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.
Is a fib a lie?

Many national reporters covering Carter probably are rougher on him than on candidates who speak in the familiar Washington idiom. They catch his contradictions and his minor outrages in circumstances where they might let others’ slip by. Of course, Carter does set himself up for some of this scrutiny, with his assertions that he will never ever tell a lie or make a “misleading statement,” that he reads a chapter of the Bible in Spanish every night, or that he often makes as many as 120 long-distance phone calls a day in search of support. One form of sport on his press bus is to hunt for little fibs and exaggerations: Was Carter really at the plant gate by daybreak, or was it already light out when he left the hotel? Were those actually tears in the workers’ eyes when they shook FDR Jr.’s hand, or was it drizzling? Were there 2,000 black medical students in that audience when he delivered his speech on national health insurance, or just a few hundred?

Carter returns the favor by showing an unusually detailed interest in the inner workings of the press, more so than any presidential candidate since John F. Kennedy. He is familiar with deadlines, and understands the difference between what will make news in a small town and what on the national level. He has his own list of “enemies” in the press, believes that some of the negative articles about him are motivated by pure maliciousness, and forgives very slowly, if ever, for any coverage that he considers unfair.

No big shots

The Muzak at the Berks County Municipal Airport was playing an instrumental version of “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” as Jimmy Carter’s chartered United Airlines 727 jet approached from its forty-mile hop over the hills from Philadelphia for a two-and-a-half-hour visit to Reading.

Carter’s political pollster Pat Caddell had advised the campaign staff to hit as many small towns and rural areas as possible to help overcome the lead that organized labor and the professional politicians were expected to build up for Scoop Jackson in Philadelphia and other cities. Originally, Carter had been booked into Lancaster; but after Rosalynn Carter spent an infuriating six hours in that arch-Republican town and found only a handful of Democrats to talk to, she told Jimmy he could use his time more wisely elsewhere. So Carter gave his staff an unequivocal “no Lancaster” order, and they sent him instead to Reading, population 87,643, on the Democratic side of Pennsylvania Dutch country.

The chief greeter on hand for the occasion was State Senator Mike O’Pake, a trim, thirty-six-year-old man with television makeup spread thickly on his upper lip. O’Pake had never met Jimmy Carter before, and did not really know that much about the candidate. He had been recruited to the cause eight days earlier when the Carter people came through looking for an independent-minded Democratic politician who would fit the Carter mold. O’Pake was just right for the team, because he had defeated an older incumbent Democratic state senator in the last election after only a few years in the state House of Representatives.

With O’Pake were two farmers, Harold Burgert, a member of his agricultural advisory committee, and Warren Lamm, who had been christened just a few days earlier “Berks County coordinator” of the Carter campaign. Both of them, dressed in city clothes and speaking in an authentic Pennsylvania Dutch accent, told of their enthusiasm for Carter and their eagerness to be back in the Democratic mainstream after feeling alienated from George McGovern’s candidacy in 1972 (”He was too liberal for the farmer”). Carter’s philosophy of government, said Lamm, “is almost identical to my own: Everybody is entitled to a fair shake. No special interest groups.”

Burgert and Lamm were pleased that Jimmy Carter was coming to Reading; his visit recalled for them the fact that President Kennedy had been there twice in his political career. Carter gave his stock stump speech in the chapel of Albright College, a small, Methodist-supported institution. “We’ve lost our vision of what the country ought to be,” he said, yet offered reassurance that “our economic system is still strong, our system of government the best on earth.” Since the students were inclined to be suspicious of big-city bosses like Mayor Frank Rizzo of Philadelphia, they applauded Carter’s assertion that “I don’t depend on people like Rizzo to put me in office … I go right to the people.” A middle-class group like most of the audiences Carter addresses, they responded when he said, “I don’t intend to be a big shot, even when I’m President” with applause, cheers, and whistles. Carter answered their questions about religion (”I believe very strongly in the separation of church and state”), the Middle East (”I believe we have a commitment to preseve Israel’s right to exist”), jobs (”I know what it means to work for a living”), and the postal service (“I don’t know the answer”); but he evaded one about tax breaks for single people. And, anxious to dispel his image of being “vague on the issues,” he promised that if his listeners wrote to him at “P.O Box 1976—that’s this year—Atlanta, Georgia,” with questions on everything from amnesty and abortion to Korea and the Panama Canal, they would promptly receive detailed answers, position papers and printed speeches in reply.

Later, when the votes were counted in Berks County, Jimmy Carter had almost as many Scoop Jackson and Mo Udall combined.

