A windstorm of criticism has been swirling around the White House lately. But in the eye of the storm, President Carter remains calm and confident.
Ocassionally, he betrays his emotions. He will become suddenly quiet and cold, a hard glint will appear in his eyes and a muscle in his jaw will begin to twitch. But most of the time, he shows no sign that he is disturbed by the unfavorable winds.
Carter draws sustenance in times of stress from his strong religious faith. He often offers silent prayers at his desk. "Not aloud so other people will hear me," he told us. "I pray privately, and I do it several times a day."
The President and First Lady also read together from the Bible each night. "I changed from reading a chapter in the Bible every night in English to reading one in Spanish," he said. "Early this spring, my wife began to take Spanish lessons. So now one night she reads a chapter, and the next night I read a chapter . . .
"This is something that has meant a lot to us both. I am now going through the New Testament for the third time. And when we get through this time, we are going to start through the Old Testament."
The Carters also discuss the spiritual message they get from their Bible reading. "We do this the last thing everynight, and we never miss," said the President. "It is something that we kind of look forward to now."
In the ambivalent, convivial, permissive atmosphere of Washington, this unabashed, born-again Baptist is still regarded with some trepidation. He tends to wax effusive about the Holy Spirit rather than the more traditional objects of Democratic veneration, such as the evisceration of Wall Street and the redistribution of income.
The party professionals would be more comfortable if they thought his moralizing was pure political rhetoric. But they suspect he really hopes to rescue the people from the mire of cynicism and restore the moral authority of the American government.
Certainly, there was a quiet conviction in his voice when he told us that he hopes to use his abilities "in the service of fellow human beings and in the service of God."
Jimmy Carter recounted his religious upbringing. "I grew up in a family," he said, "where there was never any question on Sunday morning that we would go to Sunday School . . . I grew up in a family," he said, " where there was never any question on Sunday morning that we would go to Sunday School . . . I grew up as a Baptist, and more often when I was eight, nine, 10 years on up, I would go to what we call the Baptist Young People's Union on Sunday afternoon.
"Then on Friday nights, there would be a kind of social event sponsored by the church . . . where all the kids my age would bring - I think they called them pound parties; I haven't thought of them for years. Everyone would bring a pound of something to eat or to drink and we would play games and so forth. So the social center of my life as a child was our church."
As the President reminisced, he was relaxed and seemed to enjoy recalling events from a happy, Norman Rockwell-like boyhood. He followed the custom in his community of joining the Baptist church at about age 10, began teaching Sunday School as a 17-year-old midshipman at the Naval Academy and sought out a church to attend during his assignment to submarine duty.
"On Sunday morning," he said, "I would come in on a submarine, say at New London, and either got to the Protestant or Catholic service, whichever was earlier, so I could go home and spend the rest of the week with my wife."
He married his boyhood sweetheart, Rosalyn, when he graduated from Annapolis. After Carter's father died of cancer, Jimmy had a tough decision to make, and both religion and Rosalynn figured in making it.
"After some tortuous days," he later wrote, "I decided to resign from the Navy and come home to Plains - to a tiny town, a church, a farm, an uncertain income." It pecipitated their first marital fight, since Rosalyn felt both mothers would interfere in her house hold. But he prevailed, and Plains has never been the same.
Once home, he told us, "I again became active in the church in Plains. I taught what we call a Junior Sunday School class and later became superintendent of that department. I became a deacon, and I became the chairman of the board of deacons."
The President was obviously pleased with the memories that were now flooding back. "I was in charge of the Baptist Church equivalent of the Boy Scouts, called Royal Ambassadors, and was in charge of building a recreation center north of Plains for people to use in the church group from 34 different churches around that region. I have to say I was kind of proud of myself as a member of the church."
His pride was injured and his self-confidence shaken by his 1966 defeat for the governorship of Georgia. Contrary to published reports, he said, "I never did break down or weep or go into an emotional state." But he began to ask himself questions: "What is my life? How well am I measuring up to my professed Christian beliefs? How much am I treat the ones who love me most?"
Out of this came "a new awareness of what religious experience ought to mean," the President told us. It became a more personal commitment, a much more profound experience.
"I was much more easy in my relationship with other people. I took successes or failures with a lot more equanimity. I began to have a sense in my life of a very much more clear perspective. I honestly began to understand other people's special needs more accurately and with a greater sense of concern than I had before."
As he sat in the Oval Office, Jimmy Carter seemed to radiate the self-confidence and peace of mind that comes from the experience known in evangelical circles as being "born again."