He wore a blue sport shirt, khaki slacks and a heavy heart as he walked the long country block from his house with Chip and Amy and faced the cameras.

"I have never had a better and closer personal friend than Anwar Sadat," said a somber-faced Jimmy Carter. "His family is close to mine. We have visited back and forth. We have shared great events and achievements and we've shared tragedies as well."

The former president eulogized his friend on the lawn in front of his mother's old house, where he has set up an office in exile to write his memoirs. Nearly 100 reporters, aides and tourists clustered amid gnats in a hot Georgia sun.

Anwar Sadat was "the greatest world leader I have ever known in my life," he said. "I don't know how to pay tribute to a man like him. Words are not enough. This is a sad day for our country and a tragic day for the entire world."

Their special friendship had been forged in the long hours spent together at Camp David in the Cactoctin Mountains of Maryland, where Carter, Sadat and Prime Minister Begin of Israel argued, prayed and kibbitzed, carving out the Camp David accords for Middle East peace in 1978.

It was perhaps Jimmy Carter's finest hour, a grand diplomatic triumph he largely owed to Anwar Sadat's willingness to compromise, to trust him. Jimmy Carter never forgot, and from the seeds of diplomacy their friendship blossomed.

At Camp David, with Carter as referee, Begin and Sadat managed to work out an Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement and set a deadline for dealing with Palestinian autonomy. That attempt to translate the framework for peace into a treaty broke down repeatedly. Carter intervened again, visiting the Middle East in March 1979, and made the treaty signing possible.

Carter described Sadat as a man of destiny and courage who never seemed very concerned about his personal safety. Sadat's embrace of Israel in the face of hostile Arab neighbors took great bravery, said Carter.

"When I talked to leaders of some of the other weaker countries -- such as Saudi Arabia -- they publicly would condemn Sadat for his move toward peace with the Jews, but privately they expressed to me their admiration for him and their quiet support," he added. "They know that stability in the Middle East is a prerequisite for their own survival. Sadat's commitment to peace showed extreme courage."

Even after Carter's defeat at the polls last November, Sadat kept in touch with his friend, Jimmy. They corresponded. They talked by phone. Their wives kept in touch. And, to pay his respects, Sadat visited his friend in Plains earlier this summer. Carter gave him a glass sculpture of a laurel wreath designed to commmemorate peace between Egypt and Israel.

That Plains visit was the last time they talked. Sadat told him, said Carter, that "he hoped to step down as president of Egypt next year, that he thought his work was basically completed." He wanted vice president Mubarak to take his place and hoped that his "contribution to world peace would still continue," said Carter.

Carter first learned of the attack this morning shortly after 7 a.m. when an aide knocked on his door. He spoke with White House officials, then telephoned Egyptian officials in Cairo. "I finally got through and talked to the officials there who I believed I could trust," Carter said in a TV interview.

But even the former president was apparently misled about the extent of Sadat's injuries. "They told me both President Sadat and Vice President Mubarak were injured, but that neither one of the injuries was critical . . that President Sadat would require surgery. They assured me that was not government propaganda but an accurate report, that his injury was not critical, that his life . . . was not in danger."

After the reporters and cameramen trundled off with their gear, Carter began trying, again, to get through to Sadat's wife, Jihan, to tell her he would be at the funeral of his friend.