There was a "New South" once, but it is gone now. It ended about four years ago. It was the day Sisyphus lost his job.

The southern Sisyphus had grunted behind the rock of poverty, pellagra and prejudice since it was put here at Appomattox. Its weight was all the more deadly because of an attitude of scorn which we were quick to sniff -- out of defensive pride and wounded self-respect -- even in its more benign forms. The rock was a point of reference, the way Southerners defined their relationships with each other and the rest of the nation.

There was a good deal of talk about that symbol of scorn, the rock, in Gene Sparks' Courthouse Cafe and Jimmy Turner's Courthouse Barber Shop during the primaries of 1976. A typical conversation would include the following: "If 'they' take the nomination away from Carter, they'll never let us live it down. It'll be another hundred years before any Southerner has a chance."

Then, on the morning of Nov. 3, 1976, most of us awoke to the startling realization that the rock was gone, The nation had elected a president from the Georgia black-belt. The South had rejoined the nation.

It was a time to whoop it up, to shout Hallelujah. It was also the occasion for some deliciously mean irony. A month after the election Secretary of Everything Elliot Richardson, then doing his tour in the Commerce Department, came down to Boca Raton, Fla., to address a gathering of southern governors, legislators, businessmen and scholars who had assembled to discuss the national and regional economy.

The meeting coincided with wide publication of the theory that the economic axis of the planet had shifted, sending federal funds, jobs and factories sliding from the "Frostbelt" North into the "Sunbelt" South.

Richardson spoke as if he were commander-in-chief of a defeated nation -- the ragged, pinch-faced, huddled and shivering masses of the industrial Frostbelt. His guile touched a parochial nerve in me:

"We must be magnanimous, gentlemen," I suggested to my tablemates in the rear of the ballroom. "Inform the secretary that the men may keep their horses; they will need them for the spring plowing." The remark leapt like St. Elmo's fire from table to table until it reached the elegant Bostonian who received it with a sour Yankee expression. That was a moment to cherish.

For the most part, though, the celebration was victimless. I can imagine similar feelings of validation in the taverns of South Boston 20 years ago when John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic to be elected president. Irish Catholics are Celtic cousins of the Scotch-Irish South and the Irish, like Southerners, are no strangers to defeat and scorn. But you can't keep a good party going forever. Cultural joy, like sexual joy, begins to burn out at the very moment of ecstasy.

The feeling of ecstasy began to go flat for me the following October in the Oval Office of the White House. Jody Powell had arranged for me to interview President Carter, and the press secretary and I were chatting with out backs to the smaller room where the president does his unceremonial work. I did not know the president had entered the room until I heard his greeting, "Hello, Brandt." When I turned, he stuck out his hand and asked disconcertingly, "How's the South?" It was an offhand remark, as if he were inquiring about some place he had visited once or twice during the campaign.

Eventually, the people of the South began to return his neutral feeling, to regard him as they might someone we used to know in the neighborhood but who moved away many years ago. This sentiment measured a turn of a few more degrees away from passionate parochialism and toward a sense of ourselves as distinctive parts of the whole, away from defining ourselves in terms of an Old South, New South, New-New South and toward a feeling of being Southern Americans.

As the days of his presidency lengthened, we forgot he was a Southerner. Public perception of him in the cafes, barber shops and other universities of common wisdom here in Anniston were little different from the opinion of him held by my friends who live in the working-class Chicago neighborhood of Marquette Park or in the taverns of South Boston.

He wasn't president of the Confederacy. He was president of the United States. Jimmy Carter is a man of simplicity and well organized intelligence, wonderfully equipped to be a tenacious prime minister where the highest political skill is the politics of patience. But when he was mired in endless postponements and compromises with Congress, when he addressed the nation as prime minister -- in the tedious, wooden words of policy -- Southerners, like other Americans, were unmoved.