A counter-organization

”I’m an organization man. If I have to take Carter, I’ll take him, but I’ll have to swallow hard ... . He scares the hell out of me.”
— Martin L. Murray, Democrat of Ashley, president pro tempore of the Pennsylvania State Senate on the morning of the primary.

The professional politicians take a dim view of Jimmy Carter, in part because he is an upstart who has not paid his dues. “Oh sure, he’s wearing well with certain people,” John R. Torquatl, chairman of the Cambria County Democratic Committee for the last thirty-six years, national committeeman from the last for ten, and a member of the governor’s cabinet twenty years ago; “but at the convention, you have different people.” He recalled his own role in when Estes Kefauver came to the convention in a strong position but the pros got together a late draft of Adlai Stevenson. Carter would be with Torquatl—in another four or eight years.

Conventions? Jimmy Carter has been to only one, in 1972. That was when, as governor of Georgia, he delivered the nominating speech for Scoop Jackson; and since they have been slinging at each other, that footnote to history is something of an embarssment. Carter’s private explanation is that back in the early 1950s, when he was in the Navy submarine program, he had known Jackson a young congressman; more to the point, when Carter had lunch with his political mentor Senator Richard Russell shortly before Russell’s death in 1971, the Senator told him, “Keep your eye on Scoop. He’s too liberal on civil rights, but he’s a good man.” Carter did more than that. He invited Jackson to be the keynote speaker at the Georgia Democratic party’s first Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner after he was elected governor. One thing led to another, and Carter (although he now says he was already disgusted with Jackson’s exploitation of the busing issue back in 1972) eagerly accepted the chance to nominate Jackson: “I was honored to make a speech at all at a national convention.” But things have changed. “As I’ve learnedmore about [Jackson], I don’t feel so close to him anymore,” Carter says cryptically. The change of heart seems to date roughly from the fall of 1972, when Jimmy Carter decided he would like to try to become President himself.

What age and decline had not already done to the dreary block of East Market Street in Wilkes-Barre between Washington and Pennsylvania Avenue was taken care of by the destructive flood caused by Hurricane Agnes in 1972. Except for a refurbished City Hall, the once-grand buildings now sit mostly empty, waiting their turn before the wrecking ball of redevelopment. One storefront in the middle of the block enjoyed a brief revival for the month of April, however, when it was rented for $100, cleaned out and converted into the Luzerne County
Carter-for-President headquarters. There Tom Menino, who is a management specialist in the Massachusetts Department of Community Affairs and a crony of State Senator Joseph Timilty of Boston—an ardent Carter man—spent his vacation supervising a phone bank and other aspects of a nuts-and-bolts campaign effort. Most of the volunteers working with him were veterans of other primary states and were well experienced at selling their man to strangers.

“They laughed when they sent us here,” said Kristina Kiehl, because the local Democratic machine was strongly behind Jackson, and Pat Cadell’s surveys showed the northeastern corner of the state to be Carter’s weakest area after Philadelphia. But the people had turned out to be friendly and the turf fertile, so the task had become more fun than anticipated. The volunteers were intrigued to find that in this city many men—unemployed coal miners whose wives were now the breadwinners—answered daytime phone calls.

Kiehl, a South Carolinian now living in Connecticut, chuckled as she turned her face toward the telephone receiver and switched on the thickest drawl of her native land to offer a voter a ride to the polls. Southern accents were what Wilkes-Barreans expected of these mysterious Carter people, so why not give it to them if you had one?

There was no shortage of southern accents fifteen miles up the road in Scranton, where a troupe of eighteen Carter volunteers, less conventional in the recent annals of American politics than the young people in Wilkes-Barre, made their rounds during the week before the primary. They were the middle-aged “Georgians for Jimmy.” Frank and Frances Neel, grandparents of six and owners of an air-conditioning business in Thomasville, Georgia, the organizers of the group, had been assigned to Scranton. (The Neels had also worked in New Hampshire, the Florida panhandle, North Carolina, and Wisconsin.) They came expecting to find a million people in Scranton, but had to settle for a community of just over 100,000 instead. So much the better. They organized the city into sections, canvassed door-to-door every day but Sunday (”Jimmy won’t let us work on Sunday, except at shopping centers”), and covered an estimated 7,200 homes. The only expenses paid out of campaign funds were for rental cars, and with airfare, hotel bills, gas for the cars, and other incidentals, the Neels’ cost for the week would come to well over $500.

