The Mercury News Weekend

Jimmy Carter was good fit for post-Watergate America

- By George Skelton George Skelton is a Los Angeles Times columnist.

“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 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 last weekend 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 disgraced President Nixon's Watergate scandal and years of protests against the Vietnam War. The country also was weary from a decade of fighting over civil rights.

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, during the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses, Carter needed to identify himself because hardly anyone outside Georgia had heard much about the guy. He began the campaign with only 4% national support in a Gallup poll. But within the next two months, he would outdistanc­e a crowded field — including California Gov. Jerry Brown — and become the party's front-runner.

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. And it reminded people of how swiftly he had climbed the steep political ladder.

And he'd always promise, in another trademark line — this one spoken without grinning: “I will never mislead you; I will never tell you a lie.”

“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. Unlike many politician­s then and especially today, 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.”

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