Meaning no disrespect to Amy or the First Lady or Ms. Lillian or Billy, but to millions of American television viewers over the last six months or so, the nation's second-best-known Carter was none of the above.

It was Hodding Carter III, son of a great southern newspaperman, and a former Marine who went off to Princeton to study for a diplomatic career. Instead, he came home to run the family newspaper in Greenville, Miss. Three-and-a-half years ago, after lending a hand in Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign, he was made assistant secretary of state/spokesman.

That's a position that entitles the holder to one free-for-all at the ritual noon briefing for correspondents and a lot of late-night follow-up phone calls. For a forceful, thoughtful, skillful few (with sensible superiors), the job also means a necessary but limited partnership in policy-making -- in the interest, as Carter sees is, of being able to "explain to the American people what the policy is and explain back to the department the public's reaction to it." For Hodding Carter III, the job meant all of that -- plus becoming a TV celebrity.

First by chance, when the Iranian crisis blew up with the seizing of the hostages, and then by considered design as the agony dragged on, he emerged as the government's official daily (and nightly) answer to the chants of the mob at the embassy gates, to the slick dissembling of Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, to the savage taunts of Ayatollah Khomeini.

About this intense and essentially unique experience, he is characteristically laconic. "If there had been no talking heat at State, there would have been one somewhere else answering the cameras in Tehran," he says. "I was just doing my business." As to that particular business, however, Carter would write a book -- and probably will, now that he is leaving his post (a little prematurely on account of his close association with former secretary of state Cyrus Vance).

It would begin, judging from a long conversation in his office the other day, with a conviction that the problem of explaining American foreign policy is immeasurably bigger than it was, say, 15 years ago. But not for the reason you might suppose -- the post-Vietnam disintegration of public trust. He thinks the disposition to disbeleve the government, out of hand, is wearing away.

The big chances he sees begin with America's lessened influence in the world. But they include the collapse of the foreign policy consensus of the '40s and '50s, a weakening of presidential authority, a breakdown of political party discipline, the decline of the congressional "barons."

"The old bulwarks protecting the foregin policy-makers are gone," Carter declares.

And all this, he argues, has sharply reduced the power of government to sell foreign policy, if only because government is less able to control events; to deliver automatically on matters having to do with trade, for one example; to safeguard access to foreign resources -- beginning, naturally, with oil.

One result has been a sharply increased public concern that has translated into a proliferation of pressure groups. Where once the United States "strode the world like a colossus so that it was all gravy train," Carter says, there is now a "clawing for survival. . . . There's not anybody out there who doesn't recognize a direct stake in foreign policy and who doesn't have a client institution up here fighting for it."

But a second result, Carter finds, is an increased awareness in State of "the need for dealing with American opinion." He credits its origins, generously, to a decision by Henry Kissinger five years ago to embark personally on a grass-roots consensus-building campaign. Carter has both quadrupled the amount of missionary work around the country by department officials and greatly increased the gathering of special-interest groups for Washington briefings.

The key to all this, says Carter, is presenting foreign policy in a way "that tells people how it touches their lives."

Does excess secrecy get in the way? Carter thinks that "you could knock off about 80 percent [of all classification of secret material] and suffer nothing at all." As for serious leaks, he holds government officials responsible for initiating security violations on the rare occasions where harm was done. But he feels that the media is overly addicted to what he calls "clientitis" -- the knowing acceptance of a self-serving, one-sided, classified material with no effort to put it in some sort of context.

But Carter has a sense of humor as well as a sense of balance. For every such leak, he reckons, there is a "direct arterial bleed" from the other side of the argument: "In the funniest way, this is probably the only place where countervailing powers really work."