It's curious. For more than a year James Earl Carter Jr. has been telling us about himself. Yet after tens of thousands of miles traveled, more public appearances than anyone can recall, pitiless scrutiny and constant criticism, He comes to power today still regarded as saomehow mysterious.

What's surprising is that anyone should be surprised by the supposed "Carter enigma."

Keep in mind certain facts: He comes from Plains, Ga, he really has been a peanut farmer (among other financially rewarding enterprises), and he officially calls himself Jimmy. He's a different breed from the line of presidential succession over the last 30 years. Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Ford - all were creatures of Washington, all but Ike specifically creatures of Capitol Hill By that test, Carter is a true outsider, although not as inexperienced in the ways of politics as he sometimes wishes to appear. As a governor, as a wheeler-dealer at the 1972 Democratic covention, as a campaign organizer for the Democratic National Committee, as a member of David Rockefeller's Trillateral Commission and after two years as a presidential candidate, he knows his way around.

Nevertheless, He begins his presidency less connected personally and politically to the networks of power in Washington than any national leader in a lifetime, if not a century. ANd on this ceremonial day, when presidential power passes and the nation pauses to observe the ritual, we are left with as many questions as we have clues about Jimmy Carter.

The questions are basic. Who he is, what he's set in motion, wherehe will take the country, how he will afect our lives-- all merge into one. The clues are both confounding - and clear. They can be found in Plains and in Washington.

When Jimmy Carter came home last week for the final time as a private citizen, a group of Georgians waited to greet him at the airport. Carter went up and down that airport fence, in the traditional political manner, but the exchanges were far from the ordinary stilted political fare.

It was a quiet crowd, almost somber in its silence. You had to see the faces of the men, women, children, blacks and whites standing together, to catch the emotion. They were glowing, proud and respectful, as they murmured their good wishes and hellos. Carter responded with equally muted emotion. But he was glowing, too.

They understood each other, those Georgians. They knew what that moment meant to them all, but it was al most as if they were fearful of spoiling it by an undue display of feeling Carter passed by a young mother holding up a small girl. The girl turned away, burrowing her head into her mother's shoulder. Nothing the mother whispered could maker her look toward Carter. He also tried, bending over to talk t the child. Then he placed his hands on her head and held them there for a long moment. It was a gentle and natural gesture.

Perhaps that is a romantic reading of Jimmy Carter. Certainly the reading of his home town has been so romanticized as to bilie reality. The truth about Plains. Ga., probably has been lost forever. The town itself has been so swamped by a sea of commercialism, by a horde of jounalistic and literary seekers after the "soul" of Plains in search of the "real" Jimmy Carter, that everyone's reality there will always be altered by any relationship, real or imaginary, to the next President.

In these last days plains has assumed an air of increasing frenzy, with long-distance joggers vying with Indian chiefs, aimlessly wandering crowds of the curious, and hucksters, everywhere huscksters.

You can buy an infinitesimal patch of peanut soil, supposedly sitting somewhere near Jimmy's land, for $11 a square inch and get a plaque to prove it. ("Just think if you had some land of Lincoln's that had been passed on through the generations," the young blonde woman says in the center of what passes for Plains' city park alongside the railroad tracks.) You can buy an "orignial lithograph" of the main street of Plains, next to the depot, for a buck. You can go in the Peanut Museum an dbuy and buy and buy - necklaces, bottle openers, dolls (Amy's and Jimmy's) yo-yos, all "original" souvenirs of Plains (they aren't, of course), and nearly all in some form of a peanut. You can get your picture taken, for a fee, while standing in front of two mules, newly named Gritz and Fritz. And you can shop at Cousin Hugh's Antique Shop, or go across the street ot Brother Billy's service station for a beer and petrol - and in so doing learn something else about the Carters.

They are not above cashing in on the Carter craze, any of them, They are, like Jimmy himself, shrewd and successful businessemen. Brother Billy sells his gasoline for 3 cents a gallon more than other service stations. Cousin Hugh an Uncle Alton Buddy) keep raising their prices, too. For a buck they'll autograph old, throwaway copies of Readers Disgest books - they once did it free - or sell you Conferderate money at $5 a bill. The South's currency never was so sound as now.

