Outside Ellijay, Ga.—a rustic logging town 100 km north of Atlanta—the steep gravel driveway snaking down Walnut Mountain was unmarked. At the bottom, a log cabin nestled amid white pine and alder groves might belong to any outdoorsman longing for solitude—except for one telltale clue. At a shack on the footpath, secret service men stood guard with rifles. There, as the late-day sun dappled the waterfall beyond the porch with gold, Jimmy Carter—the 39th president of the United States—was relaxing in blue jeans and bare feet.
While the Democratic party prepares for its presidential convention in Atlanta next month,
Carter is far from the fray, promoting his fifth book. Called An Outdoor Journal, it contains not more than a half-dozen paragraphs on politics.
Indeed, despite the fact that most of the Democratic presidential contenders have pilgrimaged to his home 350 km south in Plains, Ga., for photo opportunities and advice,
Carter has spent the past year recasting his own public image—from elder statesman to ardent flyfisherman.
Written in plain, homespun prose, the book is an affecting glimpse into the secret side of a president who used to go to the White House roof at night to watch the Canada geese flying south. And for the first time, Carter confesses that when the presidential helicopter deposited him at his official retreat in Camp David, Md., for the weekend, he and his wife, Rosalynn, often left on a surreptitious second flight—to a trout stream in Pennsylvania. “Nobody knew it,” he chuckled, leaning back in a wooden rocker, swatting flies. “But I never have felt guilty at all—no matter how pressing my official duties were—if I spent a few hours, or even two or three days, fishing. In times of testing, I’ve found benefit in being alone for a while.”
Now 63, Carter reminisces freely about his boyhood in Plains, hunting possums and angling for catfish. But with its stories of duck shooting as an
adult in Arkansas—while knocking back schnapps to ward off a chill—the book also paints Carter in a new, he-man light. That revised image coincides with a recent re-evaluation of his presidency as some of the gloss has worn off the myth of Ronald Reagan. And eight years after his humiliating 1980 defeat, Carter cannot hide his delight at the rehabilitation of his own reputation. “In our country historically, after a few
years presidents have been better understood,” he said. “Now it’s taking place with me.”
But he admits that the recent spate of kiss-and-tell books by former staffers in the Reagan White House—which he characterizes as “somewhat embarrassing but also, I think, quite accurate”— may have hastened the process. Said Carter: “People are beginning to see the Reagan administration more clearly from the perspective of those within it.” Still, he insisted, “I don’t want to see our nation embarrassed just to make me look better. That would be improper.”
An Outdoor Journal is also an environmental plea. In one chapter, Carter recounts a salmon-fishing expedition five years ago in British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Islands. There, he became so concerned about the giant log-
ging trucks rumbling through the forests of Lyell Island that he wrote thenprime minister Pierre Trudeau asking him to protect the area. And Carter is calling on “an interested public” to keep up the fight to preserve the forests. “Otherwise the timber interests are going to prevail,” the former president declared.
Carter lamented the loss of many East Coast trout and salmon streams to acid rain, blaming the Reagan administration’s inaction. “Reagan has opposed any effort to purify the water or the air or correct acid rain,” Carter said. “I think he probably still thinks trees cause pollution.” He also criticized Reagan’s general performance on the environment-including his proposal to increase oil exploration in the millions of acres of Alaskan wilderness that Carter set aside as national parks and wildlife refuges in one of his last and proudest acts of office in December, 1980. “It is an abominable proposal —but typical,” Carter declared. “They have done everything they could to undo environmental laws that have been passed by both Democratic and Republican previous administrations.”
Carter has tried to remain publicly neutral in this year’s presidential contest. But he acknowledged that after his favorite candidate, Georgia Senator Sam Nunn, decided not to run, he was one of those who convinced his old friend, Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, to seek the Democratic nomination. Carter said that in a future Dukakis administration, he would not want a full-time job. But he would leap at the chance to become a roving Middle East ambassador trying to reactivate the peace process that was a major focus of his administration. And he admits that he is “distressed” over Israel’s recent repression of Palestinian rioters in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. “What is happening is a tragedy for Israel,” Carter said, “and for the Palestinians, who are now living their 21st year without basic freedoms and rights under military domination.” He added, “This is severely damaging the basic character of Israel itself.”
Even in his mountain solitude, the world and its politics are clearly never far from Carter’s mind. And he said that the next president may face greater challenges than he did—even a recession. “I do not have any doubt that the next president is going to be blamed for a lot of the problems that he will inherit from Reagan,” Carter said. Then, squinting to where the sun was shifting on the falls, he seemed to be thinking of his own political career as he shrugged and added, “But then that is the nature of public service.”
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