Holding His Own Against Cancer, Billy Carter Savors Life as the Quiet Brother

updated 04/04/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/04/1988 01:00AM

Down in Plains, Ga., Billy Carter seems to be living in the lap of leisure. Every morning he heads over to the Inns of Americus, 9 miles away, to chew on eggs, grits, national politics and local news with longtime pals Leon ("Hogpen") Johnson and Jimmy Murray, who owns the place. Almost reflexively, he fields the routine barrage of insults. When Murray claims he's had a tape recorder running under the table all these years, planning on some blackmail, Billy shoots back: "I guess you turn the machine off when I say what a lousy motel this is." And then the impish grin that sold thousands of cases of Billy Beer gets the better of his aging mug.

After breakfast, Hogpen drops Billy, 51, back home—a comfortable ranch house with a pool not far from Jimmy and Rosalynn's place and next door to the Secret Service compound. If Carter decides not to get on with his pecan picking, he might help his youngest son, Earl, 11, plant blueberry bushes, or he might curl up in his easy chair and turn on one of the wrestling videos his wife, Sybil, so despises. At some point he will probably ride his bicycle to the post office. "But," he says, looking a bit more serious than usual, "I don't ride the bicycle up and down hills. After all I've been through, I'd hate to kill myself on a bicycle."

The irony is intentional. Last September the ex-President's younger brother was diagnosed as having pancreatic cancer, a disease that proves fatal to more than 95 percent of its victims, as it already has to two members of his own family. "Daddy and my sister Ruth both died from it," Billy says. "The doctors didn't give us a lot of hope." But after a bile-duct bypass operation at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta and six weeks of radiation and chemotherapy, the once notorious First Brother has resumed a somewhat normal life. The ordeal, following a prolonged bout with the bottle, has brought Carter closer than ever to his family. He has returned to religion (apparently rethinking his 1977 statement that Christians should be thrown to the lions) and rearranged his priorities.

These days Billy Carter is living life in the slow lane, one domestic day at a time. This is quite a switch for the onetime king of second-string celebrity photo-ops, who seized a spotlight of his own when brother Jimmy, now 63, was elected President in 1976. Dubbed "the clown prince" by columnist William Safire, Billy, with his predilection for beer and oddball business endorsements like the one for peanut liqueur, was at first viewed with affectionate indulgence by much of the nation. But endorsing the government of Muammar Gaddafi, which loaned him $220,000 in 1980, cast Billy in a less amusing light and helped undermine Jimmy's already shaky re-election campaign. Celebrityhood disagreed with him in other ways too. "When I was in the public eye, I had to try to live up to a reputation that wasn't really me to start with," he says. "I had always drunk fairly heavily, but I always headed home in my free time. With all the hoopla, I didn't have any free time." In February of 1979, Carter got eight weeks of it when he checked himself into the Long Beach (Calif.) Naval Hospital to dry out. "I was aggravated, but I agreed to cooperate if they would call the press and get them to leave me alone," he says. When he was released, Long Beach staff members were split on whether Carter would truly kick his habit. Those who gave him a thumbs-up can start collecting. Carter hasn't had a drink since.

But Billy wasn't the only one in need of recovery. After years of "absolute hell and embarrassment" because of her husband's drinking, Sybil, 49, his wife of 32 years, went to the Long Beach clinic herself to learn to deal with the problem. "When you're involved with someone on drugs or alcohol, you literally have to learn to live again," she says. The clinic helped her distinguish her own needs and expectations from those of her husband. "My whole life revolved around Billy," she explains. "I waited on him, I protected him. The Carters are demanding people, they always have been. Now I do a lot of the same things for him, but I know I have a choice." Says Billy with a chuckle: "She went into that center a sweet Southern lady and came out an A-number-one bitch."

Billy and Sybil had moved to Buena Vista, Ga., in the heyday of the Carter Presidency, when Plains became an unlivable zoo. They returned in 1986, but in his effort not to become a "professional ex-drinker," Billy had become a workaholic instead, logging 14-to 16-hour days doing sales promotions for a mobile home company. Then last August, without any apparent sign of infection, his skin began itching and turned a jaundiced yellow. When the whites of his eyes turned the same telltale hue on Labor Day, Carter went to his doctor. "I hope you've got hepatitis," he was told. The only other obvious diagnosis was cancer, and tests later that week at Emory University Hospital confirmed the worst: Carter had an obstructive tumor in the pancreas. Because the tumor was attached to a major blood vessel, it could not be removed, but Carter was immediately scheduled for an operation to bypass the blockage. His attitude was cosmic: "I just decided to go with the flow," he says. "I figured I'd let them do what they had to do."

The rest of the family was less blasé. "It was like the rug had been pulled out from under us," says Sybil, who immediately told the five older children. Brother Jimmy was en route to visit the Pope in Columbia, S.C., when he heard about Billy's impending surgery and wanted to come home immediately. But, he warned Sybil, if he canceled on the Pope, the press would want to know why. "I told him to give me 30 minutes to tell Earl," Sybil recalls, "then it could be announced Billy had inoperable pancreatic cancer."

The initial operation was a success, but Carter then had to decide on follow-up treatment. Given the history of the disease in his family, he knew the odds against his survival. "I said if there is no hope, let me go ahead and die," he recalls. "But if my life could be made a little easier and I could live a little longer, then I was going to try to beat the damn thing."

Jimmy, who now heads his own think tank in Atlanta, sought advice from the National Cancer Institute and learned of a new form of chemotherapy called cis-platinum. Combined with standard radiation treatments, it offers Billy some slight hope. Both radiation and chemotherapy can have severe side effects, but he didn't flinch. "I told them to go until it burns my damn ears off, and then we'll go for something else."

It appears to have been a good call. "At first I thought it was a tragedy," says Jimmy, who spends a couple of hours a day visiting with his brother. "Pancreatic cancer is such a serious illness. But Billy has responded to the treatment with courage and grace. We are hopeful." The only visible reminder of Billy's cancer is a small plastic patch covering a tube embedded in his chest that allows medication to be fed directly into a major artery. While her husband carries on his conversation, Sybil takes a syringe and with little ado administers a blood thinner.

"We'll know in a couple of months," says Billy, who works part-time at the mobile home company and joins Sybil twice a month in alcoholism-prevention appearances. "Whatever is going to come is going to come." In the meantime he has resolved to just "live a normal life and do what I want to do." He spends time with Earl, plays Scrabble with Sybil and bones up on the World Almanac "so my children will think I'm smart." And if there's something he doesn't want to do, well, "I started raking the leaves in the back yard three weeks ago," Carter says. "I haven't finished yet." And there's that grin, getting the better of him again.

—By Margot Dougherty, with Joyce Leviton in Plains, Ga.

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