Sitting with Jimmy Carter in Atlanta the other morning, I was reminded of how intelligent and articulate a man he is. No other president that I have covered over the years has had this ability of crystal-clear verbal expression. Not Kennedy. His best stuff was written by Krock and Sorensen. Not Nixon. He wrote much of his own, and he was highly disciplined. But he tended to say things in a rather prosaic, legalistic, dull way. And not Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Ford, or Reagan.
Carter's low-keyed personality used to do him a disservice on TV. People tended not to notice his superbly worded answers - and how well informed he was. Indeed, away from television's limelight, Carter is an extremely interesting man. His years of heavy reading on a vast array of subjects quickly shows through.
The other impression of Carter, nearly three years out of office, is that he is still deeply hurt over his rejection by the voters. Perhaps no defeated president or presidential candidate gets over this completely. But Carter seems to have taken his defeat particularly hard. The sadness, mixed with considerable bitterness, lingers.
Asked if he wouldn't like to have another four years in the presidency to carry on with his achievements, such as Camp David, human rights initiatives, and normalization of relations with Peking, Carter at first seemed to avoid the question.
''If in the future (and I'm not asking for it),'' he said, ''if an administration asked me to help out on an ad hoc basis with an issue, and if I felt I was uniquely qualified to do it, I would be glad to do so.''
Q: Couldn't there be, perhaps if not now some future year, a time when you would consider running again for the presidency - since you are relatively still young?
A: I can't imagine that.
Q: But you were considered, too, as one of the best politicians to come down the pike.
A: I think I had that reputation in 1976 - but I lost it in 1980. [With a rueful laugh.]
Q: But look how the perceptions changed with Harry Truman.
A: It took over 20 years.
Carter's views on the Camp David summit and Begin's persistence in settling the West Bank were particularly enlightening:
Q: There seem to be differing perceptions as to whether Begin in moving forward on the West Bank was breaking a Camp David understanding. Was the understanding clear-cut or was there some room for ambiguity?
A: I think I understand what happened completely. There were only four people in the room. Dayan, Begin, Vance, and me. If you read Vance's memoirs and mine and if you read the transcripts of Dayan's news interviews immediately after Camp David, all three of us are in complete agreement: that Begin committed himself to no new settlements until the autonomy talks were complete.
Begin maintains that he only agreed to postpone settlement activity for three months. So I think that as far as recollections of people in the room - it's a three-to-one recollection.
Q: Were there notes taken?
A: I took meticulous notes. Nobody was taking notes but me. But, anyway, Anwar's explanation of it was: At the time we left Camp David, we all agreed that the autonomy talks would be completed within three months. So I'll give Begin credit for having it in his mind at the time that since the autonomy talks were going to be completed in three months that he was only going to cease settlement activity for three months.
But what was important to me and everyone else there was that the resumption of settlement activity almost precluded success in the autonomy talks.
I really believe that Begin has always intended, in effect, to annex the West Bank.
Q: So he may have had a mental reservation as he sat there with you?
A: Yes. The definition of autonomy is very narrow, indeed. So I am not saying that Begin is making a false statement. But when he left the room at least three of us thought the settlement activity would cease until the autonomy talks were concluded. . . .
Q: I understand that at your Center for Policy Studies which you are establishing you will be acting, in part, as you did at Camp David?
A: I'll establish over a period of time a center for the resolution of crises or disputes where groups or nations that have major differences between themselves which they can't resolve will come to us.
Q: A small Camp David?
A: Yes, that's right. I'll try not to assume the role of mediator. But if one of the parties comes to me, I'll contact the other party and help them choose an arbitrator they trust and provide them with a very secluded, isolated place here in the heart of Atlanta. And I'll help them if they run into an insurmountable difficulty.