When Jimmy Carter carries his suitcase full of blue jeans, work boots and paintings of Georgia landscapes into the White House, he'll be exercising the prerogative of Presidents to set, not follow, the style. There is a temptation to say that what a President wears, eats and admires tells a great deal about his character, and to an extent, that is true.But all Presidents, consciously most of the time, unconsciously some of the time, set their stage and costume themselves to suggest a certain role. The great problem in presidential style is to look every inch a President without looking one centimeter a king - to balance the image of a man of the people with the trappings of the most powerful office in the world. We remember George Washington today as stern, dignified, austere. But a vistor to one of his wartime encampments saw him as more comfortable: "In his dress, he was perfectly plain - an old blue coat faced with buff, waistcoat and breeches of the latter seemingly of the same age and without any lace upon them, composed his dress. His shirt had no ruffles at the wrists, but of very fine linen. He always wears boots . . ." Plain he might have been as a soldier, but as the country's hero, he was mindful of the need for the proper props. In 1786, he ordered a breakfast china with the emblem of the Society of the Cincinnati - and added the flying figure of fame with a trumpet. Washington, like many of his compatriots, was enamored of French furnishings. When Comte de Moustier, the first French minister to this country, left in 1790, Washington bought some of his belongings, including a white Sevres china edged in gilt which became the first State china. Washington paid for it himself and took it home to Mount Vernon when he left office. John Adams, a less wealthy man than Washington, worried about how to pay for presidential posh. He wrote to his wife Abigail: ". . . all the china delph or wedgewood, glass and crockery of every sort to purchase and not a farthing probably will the House of Representatives allow though the Senate have voted a small addition. All the linens besides." At the same time, Adams worried that people would think him unduly proud, and refused to let Abigail have her family cost of arms painted on the door of her carriage. Thomas Jefferson is probably the best example of a wealthy, aristocratic, well-educated and widely traveled man who felt it incumbent upon himself, as the head of a democracy, to keep the common touch while indulging in some luxury. Jefferson began the custom of shaking hands in the White House instead of bowing. He upset one foreign diplomat by wearing pantaloons and slippers for his audience. He introduced "pell mell" seating at dinners in which guests went into the dining room as they liked and sat with whom they chose. He hung chintz draperies in the State rooms, laid painted floorcloths in the dining room, and kept carpenter tools in the secret document files. It was during Jefferson's term that some wit commented that the White House was "big enough for two emperors, one ape, and the grand lama." But everyone liked to dine at his round tables and eat the French dishes (including ice cream) he had brought from his travels. Jefferson and Washington set up the competitions for the architectural designs of the Capitol and the White House. Jefferson even entered the contest for the White House design. And though he lost, after he became President he collaborated with Benjamin Latrobe in embellishing the White House with terraces, pavillions and porticos. James Monroe, who moved into the White House after it was burned by the British, contributed his own French furniture. When he ordered more from Pierre Antoine Bellange, the leading Parisian cabinetmaker, the Paris agent turned up his nose at mahogany and insisted that it be gilded. Some of the Monroe furniture has found its way back to the White House. One of the most often used of the Monroe items is the mirrored and gilded plateau or centerpiece. The seven pieces when put together are 13 1/2 feet long and two feet wide, ornamented at the edge with fruits, vines and Bacchus. It was Martin Van Buren who made the elliptical salon into the Blue Room, and bought vermeil tableware for the State Dining Room. There are those who say Van Buren's taste cost him the 1840 election. Congressman Charles Ogle charged in a speech that Van Buren was spending the taxpayers' money on "knives, forks, and spoons of gold, that he may dine in the style of the monarchs of Europe." And he complained that Van Buren's basement water reservoir and pump were supplying decadent Roman "pleasures of the warm or tepid bath . . . the proper accompaniments of a palace life." Of all the