Like him, loath him or fall somewhere in between, Jimmy Carter left his mark on the American political landscape.
As Georgia’s governor, the man from Plains doesn’t stand out. He was, in fact, unexceptional in the office: it’s virtually impossible for even anyone old enough to have voted for him in 1970 to recall now any shining moment from his 1971-1975 term. Politically, he was regarded at the time as something of a “New South” candidate, representing a new generation of “progressive” politicians after the tumults of the 1960s, but that only for a brief and passing season.
Instead it was as president that he made his indelible mark. And in the appraisal of even the most objective assayers these days, he comes up far short in nearly every area of governance. In foreign policy most of all. Most tellingly, Carter’s name inevitably surfaces every time America’s longtime cold war with the terrorist state of Iran makes the news, as it does these days, and that is unlikely ever to change. His refusal to support the regime of the late Shah Reza Pahlavi, his general weakness in the face of the Islamic fundamentalist revolution in Iran and the 444-day hostage crisis involving 52 Americans at the Teheran embassy altogether is considered an low point of American world relations and a booster shot for the growth of radical Islam. That’s hard to argue against that objectively with any pretense of seriousness.
So how did this Mr. Carter manage to go to Washington?
Clay Ouzts, a professor of history at the University of North Georgia, undertook to answer that in his recent book, Showdown in the South: Jimmy Carter and the 1976 Democratic Primary (Sentry Press 2018). The book lays out how a combination of a deeply thought out strategy, a clear assessment of his main opposition and − as always amid the mercurial uncertainties of politics − a little luck cleared the way for the “Peanut Express” to reach Pennsylvania Avenue.
In full disclosure, I should say that I’ve known Clay Ouzts for over 40 years, since we both attended Elbert County Comprehensive High School. We’ve only recently become reacquainted, but I’ve had a passing familiarity with some of his work in his field over that time. That aside, he’s done fine work by any measure and this book is no exception.
The story begins not in 1976 but in 1972, when Carter served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Miami and first drew attention to himself with his nominating speech for Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington. Jackson did not get the presidential nomination that year and Carter was unsuccessful in maneuvering his way into the vice-presidential slot on the ticket of the nominee, George McGovern (who suffered a historic electoral wipe out at the hands of incumbent Richard Nixon). Carter came away from Miami, however, with his appetite for the White House well whetted.
Enter his young staffer and political adviser, the late Hamilton Jordan. Jordan drew up a three-stage plan that he believed would propel Carter to the 1976 Democratic nomination. It called for Carter to win the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary as a strong entry to the Florida primary in March 1976.
Carter started campaigning in Florida in January 1975, building his base especially in central Florida − what Jordan called the “I-4 strategy,” focused on the areas connected by that interstate highway. He did go into Florida with wins in Iowa and New Hampshire behind him, there to face Henry Jackson, with whom he was on good terms, and Alabama governor George Wallace, with whom he wasn’t. Wallace and Carter in face represented the Janus faces of the Democratic Party in the South and the battle between the two of them especially had a lot on the line.
Carter won the primary, Jordan’s plan showed its sagacity and Outz’s book is the well-researched and well-written explanation of the hows and whys of that. I’m no fan of Carter or of his politics and certainly not of his legacy. I did, however, come away from the book with a great respect for his drive and tenacity, as well as his political acumen in campaigns. He was far better at winning campaigns than in serving the offices he won. That he and his legacy deserve serious scholarship of this sort is of course incontrovertible.
Ouzts is balanced in his appraisal of Carter, meaning this is no hagiography even though I suspect he rates Carter higher than I do. He writes forthrightly, for example, about Carter very much overselling his humble roots as just a peanut farmer from Plains. In one instance Outz relates how Carter’s sister contradicted his claim to when a boy have arisen at 4:30 in the mornings to plow in the fields. In fact, the Carters were wealthy by the standards of the community. James Earle Carter, Sr. was not only a farmer but he owned the local general store, which in the rural South of the time made him both something of a banker and political boss in the community. Indeed, when the elder Carter died, his estate included over 3,000 acres of farmland, peanut warehouses and, reportedly, over one million dollars in cash.
The book is a 335-page excursion into, by modern standards, political ancient history. But it should be essential reading for anyone, scholar or layman, interested in the long running story of how we got here from back beyond there.