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Tuesday, November 28, 2023
Nov. 28, 2023

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Skelton: Carter was good fit for post-Watergate America


‘My name is Jimmy Carter, and I’m running for president.” And he’d grin. Always that friendly, down-home grin.

That’s how the Georgia peanut farmer and former governor began every campaign speech I heard during the unique election year of 1976. And I heard many of them while covering Carter for the Los Angeles Times from early January through the Democratic convention in mid-July. After that, I covered Carter’s November opponent, Republican President Gerald Ford, whom the sure-footed Washington outsider narrowly defeated.

I’ve thought a lot about 1976 since the announcement that the 98-year-old former president had entered hospice care at home and decided to forgo “additional medical intervention.”

Carter was a terrific presidential candidate in 1976 — politically, the right person at the right time. It’s not likely we’ll find such a candidate or experience such a time in the foreseeable future, if ever. A Jimmy Carter probably wouldn’t be accepted by voters today. They’d see his smile as a sign of weakness.

But he meshed perfectly with the cynical mood in 1976. It was a decidedly anti-Washington time after the Watergate scandal and years of protests against the Vietnam War. People were looking for a calm, straight-shooting, honest leader and thought they’d found him in Carter.

As it turned out, the intense, idealistic, perhaps naive Democrat from tiny Plains, Ga., was not a good fit for the sharp elbows in Washington and was walloped in 1980 by another former governor, California Republican Ronald Reagan.

Afterward, Carter arguably became America’s greatest ex-president with his humanitarian and diplomatic contributions. And that’s how he’ll be remembered by most Americans.

But back in 1976, Carter needed to identify himself because hardly anyone outside Georgia had heard much about the guy. He began the campaign with only 4 percent national support in a Gallup poll.

Even after attaining a high name ID, the grinning Carter kept identifying himself at the start of every speech — including his nomination acceptance speech — because that became his trademark opener.

“What the voters are looking for,” he said in a TV interview, “is someone who can run the government competently, who understands their problems and will tell the truth. … We’re not dealing in ideologies this year.”

I found Carter easy and exciting to cover. He was very accessible and not afraid to banter with reporters. In the early campaign days, he’d travel many miles to be interviewed by a small-town Iowa newspaper reporter. Later, he’d routinely set up news conferences on downtown sidewalks.

He realized that’s how a candidate could connect with the public.

Carter was a farm boy at heart, but showed in the Illinois primary he could also deal with machine bosses — namely Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. Elsewhere, Carter attacked political pros. But in Chicago, he and Daley developed a strong political alliance.

At the opposite end of the world, there was charming and comfy Plains, population 683. One fascinating day I covered Carter in his hometown.

Town folks gathered around a loading dock to watch reporters sitting in swings and rocking chairs query the future president. A freight train interrupted.

“We’ll have to wait until the train goes by. It’s not a frequent occurrence,” Carter said. “But it’s the custom in Plains to watch the train go by.”

I’ll remember Carter in 1976 for his energy and self-confidence — a small-town peanut farmer who knew he could compete against the big boys.

And I’ll always visualize that perpetual, welcoming grin.

George Skelton is political columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

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