For the rest, Plains has become modern potemkin Village, a cardboard stage set masking the reality that lies behind it. Still, there is something there. Plains is a pace that retains a certain quaint informality. Over the front door of one tourist shop, for instance, the proprietor has posted the following quickly hand-letered note:

INFO

Jimmy's House 280 W - 4 Blocks on Rt.

Billy's Station

Across the Street

Church

straight up the Street, one block on left.

Carter's Warehouse

Across the street

Restrooms

Public park.

As that sign implies, Plains is small - so small that the entire listing in the phone book takes up only 1 1/2 pages including Carter, Billy . . . Carter, Chip . . . Carter, E L . . . Carter, Earl Mrs . . . Carter, W A . . . Carter Worm Farm . . . Carter's Billy Serv Sta . . . Carter's Gin & Peanut Sheller . . . Carter's Hugh Antiques . . . Carter's Whse Office . . . and U S Gov't. Federal Job Information Center, Atlanta, Ga. (dial 800-282-1670, no charge.)

Plains is something else, and no one should forget it. It is Carter's. Like Lyndon Johnson before him, Jimmy Carter comes out of an enviroment in which he and his family hold pre-eminent power. They are millionaires in a place still dotted iwth shacks, hhanties, muddy red clay roads, modest dwellings and poorly drained fields. But the Carters were not always wealthy. Jimmy himself, as he has written, grew up alongside a dirt road in a clapboard house heated only by two fireplaces and a wood stove. The family privy, out back, and got their water from a hand pump.

What's important about Carter and his family is that they made ti. And they made it, literally, on their own and out of their own soil. To them, the peanut is more than symbolism. And with all the changes that have occurred in Plains these last maothes, it's still possible to get a glimpse into the soil and climate that have produced this new President.

In one evening you can find his mother, Miss Lillian, seated with reporters around a crowded table at Faye's Bar-B-Q Villa; chat wit his oldest sister, Gloria, and hear her express hurt over a Washington Post story that described Amy Carter as boring ("how could they say that?"); visit with Carter's old friend, John Pope, the burial vault salesman, who was there when Jimmy needed him to watch the polls in that tense early race for state Senate ("This wholething has changed us a lot more than it's changed him.")

You can also get a sense of the intense loyalty of the young Georgians on his staff. A sense, at Faye's, at night, Jody Powell, the press secretary, just back from hunting quail with two relatives, engaging in an exchange, often heated, with the press corps. Someone says it's the job of the press to follow Carter where ever he goes; he might be shot, and the world will waiting for that instant news. Powell for once puts aside his easy, engaging manner. He responds quickly and hard: "If that happens don't look to me for your news. The world's the last thing I'm going to be thinking about. I'm going to be thinking about him."

One other clue abut Carter, selfevident, but worth noting: Jimmy Carter chose to stay in Plains, having all those people of power coming to him, while the government he now heads was being formed in far-off Washington.

It takes about two hours, in this jet age, to travel the thousand or so miles from the main street of plains to the mass of gray cement housing the transition headqaurters at the foot of Capitol Hill in Washington. That journey represents something more than mere distance and time.

Transition headquarters is the government, the great prize of the campaign, now the great problem of the future. It was appropriate that the Carter forces, eager, fresh, realy, occuied what has been the command center of one of the great Washington bureaucratic nests - the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

Walk into those gray corridors and you are greeted by a blizzard of signs, with arrows in green colors pointing to the incomprehensible offices.OE - arrow, SSA - arrow. PHS - arrow. SRS - arrow. Look at the directory, find more evidence of the real government. TWo larg color portraits inform the public that "The honorable David mathews" and "The honorable Marjorie Lynn," HEW's Secretary and under secretary, have been residing there. Underneath their smilling portraits stands a cartoon warning against crime in the office. A thief has been thwarted by a diligent secretary who secured an office typewriter. =This time she used a safe place," the caption read. On other walls are other bold warnings about crime: "CRIMES afainst your government concern YOU!" they proclaim in red letters.

