like the old days, he taught the men's Bible class today, mean-pitched a softball game against some old adversaries in the press, swatted killer gnats and hosted a pig roast with Rosalynn.
TV cameras dogged his every step, with Sam Donaldson barbs aplenty, and tourists gawked at the political time warp along Main Street: only this time they included 230 ex-staffers surging forward for autographs and snapshot memories.
Remember the "killer rabbit" that attacked the president? Camp David peace accords? Billy Beer? The Washington bar Amaretto & Cream made famous? So did they, reveling in bygone days, playing political Trivial Pursuit poolside at the Best Western Motel, hugging Jimmy, Rosalynn and each other beneath the pecan trees, catching up.
"You can go to the beach anytime," said Skip Holcomb, 34, a former low-level White House staffer who hawks video equipment in Austin, Tex. "But if you're a political junkie, this is the place to be."
There were sons Chip and Jeff, their wives and children, ex-aides Jody Powell, Hamilton Jordan and a host of ex-White House workers, "blasts from the past," as one put it, come back to bask in the good times, forget the bad and relive their political upset of an era: the first president elected from the Deep South since Andrew Jackson.
For some it was just a walk down memory lane, for others a pilgrimage. It had been almost five years since he'd come home again in a cold, blinding January rain, ousted after one term. Now it was time for the First Official Carter Crowd Reunion.
"This is a grudge match," snarled ABC correspondent Sam Donaldson, stepping to the plate Saturday. "We're gonna whip your . . . Nothing personal."
Carter, 60, didn't blink. He sported a Willie Nelson cap and T-shirt designed to unnerve batters with humor: "Politicians Are Always There When They Need You." He lobbed a floater high over the plate. Donaldson swung and . . . trickled the ball back. Carter tossed him out. No sweat.
"Back in '76, we used to outdraw the [Atlanta] Braves," said Carter. Off on the sidelines, some were still smoldering over the days when it was rumored Carter picked Secret Service men for their prowess at bat, "ringers" against a press corps of softies -- softball madness being just one Plains tradition relived.
"My team always played straight," winked the ex-president, musing over softball politics. "But Billy's team was just a bunch of crooks. He had the press on his side. Maybe that's where I got off on the wrong foot and never recovered."
The bleachers were packed with families and children. It was a warm, lazy day. Out came the cameras. "This camera takes 10 pounds off," promised one ex-staffer.
"What does it do for thighs?" laughed Marcia Garrett, posing in shorts and a "Seattle" T-shirt. She'd flown 3,000 miles to be here, catapulting from the White House scheduling office to director of policy analysis for Burlington Northern. Tim Kraft came from Albuquerque, where he works as a marketing consultant. Esther Peterson, former special assistant for consumer affairs, flew in from remote Townshend, Vt., changing planes twice. Why?
"I love Jimmy Carter," she said.
"We always enjoyed the crowds," said George Williams, a local farm supply dealer who turned out to watch softball in a Harley Davidson T-shirt. "We miss 'em."
Carter's team won Saturday's game 9-7, then dropped today's 12-11. "I can't say he cheated," said Donaldson, smarting at being called out for stealing. (No stealing in softball.) "He just figured some technical way to get me out."
"Just like when he cranked up the choppers at the White House to drown you out," said Jody Powell, press secretary turned syndicated columnist.
A lot can happen in five years, and they came back to find out what had, applauding Carter as he pedaled his bike to greet them downtown. "Five years ago, it was Air Force One," he said, hopping off. "Now, it's a bike."
From the depot platform, he described Life After Washington: He lives in a sleepy south Georgia town of 683, but has kept busy hustling up $23 million for his library and think tank at Emory University. Two books have hit the best-seller lists, along with Rosalynn's "First Lady From Plains." And publishers are eyeing another book on health care, jointly written.
In July, they built ghetto housing for the poor in New York with Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit group. And last week, Amy, the last child to leave the nest, flew off to Brown University. "It's heartbreaking for parents," said Carter, mugging with others' children, signing photos, hugging ex-staffers.
As cameras rolled, he was asked about Reagan and the religious right. "One of the most disturbing things about the Reagan administration, and there are a lot of them, is its attempt to weld together the right-wing religious community and the Republican Party," said Carter, working up a political fast ball. "This is obnoxious to me to see our government defined as a 'Christian government.' "
Then it was on to a nostalgic walk through Plains. Gone were the tour buses. A lone grocery store was boarded up. The Carter peanut warehouse has changed hands three times. "Ain't nothin' to do," said James Banks, 10, swinging from a pole, "just walk around, that's all."
Land prices have dropped from $1,500 to $750 an acre. Billy's Amoco now pumps Phillips 66 under its third owner. But the ex-"first brother" and father of six is "doing tops" hawking mobile homes from Waycross, Ga., said Jimmy.
As vice president of Scott Housing, he pleaded guilty in March for his firm to one count of invoice padding. The company agreed to pay $50,000 in fines and restitution. Billy was too busy to attend.
But Hugh Carter was ecstatic to see cousin Jimmy with a crowd in tow. His antique store still boasts dusty cans of Billy Beer at $2.50 a pop ($50 a case), piles of Carter-Mondale bumper stickers and copies of his own book "Cousin Beedie and Cousin Hot" marked way down.
"We don't have near as many tourists as we used to," he said, cash register clanging briefly. So he makes his living selling worms by mail.
"But we still have a drugstore, two gas stations and one good restaurant," he brightened, being among those pining for the traffic and the press.
"We do miss y'all down here," said city clerk Sandra Walters. "Come on back."
