Peanut farmer James Earl “Jimmy” Carter, Jr., our 39th commander in chief often mocked as president but revered as ex-president, entered hospice in February and I began writing this in May, anticipating his imminent demise. But the man has laughed at fate, so today he celebrates his 99th birthday. Still alive but already part of our nation’s history, he is also a small part of my history.
As his one-term presidency neared its end, in December 1980, his last Christmas as our elected leader loomed. He would be returning to his roots, the tiny country town of Plains, an unknown dot on the map in central Georgia that only Carter’s presidency could elevate to a national dateline.
The press corps regulars had had enough, so the Washington Post in its infinite wisdom plucked me from relative obscurity on its Metro staff to do the duty no one else wanted. To prep for the trip, an extended weekend, my colleague Milton Coleman, who had walked the White House beat and would end his Post career years later as deputy managing editor, took me to lunch at the Madison Hotel, across 15th Street from the newspaper.
From him I learned about “Jimmy junk,” the ephemera I would find in Jimmy’s cousin Hugh Carter’s antique store on Plains’ main street. I would bring home lots of it, all peanut-themed. These included a peanut coffee mug with ceramic Jimmy’s wide smile, a plaster Jimmy in farmer’s overalls perched on a large peanut, and a Jimmy Carter “Happy Mouth Bottle Opener” (made in Japan) for $4.95 from “Hugh Carter’s Antiques, Plains, Ga.,” the sticker says.
Excitedly, I arrived at Andrews Air Force Base, in Camp Springs, Maryland, at zero-dark thirty a few days before Christmas. There I boarded Air Force One. Most of the press corps had its own plane (with much better food, I later learned), but, despite or maybe because of my junior status, I managed to be part of the “pool” that would report to the other reporters what they had missed by eating so well if not so prestigiously. In fact, our breakfast consisted of runny scrambled eggs and bacon. This confirmed Carter’s reputation as being preternaturally cheap, determined that we would not dine large at taxpayer expense.
We were flying not directly to Plains, which had nothing resembling an airport, certainly none that could accommodate Air Force One. Instead we landed at Robbins Air Force Base, some 78 miles north of Plains. There, supplied with ear plugs, we boarded a helicopter for the short hop to Plains. There were no motels there, no beds and breakfast, no air b and b’s. Some farmland had been rezoned for a 90-unit motel in 1977, but it had never been built. The only place to stay was the Best Western in Americus, 10 miles up a country road. This was brother Billy Carter’s favorite hangout, especially for breakfast, and we indeed saw him there. Later, trading on his presidential brother’s name, came Billy Beer. I bought a case and kept it way too long, well after its market value had peaked and plummeted, and finally sold it for $40 or $50.
As the pool reporter, I was stationed outside the pond house home of Miss Lilliam, Jimmy’s mother, for several hours, notable for its absence of anything notable. But on Dec. 25, 27 and 29, 1980, my byline appeared on the front page of the Washington Post from Plains. “Carter Firmly Defends Economic Record,” was the first day’s headline, with the subhead “Nation Has ‘a Lot to Be Thankful For.’” Dateline: PLAINS, Ga., Dec. 24.
In a sidewalk “press conference,” interrupting his walk along the town’s modest main street, Carter spoke of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which had happened the previous Dec. 27. It was, he said, a “serious mistake” that had cost the the Soviets economically and politically with the “world-wide public condemnation of their aggression.” His remark now seems very current.
Two days later, there was another front-page story with no dateline and a shared byline with Cass Peterson, an editor on the National news desk, combining wires and my reporting. Years later, she would copy edit some of my New York Times “Square Feet” commercial real estate stories. The headline read: “Hostages Apparently Well; White House Is Cautious.”
We did not know then that former Texas governor John Connally had urged Iran, through Middle East intermediaries, to delay their release to get a better deal, until after Ronald Reagan’s election. There would be no “October surprise” of a release, an invaluable turn of events to help the Democratic cause. The delay had almost certainly contributed to Carter’s loss. It had also, cynically, delayed freedom for the 52 American hostages.
Finally, on Dec. 29, my favorite, a feature about Plains in transition from the home of the president to the home of the former president, appeared on the front page of the Washington Post. The headline: “In Plains, Transition Is Just Beginning.”
The unreported and surprise highlight for me came on Christmas evening, when the ABC-TV network threw an off-the-record party at its Quonset hut headquarters in Plains, with the Carters–Rosalynn and Jimmy–attending. Esteemed members of the press clustered around the lame duck president. As I stood on the periphery, Carter noticed and singled me out. “You’ve never been here before, have you?” he asked. No, I replied. We then spoke for a few minutes about matters of mutual interest unrelated to politics.
First Daughter Amy was attending Hardy Junior High in the District of Columbia. There would be no Sidwell Friends or other private school for this president’s child. As it so happened, my son Eric was attending the “lower school” of Georgetown Day a short walk from Hardy. We also talked about the Chesapeake Bay, where Carter liked to fish during his presidency. It was a casual conversation, and I still recall it warmly. No artifice, no pandering, just a friendly chat.
Then: New Year’s Eve in Plains. Or, more accurately, at the Best Western in Americus. The White House press corps, such as it was, drank a lot, caroused a lot. We sang the theme from New York, New York: “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” How ironic that the man from a tiny town so culturally and geographically far from the Big Apple had made it all the way to the White House. Even if it wasn’t New York. Even if he hadn’t been reelected.
At last, after no more than four days, it was time to leave. Carter was off to Camp David, his mixed presidency almost over, the hostages still held captive in Iran. They would not be released until the day of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration three weeks later, a final insult to Jimmy Carter. I would almost immediately be sent to the Scranton-Wilkes Barre area to welcome home State Department hostage Michael Metrinko. But that is another story for another time.
So as we prepared to leave the hometown of the almost former president, we climbed on board another military helicopter for the short flight back to Robbins, and then on Air Force One back to Andrews. But not so fast. Jimmy had stopped to shake the hands of well-wishers standing along a rope line at the edge of the field. Which meant we had to be there with him. As we ran across the field full of burs to reach Jimmy pressing the flesh, the Associated Press reporter who was running alongside me shouted out, “The son of a bitch deserved to lose.”
He seems, however, to have won the longevity race as the oldest living ex-president. Nearly forty-four years after my Plains adventure, it’s still premature to solemnly send my heartfelt condolences and to write “R.I.P., Jimmy Carter.” Instead, my message today is simply this:
Happy Birthday, Mr. President. I knew you when.