Next to these signals are the postings of the HEW directorate, with the proliferation of agencies and overlapping titles there for all to see: Commissioner Food and Drug Administrator Health Services Administration; Administrator Health Resources Administration: Director National Institutes of Health: Special Assistant to the Secretary for Health Policy; Administrator ADAMHA; Commission on Afinf- Assistant Secretary for Education; Director National Institutes of Education; Commissioner of Education; Administrationof Social : Rehabilitation Service . . .

"You know what I've decided is the matter with the government?" one seniour tarnsition official said, in one of the countless fifth-floor offices. "it's these buildings. They're too damned big. You don't have any sense of being connected anything or anyone else."

Other express their newly formed views of government in more personal terms. Dependig on whom you talk to, there are two distinct views of the Carter transition effort. There are those who are leaving those offices embittered and with a sense of betrayal; they feel their work has gone for naught, that it was unappreciated, unrewarded. They are leaving without jobs, or any assurance of a role in the government they were helping to form.

For some, the criticism is more general: he Carter people have given the government away, they will say; they wonder if they were not part of some great public charade, caught in a place of "managerial overkill," of posturing, of naked ambitions, where the reality was that all but a favored few were merely "treading water." For others, the transition has proven to a model of meticulous planning and execution. They leave confidnet they have produced something of lasting value.

This is not the time to try to tell the story of the Carter transition. Like the truth about Plains, it is complex and constantly shifting in focus. But let two voices indicate some of the reality.

A volunteer, well-educated, young, an early member of the Carter "Peanut Brigade," who leaves dismayed and disillusioned after witnessing the transition operation:

"I tell my friends you can just feel it in the corridors here, you can just see it in the way people walk down the halls. And they don't know what I mean. It's cold, impersonal, it's ago tripping, it's power-triping. People stay together in their little clusters. And you can see the way ower is flowing. One week they'll all circule around someone who seems 'in.' The next week it's someone else. Maybe I'm naive, but I think this group is supposed to start out caring for each other. If they don't care about each other, how can they care about the country?"

From Jack Watson, who has headed the Washington transition team, has experienced personal frustrations about the way Washington works, about the amount of misinformation and innuendo afloat, and yet remains convinced their work has made a contribution:

"The president of the United States is more sharply focused in the eyes and monsds of the country than any other person in the world. He is constantly being looked to for respect and leadership. He is constantly being looked to for respect and leadership. He and his family are scrutinized day in and day out, and on top of that he has the awesome responsibility to be in control of the government of the ocuntry - to be at the very center of the very life of the nation.

"It's larger than life, that responsiblility. And yet one of the most important aspects of his job is somehow to keep thinking of himself as an ordinary man.He must resist the seduction of his office, and its power, and its trappings - and yet he must lead. It's an office full of paradoxes, and he must understand those paradoxes. He must understand that what the public wants of him is contradictory. He must be an eloquent spokesman, a chairsmatic leader, a public teacher. At the same time, he must be just one of us. We don't want him to be surrounded by a palace guard, or act or look like a king. And,in fact, he is not a king. There's something else that everyone expects from their leader - they want him to be tender and compassionate and sensitive, and at the same time be tough, and, even when necessary, be ruthless.

"I want us to do well here. I would hope that we can do well here on one's own terms. To prevail on terms that are not acceptable is not to win. It will be an interesting time. Jame Madison and all of his cohorts, his colleagues, had a great sense of posterity, a sense of history, a deep sense of their obligation to the Americans who would come after them. In today's world we don't fully have that sense of posterity. It's something we seem to have been losing. We have a hard time pulling back and asking ourselves how we will be judged when it's all setfled and past. But if we don't keep that long view, we're not likely to do well here."

Jimmy Carter's already said, clearly and unequivocally, how he wants to be judged. As he has asked repeatedly these last two years.

"Can our government be honest, decent, open, fair, and compassionate?"

Those are, as they should be, the most important unanswered questions about Jimmy Carter, and his country.