No wonder there was patience for just plain tourists who tried to muscle in on the action. Rosalynn Carter, in sweater and linen slacks, kept right on smiling, even as Laura Leno gawked at her trim figure. "You must not eat much grits," said the housewife from Lodi, Calif., who confessed a love for hash browns.
Soon it was on to the shady yard of Carter's ranch house on Woodland Avenue, which the former president promised to donate as a historic site one day. "Ordinarily the children would get it," quipped Chip Carter, soon to move from Washington to Atlanta to set up shop as a political consultant.
"That's right," his father shot back. "Around Plains, people work for a living. But I can't get any of my children to work. They've got 'Washington Syndrome.' They want to make a lot of money without working."
Even reporters who covered the rise and fall of Peanut Power were back, not to write, just to hang out. "I was one of the few who thoroughly enjoyed this place," said Larry Knutson, 48. He covered the '76 campaign for the Associated Press.
"For all of us who are condemned to live in big cities, it's as refreshing as the beach," he said, still boasting friends from Plains. "Some of us even like the gnats."
And Sam Donaldson confessed to a new fondness for the Carter Days since covering Reagan. "People might retire to Santa Barbara, but they'll never have a reunion like this in Santa Barbara," he said.
Why not? "You worked here. You don't work in Santa Barbara. Reagan is 28 miles away in the mountains. You've got the beach and the scenery, but so what? Some say it's a vacation, but if I wanted a vacation, I'd go to Nice."
With Carter, he said, the press had greater access. "There was a press party two nights ago in Santa Barbara and the president actually came. It was the first time I'd seen him close up since June.
"When you covered Jimmy Carter, you'd say, 'Him again?' "
"I'm excited to see everyone," said Carter, greeting peanut brigaders and old staffers. "They're friends and political allies. These people did the work and never got any recognition."
Many bedded down at the Best Western, the old campaign fraternity house in Americus, riding a chartered Greyhound nine miles to Plains for softball, a catfish supper, church. The landscape was the same, and they gazed wistfully at the galloping kudzu, lush pine forests, Sue Ellen's takeout, mobile home parks and a giant billboard on the outskirts of town: "THE STORE YOU MUST SEE! HUGH CARTER'S ANTIQUE STORE." Onward, back in time.
On Saturday night, they feasted on 300 pounds of fried catfish, hush puppies, slaw, iced tea and brownies in the old Plains High School gym. Some took plates and climbed into the bleachers, alone with their thoughts. Many had burrowed into the Washington scene, finding work on the Hill, or with lobbyists.
Others found sweet revenge in living well. "I'm here to be rude to everyone I once had to be nice to," said Peter Conlan, 33, a former special assistant who was raising Carter campaign funds via concerts when the house came tumbling down. His only connections were in the music business.
So it was off to Atlanta to try his hand at promoting rock concerts with Atlanta real estate king Steve Selig, another former White House aide. "When I left, I was scared because I didn't know what I was going to do," he said, sipping a Coors. "But if I'd known that I'd be where I am now, I'd have left in a minute."
Where he is now is driving a company Corvette, owning a chic $250,000 bungalow in a trendy Atlanta neighborhood, and earning a salary he says could be rivaled in Washington only by "a [corrupt] purchasing agent in the Pentagon."
"There's not a job in Washington that would make me go back," agreed Selig, hunkered down with old White House pals.
"I thought I'd feel humiliated and mortified when we lost, but I didn't," said Landon Butler, 44, ex-White House deputy chief of staff turned pension fund investment adviser, who lives in Bethesda.
"You never miss it," said Frank Moore, 50, the ex-White House congressional liaison turned officer of a $1.6 billion waste management conglomerate.
"Whatever psychological need I have to go there can be satisfied by a two-day visit. Now when I go to a reception and see everyone working the crowd, talking to everyone they 'should' talk to, I say, 'Godamighty, I don't have to hustle 'em anymore.' People now see you because they want to see you, not because they have to. No more instant 'best friends.' "
"It's still great to be ignored by the people who were once great," laughed Lewis Regenstein, vice president of Fund for Animals.
How about some Carter trivia? At what famous Los Angeles spot did two White House advisers once meet Warren Beatty? Answer: The Playboy Mansion. Who tried to set fire to Ham Jordan's hotel room after being denied an interview? That's right, Dr. Gonzo himself, Hunter S. Thompson of Rolling Stone magazine. What movie did Jimmy Carter watch after hosting the Pope? Indeed, it was "10," with Bo Derek.
And who said, "Being called a liar by Lester Maddox is like being called ugly by a frog?" If you guessed Jody Powell, you were riiiiight!
They sat around the pool pursuing trivia with a vengeance, with Carter drawing questions from a box, and arbitrating disputes. At stake were pieces of pie.
Name the network superstar who had all the luggage removed from the press plane so she could stay to interview a Mideast head of state. Answer: Barbara Walters.
Then it was on to country duets, beneath a bright moon, with Phil Gailey of The New York Times picking a mean autoharp and Caroline Wellons, a former staff aide turned country singer, belting out "Amazing Grace" and assorted other tunes.
She'd vowed one day to try her hand at singing, and when Carter was out, she packed her dog and guitar off to South Carolina to learn how to pick a six-string guitar, then rode a Greyhound bus to Colorado with no money and a dream. She wanted to sing where no one knew her.
Now, five years after another life, she lives in a one-room cabin in the Rockies, wailing like Bonnie Raitt in bars outside Denver. "I knew I could do politics again at 60, but I couldn't learn how to sing," she beamed after the applause died down.