• U.S.

A Wry Clown Billy Carter, 1937-1988

3 minute read
Stanley W. Cloud

Billy Carter knew a lot about tragedy and comedy. Among many other things, his father died when he was a teenager, and his older brother’s accomplishments became a terrible burden. Yet when life crowded him, as it did so often, Billy, intelligent, sensitive, shy and insecure, would hide behind the mask of the clown. Last week Billy was buried in the red Georgia earth near Plains, his beloved hometown. His friends and family — including brother Jimmy, the former President — were there. They knew, if the rest of the world did not, what they had lost.

Billy died of pancreatic cancer, the same disease that claimed his father in 1953 and his sister Ruth in 1983. He was 51. The cancer and a year of experimental treatments had taken a fearful physical toll. But, having already overcome so much in his life, he retained his humor and irony almost to the end.

When Jimmy Carter was running for President in 1976, proclaiming his honesty, Billy said, “I’m the only Carter who’ll never lie to you.” Another time he said, “My mother joined the Peace Corps when she was 70, my sister Gloria is a motorcycle racer, my other sister Ruth is a Holy Roller preacher, and my brother thinks he’s going to be President of the United States. I’m really the only normal one in the family.” Billy worked hard for Jimmy’s election, but afterward the hucksters in Plains appalled him. “Maybe we should just put a tent over the entire town,” he said, “and declare the whole f—— thing a circus.”

Soon enough he was the circus. When a presidential blind trust effectively cut him out of the Carter warehouse business that he had run for years, Billy began drinking heavily. He ran for mayor of Plains, and was defeated. To pay back taxes, he had to sell his property, even the filling station — “the only thing that was really mine.” He became a registered agent for Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya, with a $220,000 Libyan “loan.”

The clown had ceased to be funny. He was successfully treated for alcoholism, moved out of Plains, took a job with a mobile-home company and tried to resume a normal life. Then came the cancer. In a sense, though, it wasn’t his body that defeated him; it was the outside world. As Jimmy Carter wrote in his memoir, “He was the president’s brother, and therefore fair game.”

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