By the day of Jimmy Carter's inauguration, the civil rights movement had passed into history and there were no images on our television screens to remind Southerners of their apartness from the American value system. Southern blacks, like their Northern brothers and sisters, were no longer in the grips of a moral struggle but were becoming a classic interest group with their own agenda for the economic and political future. North and South, Americans yearned for the same thing out of the bitter experience of a depressing decade during which we learned that our cities can be scary places, that the strength of our arms and ideals can be frustrated and that our leaders can be liars.

During the early primaries of 1976, Americans thought Jimmy Carter might be that savior who understood the spiritual distress of the nation, whose self-confidence was rooted in something steady enough to survive tomorrow morning's headlines: values from the South Georgia soil his family had worked for generations, words that had the integrity of sweat and the Bible. While his competitors in the Democratic primaries buzzed on like worker-bees about issues and politics, he made a favorable contrast because he was speaking to the spirit of the country.

Then the message stopped, the promise was unfulfilled. He lost his tongue in the general election and for most of the first 1,000 days of his presidency, he too droned on about programs and policy, not knowing until last April that the nation wanted definition, to hear about purpose. "I'm still waiting for President Carter to tell me what his goals are, what his ideas and programs mean to me and the country," said Jimmy Turner, who presides over that smalltown parliament, the Courthouse Barber Shop.

It was events in Iran and Afghanistan that changed public perception of his character, making what appeared to be weakness appear as strength. Events made him the beneficiary of situational charisma because of his admirably steady, self-confident application of power under control. "We've stopped backing up," said Jimmy Turner. Just as Jimmy Carter seemed to have forgotten that he was a Southerner when he greeted me in the Oval Office in October, 1977, Jimmy Turner and the rest of us in the South forgot he was because the president was a national symbol at a time of threat to national honor and national interests.

President Carter did not shed the skin of his nativity, cease to be a Southerner just because he moved into the White House, but the special cultural codings of the South are most likely to be revealed in the private company of other Southerners. During the last day of the domestic summit at Camp David last July, the president and I were going down a buffet line together and found ourselves alone, facing each other across a halved watermelon -- one of the trickier cultural symbols of the South. He brought up the name of a mutual friend, Vernon Jordan, president of the National Urban League, who delights in teasing his white friends. "Every time Vernon comes to the White House," Carter said with a grin that reached his eyes, "he asks, 'When are you gonna give me some watermelon, Mr. President?'"

What does Sisyphys do when he loses his job? What vision will replace the discarded mythologies of the past: the subtropical Camelot of the Old South, with graces for the few and grits for the rest, and the push-push boosterism and braggadocio of the integrated, urbanized "New" South?

This is a troubling question of values and policy. The South has always hankered after the twin gods of Yankee materialism, cities and factories. And, God knows, Southerners can't be blamed for wanting a little more of the mass for so long produced and consumed elsewhere. It means that the South will cease to be a capital-deficit region sometime in the 1980s, which, among other things, means the development of an establishment of philanthrophy devoted to the arts: theaters, symphonies, civic ballets, museums. For most people it means fixing up the house, sending the kids to college and buying a camper.

These are good things, but there is a kind of uncritical and unintended mimicry to the post New-South South. The same random economic forces which build the ghettos of the older industrial cities are at work here. The "Chickenbone Special" is now a shortline railroad. It no longer hauls poor blacks and whites from the stymied, choicless life of the rural South to swell the ghettos of DEE-troit. It runs from south Georgia to Atlanta, where we are now producing our own refugee camps for our own stateless Palestinians. Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson can look at the South Bronx and see what the future may be for large numbers of his citizens.

The Agrarians who once clustered around Vanderbilt University tried to warn us what would happen. Fifty years ago, in a joint manifesto called "I'll Take My Stand," they spoke to young Southerners who were succumbing to the lure of the industrial idea: "They must be persuaded to look very critically at the advantages of becoming a 'new South' which will be only an undistinguished replica of the usual industrial community."

