Jimmy Carter's resurrection began before the Atlanta convention. His name, public opinion polls began to show, was no longer anathema. And the themes that carried him into office, especially integrity, may have taken on a renewed relevance with a proliferation of scandals.

Atlanta was not picked as the convention city because Carter was there, but the coincidence provided him with the occasion for acting as the gracious host. As he welcomed the Democrats to event after event at the Carter Presidential Center, he himself seemed to be brought back into the fold. Yesterday he greeted members of his administration and other dignitaries in what was billed as a reunion.

The Bush campaign had attempted to tar Michael Dukakis as a "northern-fried Jimmy Carter," in the words of Bush campaign manager Lee Atwater. But the Democrats here have not gingerly edged away from the former president. To them, as the Reagan presidency wanes, he has come to mean something more than the 1980 defeat.

"I think the setting has helped," said former secretary of state Edmund Muskie. "And people are making comparisons between Jimmy Carter and the other guy." The name was unspeakable. "I'm thinking of the hostages -- Jimmy Carter brought home 55 hostages safe -- the Middle East, new weapons systems and arms control. People are beginning to think about the Carter record and they are beginning to think more warmly."

In his speech on Monday night, Carter tried to set the tone of the gathering. "I'll say it again -- unity." Then, using a phrase from the civil rights movement, he evoked the weight of history: "Keep your eyes on the prize."

The theme of unity applied to more than cooperation among Dukakis, Jesse Jackson and Lloyd Bentsen. It also tacitly meant coming to terms with the party's own past, including Jimmy Carter.

There can be no real reexamination of history during the whirlwind of a convention, of course. Carter has been on the periphery during most of 1988. His standing in Atlanta seems attributable less to a balanced assessment of the past than to the mood of the moment.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Carter's bitter opponent in the Democratic primaries in 1980, paid him a friendly visit at the Carter Center. Jackson called on Carter to negotiate between him and Dukakis. Carter declined, but he did speak privately with Jackson. And he has spoken frequently with Dukakis.

"Here we have Michael Dukakis, Lloyd Bentsen, Sen. {Sam} Nunn, Jesse Jackson -- and they're all feeling comfortable with each other," he said at a brunch yesterday at the Carter Center, hosted by the law firm for the Cox newspaper chain (which includes the Atlanta Journal and Constitution). "This is the message," said Carter, "that I have been giving to Jesse Jackson and Mike this week." Carter has come to stand for reconciliation, a role the candidates are comfortable granting him.

At the brunch, Carter said that that the absorption of the Jackson campaign by the Democratic Party will be a "permanent change." He predicted victory in the fall, praising Dukakis' running mate. "The choice of Lloyd Bentsen is a masterstroke," he said. "And my wife, who has always been more expert in politics than I am, agrees with me."

Carter expressed a belief that a minority candidate or a woman would be nominated for president in his lifetime, and that Jackson had made that possible. But he said that the Republicans would be more likely to nominate a woman first, perhaps someone like former transportation secretary Elizabeth Dole.

He talked of the last year of his presidency -- "the worst year of my life, and not just because of my defeat." The crisis of the American hostages in Iran consumed him. "They felt like members of my family," he said. His term ended as the successful negotiations concluded. During the last three days of his "existence as president," as he called it, he "never slept."

In the late afternoon, he hosted another event, a reception for former members of his administration. The Carter Center was filled with hundreds, from speechwriters to Cabinet members. "Some of them were with me since 1966," he said. "I just about recognize all the faces."

He said he had spoken on the telephone that day with Dukakis. Asked what they had talked about, Carter replied: "Different things. Let him tell you."

As for his "vindication," he said: "That's a word the press likes to use. I don't think I needed to be vindicated."