Presidents, Abraham Lincoln was an authentic born-in-a-log-cabin politican. His wife's ideas were more grandiose. At one catered dinner in the state dining room, according to Perley's Reminiscences of 60 Years in the National Metropolis : "The table was decorated with large pieces of ornamental confectionery, the centre object representing the steam "Union," armed and bearing the "Stars and Stripes." On a side table was a model of Fort Sumter, also in sugar." After such conspicious consumption, Lincoln had as many problems with his wife's critics as he did with the Johnny Rebels. The White House of Ulysses Grant brought 29-course meals with six kinds of wine. A proud father, President Grant spared no dollars for his daughter's wedding, including a $5,000 wedding dress to wear in the just-redecorated East room. Greek pilasters were installed, along with elaborate false beams, three $1800 chandeliers and a dais covered with plants and evergreens. In contrast to the Grants, the time of the Rutherford Hayes' was subdued. Both the Hayes were teetotalers - Mrs. Hayes was nicknamed "Lemonade Lucy," after they abolished all strong drink, wine and Roman Punch from the White House. Their only flamboyance was in the china they ordered for the White House. It was made by Haviland and Co. from watercolor paintings by Harper's Weekly artist. Theodore Davis. The turkey platter has a gobbler, the ice cream plate is shaped and painted like snowshoes, the oyster plate is a series of oyster shapes, and so on, all in strong colors and high realism. If the Hayeses win the prize for china, the Chester Arthurs probably can make a strong case for the most trendy redecorating. The Arthurs hired Louis Comfort Tiffany, the man who gave glass a first name. Tiffany called the Blue Room the "Robin's Egg's Room" and decorated it with "ornaments in a handpressed paper, touched out in ivory." He installed a vast Tiffany glass in the grand foyer of the White House to keep out drafts, an opalescent screen with a motif of eagles and flags interlaced. The East Room was given a silver ceiling and the Red Room a gold one. To make way for Tiffany's art nouveau, Arthur sold 24 wagonloads of furniture. Theodore Roosevelt installed a buffalo head mantle in the State Dining Room and he decorated the walls with mounted animal trophies. The original mantle is now in the Truman library, a gift to President Truman from his staff. A copy was installed in 1961. Roosevelt also hired McKim, Mead & White, the top architects of 1902 to shore up the White House, because the reception room floors sagged when the palms were brought in. By the time Truman took office the Army Corps of Engineers was undertaking a general rebuilding of the House. He persuaded Congress to pay for a balcony on the south side. The present curator of the Mansion, Clement Conger, is given to saying the White House has been destroyed three times: twice by burning and once by the Army. Many people remember the extensive redecoration of the White House under the Kennedys, but few recall one of Jackie's projects that never succeeded. She wanted a direct enclosure between the indoor pool and the White House so that Kennedy, who liked to swim nude, wouldn't have to dress up on the way. The Kennedys also had a magnificent mural painted on the wall of the swimming pool, now, alas, hidden under the floor of the new press wing. The flooring over the swimming pool was part of an extensive redecorating project during the Nixon administration, done under the direction of Conger. There was even, very briefly, a change in uniform for the White House police - white tunic, gold braid, visored hat. "Ruritania on the Potomac" the New York Times called it; "a re-run of 'Graustark' or 'The Student Prince,'" said the Chicago Daily News. The uniforms went into storage. The Fords, too, have imprinted their taste. This year's Christmas tree and last have been decorated with American handcrafts; the state dinners have had American artifacts as centerpieces. And, of course, Ford himself is leaving to Jimmy Carter an outdoor swimming pool, paid for by private donations. And what will Jimmy Carter leave behind? The Carters, like most Southerners, are house proud. The Southern tradition of hospitality is always to entertain at home, so you can expect the Carters will be taking a close look at the accommodations. They are bringing with them Georgia landscapes to make the family quarters seem more like home. Mrs. Carter has announced she'll serve wine, not hard drinks, and Carter is known to have a taste for the harpsichord. It seems safe to predict that the Carters' taste will be for easy elegance. Not too posh for the populists, not too rough for the royalists.