One young Southerner, Terry Sanford, as a student at Chapel Hill in the late 1930s, fell under the influence of the great regional sociologist, Howard Odum. Prof. Odum's vision was similar to but more realistic than that of the Agrarians. Where they saw the romantic yeomanry in such pastoral creations as the crop-lien system, Odum saw wasted men and women scratching for cotton in fields of dead clay. He planted in the mind of young Sanford the idea that the South could be a laboratory to discover ways to make "a larger regional contribution to national culture and unity." Sanford became one of North Carolina's best governors in the early 1960s, but it wasn't until 1971 at a conference in Atlanta that Odum's values were projected into the realm of policy by his old student, then president of Duke University.

Southern leaders came together to discuss the question, "The Urban South: Northern Mistakes in a Southern Setting?" Jimmy Carter was there in the first outing of the "ABC governors" -- the New South class of 1970: Reubin Askew of Florida, Dale Bumpers of Arkansas and Carter of Georgia. But it was Sanford's conceptual mind which dominated the conference and produced its only fruits.

He proposed the laboratory that Odum hoped to see in the form of an interstate compact, the Southern Growth Policies Board. A central secretariat of the board reporting directly to the region's governors and legislatures would help solve the riddle of unbalanced growth, seek a cure to the leukemia afflicting rural areas and small towns and cancerous growth in the centers of large cities -- not just as a Southern strategy but as strategy for the nation.

Prof. Odum would be disappointed, as I am sure Gov. Sanford is, at what their dream has become. It is little more than a Dixie home-guard protecting the South against raids on the Treasury by Yankee units like the Northeast-Midwest congressional caucus.

To those of us who had been active in trying a South with a larger vision, who sought to end the years of having our imagination and talent hostage to the retarding mythologies of the past, the greatest surprise and disappointment of Jimmy Carter's presidency is that he has not sought to turn these Southern dreams and disciplines into the flesh of national policy.

He has been a good president and could become a great one. He may yet borrow from that enduring Southern legacy -- that of Jefferson and Madison and Marshall -- and give the nation some lasting definition and direction. To do so he must move decisively to the center of a comprehensive effort to mobolize the private and public sectors in search of directions for an economic future that is balanced and humane, a consensus on how to get there and acceptance of the means to keep us all on the right track. h

Pulling public and private sectors together in search of real solutions for our economic future requires practical and experienced people -- people who lead private enterprise and fianance, and people who have the power to act in government. Academic economists with their econometric tinker-toy models should be avoided.

Similar leaders sat down in the 18th century to describe our political values and goals and to set out a framework to secure our political future in a Declaration of Independence and a Constitution. Their vision held -- not because they were mystical supermen, the "Founding Fathers" -- but because they were profoundly practical students of human nature. There are enough practical men and women in our time to describe our economic values in a declaration of economic independence and create a framework for securing our economic future.

The Southern Sisyphus could find useful and honorable new employment by wedding Southern Agrarian values with Yankee impatience to turn ideas into policy as president of the United states. The Agrarians grossly exaggerated the virtues of the Old South, but they did ask the right questions: growth for whom, growth for what?

One of their number, Allen Tate, died in February. He was a Southern poet, a voice crying in the wilderness of skyscrapers in downtown Atlanta. His death was a single leaf falling in the flash-flood of rush-hour steel and exhaust flowing along the interstates and beltways ringing the city.

In the void left by the end of the "New South" celebration, Southern city-dwellers can hear again the reproach of Tate and his Agrarians asking what good is it to "receive the illusion of having power over nature, and lose the sense of nature as something mysterious and contingent?"

Three days after Tate died, CBS telecast "Gone With the Wind," and the Old South perished again in the flames of Atlanta. That same evening in the "new" Atlanta, blacks and whites dined together in a revolving restaurant at the top of the Peachtree Plaza Hotel, a 70-story finger stuck impudently toward heaven. The integrated diners slowly revolved, looking down on the blacks and whites dining together in another Atlanta hotel similarly turning in place. In the artificial-orange, mercury-vapor daylight of the canyon far below a solitary voice asked:

Is this all there is to it?