Why did they do it? Because, they explain, they are proud of their native son and his performance as governor. (They first met him in his 1970 campaign, and Mr. Neel later served on Carter’s Georgia Board of Industry and Trade.) They see him as a fine example of the South, in contrast to George Wallace, whom they consider “a hate man.” And as lifelong Democrats, they consider a Carter nomination an opportunity for themselves and southerners like them to return to the fold after voting for Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972.

Jimmy Carter outpolled Scoop Jackson by 1,200 votes in Luzerne County (Wilkes-Barre) and by more than 7,000 in Lackawanna County (Scranton).


The Carter appeal took hold in Pennsylvania, and the strategy worked beyond even the candidate’s wildest expectations. Udall’s campaign failed to catch fire, and the Arizona congressman drew only 19 percent of the votes in the presidential preference primary. Jackson’s coalition of labor and the bosses fell completely apart. In a last-minute desperation measure, he abandoned some of his own convention delegates and instead threw his support behind uncommitted delegate candidates who seemed more electable and were willing to promise privately to vote for him at the convention. That just left the voters more confused; Jackson got only 25 percent of the preference vote and a handful of delegates.

Carter, on the other hand, drew 37 percent of the popular vote and won more than sixty delegates—a figure that was all the more astonishing because most of the Carter delegate candidates were political unknowns. The early filing date for the Pennsylvania primary had meant that Rick Hutcheson had to come through the state in January, before Carter gained prestige from his crucial victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, and select Carter delegate slates from lists of campaign contributors and student volunteers. Even some of the uncommitted delegates chosen for the convention—including Mayor Pete Flaherty’s wife and former Senator Joseph S. Clark—were more or less openly for Carter. And back in the crowds that Carter drew in many parts of Pennsylvania were clusters of Republicans who said they were “just waiting” for their chance to support him in November.

Pennsylvania primary day was April 27. When the returns were in, Scoop Jackson became the seventh Democratic contender to abandon this year’s race. And Hubert Humphrey, poised and ready to take one last fling at the presidency, thought again, choked back some tears, and got out of Jimmy Carter’s way.


”You know, he looks like an older version of John F. Kennedy.”
“Yeah, he does. I wonder if he has the same morals.”

—Exchange between two women who have just shaken hands with Jimmy Carter during his noontime walk through Market Square in Pittsburgh with Mayor Pete Flaherty.

The mention of President Kennedy and the obvious parallels—some accidental but some, surely, by design—are among the most striking features of any time on the road with Jimmy Carter. Yet even the Kennedy myth is no longer intact. It is not enough to compare this candidate to Kennedy, and a good many of Carter’s listeners and observers come away uncertain about what kind of man he really is, what kind of President he would be.

Carter says that he would appoint both blacls and women to his Cabinet and listen to them rather than treat them as tokens; he promises to have a high-level adviser on the needs and problems of the elderly. During his first week in office, he claims, he would grant a blanket pardon (but not full amnesty) to all Vietnam War draft evaders and deserters, permitting them to come home without fear of punishment. He says would establish a system of “zero-base budgeting” that would require every existing federal program to rejustify itself every year.

But there are also portents of battles between Congress and the executive more bitter even than those of recent years. Carter says he would demand that anybody running in November on a ticket with him—all Democratic congressional senatorial candidates—support his as yet unspecified proposals for a sweeping reorganization of the government, and then work with him to implement the program. “The Founding Fathers never intended that Congress would lead the country,” he says. “Only a President can do that.” If the remarks of his staff at unguarded moments and some of his own lapses in public are taken seriously, there emerges a dark side to Carter’s loving personality: he can come off as an angry, brittle, impatient man. Private criticism, which contrasts so sharply to the popular adulation he has been receiving, makes him pout and fume.

Who are Jimmy Carter’s heroes and models? Harry S Truman was his favorite President, he told me, and was so years before Truman came into vogue among Democrats and Republicans alike: “He was humble and courageous. . . He had vision about the future—in handling Europe, the United States, Israel, and General MacArthur. He was meticulously honest and truthful; I don’t believe he ever lied to the people ... and I’ve never had that feeling about any President since.” But then the Kennedy name comes up again, this time raised by Carter himself. “I can see in retrospect what President Kennedy meant to the deprived people in this country and abroad . . He never really did that much for them, but he made them think he cared.” Lyndon Johnson did far more for people, Carter observes, but he failed to reach them as Kennedy had.

What was Kennedy’s trick? Carter pauses and stares blankly. “I don’t know. Maybe there was no trick. Maybe he really cared about them.”

Presented by

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.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Confessions of Moms Around the World

A global look at the hardest and best job ever


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open for 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In