A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
An unlikely sequence of events, for sure.
Suddenly, at age 32, I find myself near the very top of our nation’s political power structure. The country has a new president and I'm working for him -- in the White House.
It’s January of 1977. What a difference a year can make!
Here's what happened.
Early in 1976, I'm ready to make some career change after a rewarding decade in television news. But leave journalism? To do what?
It’s an election year. Candidates at every level of government are gearing up campaigns. Among them is Georgia’s governor, a Democrat repeatedly declaring that “I’m Jimmy Carter and I’m running for President of the United States.”
Like many others, I’m skeptical. Can he really capture his party’s top nomination? Can he lead the nation? I had met the self-described “peanut farmer” a couple of years ago at a conference. I found him rather unimpressive.
But things take an unexpected turn after I tell some of my colleagues that I’d like to find a new job. One of them, a TV correspondent, is covering the Carter campaign. To do me a favor, he tells the candidate’s top media adviser, Jody Powell, to hire me, saying I can get Carter more and better TV exposure – just what he wants and needs.
So Powell invites me to talk one night at a bar in New Hampshire. Carter and his team are in the state because the first Democratic A few days after my conversation with Powell, I’m told Carter will interview me. To prepare, I hurriedly read his autobiography and go to watch him perform at events.
At the outset, I’m nervous, as you can imagine. Carter’s first question centers on how I'd try to change him or his style. I say I can let him know how TV reporters and other journalists might react to his comments. After only a few more inquiries, he asks Powell to join us.
“This fellow can probably help us if he wants to,” he says.
With that, I become a member of his campaign staff.
Success comes quickly. When Carter wins in New Hampshire on February 24, I’m ready with a carefully organized plan for him to talk to the media as soon as results are clear. By night’s end, news coverage for him is like crowning a victorious fighter and helps to propel him immediately into front-runner status.
As Carter rolls on, winning the next two big primaries in Florida and Wisconsin, I’m changing my mind about him. I’m struck by his intelligence, style of campaigning and ability to “read” crowds.
One day, while riding in a car with him, there’s time to talk a little. I’m curious about the way he tends to refer to the birth of his only daughter Amy, who is much younger than his three sons.
“I notice that you often tell crowds that you and Rosalynn deliberated for 14 years before deciding to have Amy. Why this story?” I ask.
Looking at me with piercing blue eyes, Carter replies with a question of his own. “You’re divorced, aren’t you?”
While I nod, surprised that he knows, he goes on.
“So you might not know that married couples often discuss this subject," he says. "Telling that true story sets me up in automatic touch with many, perhaps most, in the audience.”
I just nod again, considering the meaning of his words.
Over time, I get the impression that the 51-year-old candidate has come to trust my instincts even though I’m much younger, and might even value having me around.
But I don’t do myself much good one afternoon in New York City, when I’m riding with him again and we’re about to pass my apartment on Madison Avenue. It dawns on me that I left my briefcase there. How stupid! I foolishly mutter about it, loudly enough for Carter to hear.
“Stop the car,” he orders “Go get it, but be quick.”
While Carter and our six-car motorcade wait, I race up the steps to my place on the third floor and down just as fast. It’s pretty embarrassing.
But not long afterward, I see a Carter blunder, too.
Although he proudly tells people how much he likes to teach at Sunday school classes, he slips up while being interviewed for a profile in Playboy Magazine. When the article is published, he is quoted as saying, “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.”
For weeks, I and others on the staff try to explain away that flagrancy. It has limited impact, though.
By July, when the Democratic national convention gets underway, Carter has the nomination locked up. And soon after it ends, he puts high priority on three debates which he’ll have with incumbent President Jerry Ford.
Everybody with some significant responsibility in the campaign shifts to debate “preparation mode,” producing “briefing books” for Carter. And he takes time to study them exhaustively. The hard work pays off. Carter gets through the debates without a major error.
On November 2, he narrowly wins the race by about 2 million votes -- becoming the 39th president and the first elected from the "deep south" in more than a century.
It’s exciting to see Carter take the oath of office at the U.S. Capitol on January 20 , and later that day, when I'm on the White House lawn watching the inauguration parade, I realize I can’t wait to start work as the “special assistant to the president for media and public affairs.”
With a first-rate staff of five people and a spacious office, I think I’m sometimes seen as “a power player” in the new government. Over the next two years, my duties and my experiences range widely – from management of Carter’s travels around the world to helping him fulfill campaign promises that he will “stay in close touch" with American citizens.
Two of my most memorable moments occur very soon.
After only 12 days in office, Carter gives his first address to the nation -- focusing on the need to conserve energy and preserve America’s natural resources.
In advance, he tells us to have an informal setting for him while he talks about these serious matters. What to wear? Rosalynn has a suggestion.
“Why don’t you wear that nice sweater that Chip (a son) gave you for Christmas?” she asks.
We all agree that's a good idea, and Carter does it.
The speech draws praise, but there's some criticism from people who think the sweater was a mistake and he should’ve worn a suit to appear more presidential.
A month later, after Carter decides to explain some of his policies in more personal ways, we stage the first ever presidential call-in program on radio. My part is to arrange for that with CBS News, my old employer.
It’s a huge success, running almost two hours with the legendary CBS TV anchorman Walter Cronkite serving as moderator. Carter fields questions from 42 lucky people out of an estimated 9 million who try to speak to him on a toll free number
In the months that follow, I get the feeling that Carter finds me effective in various capacities and that he is satisfied most of the time with my performance, including preparations for news conferences. With his lightning fast mind, Carter is outstanding during those live, nationally televised events.
I also sense that Carter connects very well with TV viewers because he can come across as truthful. So I consistently seek to give him opportunities to be a chief executive who is as open and transparent as possible.
Gradually, though, the road gets rougher for Carter as he tries to promote political change on a treacherous world stage. He faces mounting criticism for economic inflation, rising oil prices and other problems at home and abroad.
That doesn’t change my view that Carter should stay the course and continue to put policy above politics as often as he can. But some people with a lot of influence do not agree, including the key polling and advertising advisers who are concerned about re-election prospects.
For these people, the best strategy is “a permanent campaign.” They want to minimize the sort of spontaneity that I favor. Their plan: stick to “talking points” and stay “on message” to showcase achievements and support for popular initiatives.
Unfortunately for me, it turns out that Rosalynn Carter is supporting that approach for her husband rather than mine. She thinks the change would enable Carter to get more recognition for his accomplishments.
Realizing that I have to talk to Carter about this, I ask for time to see him in the Oval Office. When I meet with him, he's warm. At the end, he wishes me good luck, asks me to stay around in some other role, but says there is “a philosophical difference” about the way forward.
I offer my resignation as his special assistant, and he accepts it on generous terms. So I was headed for a new assignment on the staff of the National Security Council, bringing together my skills in journalism with a chance to help the President continue his march.
Eventually, I was proud to see Carter survive well into his ninth decade -- living longer than all previous chief executives -- and often described as the most successful of them after leaving office.
Barry Jagoda, an Emmy winning journalist, also wrote a book about his time with Jimmy Carter