How Jimmy Carter Does It

Nice guys may finish last, but a sweet-talking candidate for President finished first in a key Democratic presidential primary this spring, knocking most of the original contenders out of the race. The Atlantic's Washington editor followed Jimmy Carter's march through Pennsylvania, and witnessed a new kind of love story, as well as portents of trouble.

”It’s amazing, but there are still mostly nice people in this campaign ... but the sharks are already circling around—the people without whom it is supposed to be impossible to have any kind of campaign.”
—Patt Derian, Democratic national committeewoman from Mississippi, who became an early follower of Carter’s after a meeting with him in the Atlanta airport in the spring of 1975

Few members of Jimmy Carter’s inner circle are people with a national reputation, or indeed much political experience at all, except that gained at Carter’s side during his term as governor of Georgia. (That doesn’t stop some of them from being manipulative—notably campaign manager Hamilton Jordan, thirty-one, and press secretary Jody Powell, thirty-two.) Assistant press secretary Betty Rainwater joined Carter after a brief career as a singer. Carter’s ace “delegate coordinator,” Rick Hutcheson, is only twenty-four and still officially on leave from his graduate work in political science at Berkeley. Jerry Rafshoon, forty-two, designer of Carter’s effective television commercials, is an Atlanta advertising man who had the same job for Carter in the 1966 and 1970 Georgia governorship races. Greg Schneiders, twenty-nine, who is almost always at Carter’s side and controls access to him nearly as tightly as H. R. Haldeman once did for Richard Nixon, had owned and sold two restaurants in Washington and was running a food service consulting business when he heard Carter speak for the first time while on vacation in the summer of 1975. He put food service on the shelf and came to work for Carter.

Scott Douglass looks considerably older, but he is only eighteen and a high school graduate. He was a volunteer in Carter’s 1970 campaign as a junior high school student in Gainesville, Georgia, and kept in touch with the governor after he moved with his family to Virginia. Just out of high school, he spent the summer of 1975 serving voluntarily as Carter’s chauffeur and doing other odd jobs in New Hampshire; when the fall came, he decided he was having such a good time that he would postpone college, and he went on the paid campaign staff. In the Pennsylvania primary, Douglass did full-fledged advance work.

Some staff workers, like David Dunn, twenty-six, on leave from his position as an assistant attorney general of Alabama, originally came on board for short-term stints with a simple, limited priority: to help Carter knock George Wallace out of contention and out of national politics. But, in Dunn’s case, Carter worked his famous charm on him and Dunn signed up to work long hours as a regional fund-raising director at very low pay. Dick Weinstein, fifty years old, spending a sabbatical year from his law firm in Norwalk, Connecticut, walked into a Carter office in West Palm Beach, Florida, during the primary campaign there. Asked what he could do to help, he replied, “I can think.” Before long, he showed up as national chairman of “Citizens for Carter.”

But once the Carter juggernaut had begun rolling, more and more prominent figures seemed to be on hand: former Kennedy aide Ted Sorensen; William van den Heuvel, the New York society Democrat who had been close to Robert Kennedy and John Lindsay; young Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware; Frank Mankiewicz, the former campaign manager for George McGovern. There were hungry faces from the ranks of the once-prominent; among the election-night crowd at Carter headquarters in the Philadelphia Sheraton, for example, was Endicott “Chub” Peabody, former governor of Massachusetts and now a Washington lawyer eager to get back into the action. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr. was along for part of the ride.

 Soul politics

Jimmy Carter was exhausted by the time he arrived at a branch of the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh for a hastily arranged early-evening session with black voters from a neglected corner of the city. It had been a long and taxing day—handshaking outside the Homestead Works of U. S. Steel beginning just after 6 A.M., a trip deep into a coal mine at Finleyville, a speech to students at Duquesne University, a call-in radio talk show on WEEP. Arriving uncharacteristically early (Carter prides himself on sticking precisely to his schedule, never late, never early), he huddled in a back room with Congressman Andrew Young of Atlanta, Georgia State Representative Ben Brown, and other black advisers. Notably absent was Pete Flaherty, who, for all the affection he stirs in the hearts of other Pittsburghers, is not very popular with the city’s blacks.

(Carter has a special relationship with, and pays a particular deference to, blacks. The previous week, when three executives of the United workers came to the Pittsburgh Hilton and wanted to interrupt a closed meeting he was having with thirty influential local blacks, even intimations of precious labor support for his candidacy did not cause Carter to risk offending the blacks. They said no, they did not want to let the white unionists into the meeting, and so Carter had his staff send the union politicos away with the promise that he would call them when he had a chance.)

Young, Brown, and J. T. Thomas, defensive back for the Pittsburgh Steelers, gave the candiate rousing introductions and endorsements. The library hall was barely two-thirds full, counting children, even after an infusion of city sanitation workers, but Carter put in his most heartfel spellbinding performance of the day. His sleeves rolled up, his eyes glazed over with fatigue, his trademark smile faded, he told of putting Martin Luther King, Jr.’s portrait into the Georgia State Capitol while he was governor, and of his belief that “the best thing that ever happen the South is the passage of the civil rights acts … They liberated whites as well as blacks.” He spoke of his eight-year-old daughter, Amy, at school back home in Plains, where she has no idea (according to Carter) how many of the children in her class are black and how many white. And he apologized again for the “ethnic purity” line, saying those who know him well realize that that he believes that “not only do blacks have a right to equality, but blacks are equal.” Then came his flights of hyperbole, which few people other than Jimmy Carter would get away with: “I would rather die than disappoint Andrew Young or Martin Luther King, Sr. or Coleman Young.”

Part of Carter’s appeal to black people obviously comes from his ability to understand and relate to the way they see the world. He attributes some of the excesses of the Vietnam War to racism: “We wouldn’t have fire-bombed villages in England, France, or Germany.” He recognizes blacks’ new interest in American foreign policy in Africa: “In Angola, we clung to the Portuguese to the last moment ... The Cuban government, on the other hand, had learned the people’s languages, formed friendships, and studied their politics ... Our reaction was to send in weapons and let the people kill each other.” But Carter can also put a funny twist on a serious issue: “I think we can find better ambassador to send to Africa than Shirley Temple” (who has served in Ghana under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford).

After Carter concluded his speech to the black audience with an appeal that they join his “famy” and his “crusade” for the presidency, and answered a few questions, there was a tense moment as a heavyset middle-aged man rose at the front of the room, blocking the candidate’s departure and demanding to be heard. He shouted about “tokenism” and the fact that “People out here [in the black neighborhoods] are not given a chance.” Suddenly the atmosphere was electric, and here and there came a shout of “A-men.” A woman in the rear of the room strutted back and forth, waving her scarf and interjecting her own shouts: “Now let’s talk about the real issues.” “Let’s make answer the questions.” The chairman of the event looked frightened and tried to shut off this unscheduled epilogue. But Carter stayed and listened cautiously. “I’m not in favor of tokenism either,” he said meekly. In a flash, it became clear that Carter’s inquisitor was on his side after all, and he thanked the man from Georgia for being “thee only candidate to show his face in this neighhood.”

Carter smiled his smile, jumped off the stage and bounded out of the hall, shaking hands and hugging along the way. He felt good about this appearance. His motorcade worked its way through a rainstorm and an electric power failure to get to the Pittsburgh airport. There were more votes to get before the day was done, across the state in Wilkes­-Barre.

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Sanford J. Ungar, a prominent American author and journalist, was the magazine's Washington editor for many years. He is currently the president of Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland.

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