Few run for President on a set of promises to the people which they then insist on keeping once they are elected, with such conviction that it then helps them lose re-election. It was an important storyline underlining the phenomena which swept former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter into the presidency during the 1976 election, yet led to his becoming the last Democratic President to serve only one term. That was also the last year that originally-composed music was commissioned by both campaigns (here’s the story on Gerald Ford’s: https://carlanthonyonline.com/2012/08/16/the-last-original-campaign-song-jerry-fords-bicentennial-tune/).
With almost naively-rigid honesty, derived in part from his “born-again” Baptist teachings, along with a ruthless perfectionism and driving determination, the little-known Jimmy Carter literally began canvassing the nation a full two years before the 1976 presidential election, with no thought of not winning. Managing to defeat establishment Democratic Party figures, he cinched the nomination at that year’s convention in New York City. Despite a shrinking lead after an infamous Playboy magazine interview in which he spoke honestly about his occasional thoughts of adultery, the would-be President who had the audacity to express such truthful humanity still managed to eke out victory over Gerald R. Ford, the Republican and incumbent President.
The Carter campaign had begun in 1974 as an all-out effort by not just the candidate but his extended family and dozens of “Peanut Brigade” volunteers from his small, rural town of Plains, Georgia. The Carter forces went out state by state, district by district, neighborhood by neighborhood, street by street, house by house, ringing doorbells to tell people about Carter’s reputation for integrity. Among them, Jimmy Carter’s plain-spoken mother from Plains, “Miss Lillian,” with her old-fashioned southern manners yet wickedly sharp wit and modern sensibilities also began generating national press for her son.
In an increasingly automated United States, the television news segments and newspaper pictures of “Jimmy Who?” as the press initially derided him, walking all day and night across the country to speak with one voter at a time turned the perception of him as a hopeless dreamer into a potential President who might really connect with the beleaguered common man. That personal connection became a foundation for Carter’s single, most startling pledge, that, “As your President, I will never lie to you.”
It was an obvious fresh-air alternative to the lingering bitterness the country still felt after the demoralizing Watergate scandal which led to President Nixon’s 1974 resignation and the persistent yet unproven rumor that President Ford had pardoned him, in accord with some “secret deal” between them (incumbent Vice President Spiro Agnew had resigned ten months into the second Nixon term, on personal corruption charge; Nixon appointed Congressman Ford to replace him, and was confirmed by the Senate but at that time, there was no belief that Watergate might lead to Nixon’s resignation).
Carter capitalized on this, the first presidential candidates to bill himself as a “Washington outside,” and make lack of national political experience a virtue. And that was certainly telling the truth: Carter was the first career politician elected president who’d never worked in Washington as either an elected or appointed official since New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson won in 1912.
Carter would also be elected as the first President from the South since Wilson, but he represented the “New South,” not the “Old South” aristocracy.
He was a fighter for civil rights, the protection of factory and rural workers, and the poor and disadvantaged. Having tilled the famous red clay soil of Georgia on his family’s small peanut farm, which he then built into a massive and successful agri-business, Carter was proudly parsimonious. Among his promises, he wanted to pare down wasteful costs in social programs, a fact which also set him apart from his Washington-establishment Democratic rivals for the party’s nomination.
In appeal to those with little time or interest to ponder the complex issues but who voted on “personality” factors, Jimmy Carter used his authentic rural South, down-home background to visually illustrate his pledge to tell the truth, cut waste, and operate outside the system. Commercials showed him talking to average citizens in everyday places, like small-town streets, factories and coffee shops.
He became the first presidential candidate to also begin appearing without that immediate visual cue of bureaucratic Washington – the white shirt, suit and tie. Instead, color campaign photographs depicted Jimmy Carter in a open-collared blue work shirt and shock of shocks – blue jeans. More often than not, the publicity images of Carter placed him in his context – outside, in the farm fields, set among the rows of growing produce in bright green.
Carter’s 1976 campaign was the first to counter-intuitively avoid the red and blue which all previous presidential candidates had always adopted in some format to symbolize the nationalism of Washington.
Instead, every poster, button or bumper sticker produced or sanctioned by official Carter for President headquarters was simply in green and white, telegraphing an impression of environmental naturalness and rural life.
The green color theme, however, was only the visibly obvious aspect of Carter’s “branding” techniques as a presidential candidate.
What makes all of this all the more extraordinary is that, while formulating his campaign stand on global and domestic issues, raising money and doing all that walking around the country and ringing doorbells for two years before the election, Jimmy Carter also managed (many said “micro-managed”) everything else about his campaign, including the images and themes he wanted used to represent it. According to his campaign media director, it was Carter who decided on how to best sell Carter.
In preparation for the primary race, Jimmy Carter had also penned his own campaign biography, drafted without reliance on a ghostwriter. He called it Why Not the Best? In hindsight, many of his later and harshest critics said the book’s very title should have tipped people off to what they characterized as Carter’s sanctimonious egotism. Nobody could argue that the startling title at least caught the public attention. And in a further bit of candidate branding, Jimmy Carter’s official campaign song matched the book, the tune also called Why Not the Best?
In what proved to be the very last presidential campaign where both candidates had an official song, Why Not the Best? stood out for it soft, melodic quality. Unlike many presidential campaign songs where getting a catchy tune into the heads of voters was the goal and using repetitive, even silly words to simply force them into rhyme, the Carter campaign song was a ballad, with lyrics telling a tale of this unknown man walking across the country preaching his promises, almost like a hopeful apparition of the future. And when the song was used in television commercials, it was set against the footage and still pictures of him talking to people. The unmistakeable twang of country music is heard at different points, although Carter’s rural roots was not a hard-sell in the song.
Here is the song, also set to some of that original imagery it was used with during the 1976 campaign:
Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge and New York Governor Franklin Roosevelt both had a stint in Washington before succeeding and getting elected to the presidency, respectively.
Three of Jimmy Carter’s four consecutive successors, however, were all non-Washington governors of states.
Each benefited from learning the lesson of his error: you need the people of the country to send you to Washington – but you need the people in Washington to stay there. Each of them well-integrated establishment politicos into their largely regional-based, initial White House staffs.
The irony of this was that, true to his word, if also to his detriment, President Carter refused to engage in the quid pro quo of establishment Washington, making cuts which harmed local business in districts of Congressional leaders of his own party, even when they supported his agenda initially.
Nor did Americans in the late 70s want to hear his warning about the shortages and inevitably rising costs of energy which he correctly predicted.
He even refused to follow the the wise tactical advice of First Lady Rosalynn Carter to postpone for a potential second term many of his unpopular domestic initiatives, insisting he did so because he promised to do what was “right.”
Unlike his operating style, however, many of the reasons which led to his 1980 re-election defeat were out of his control, notably the Iranian Hostage Crisis.
Despite all this, Carter was never personally tied to any of the few and minor scandals of his Administration. Perhaps most startling of all is the fact that, true to his word, he never did lie as President.
- Jimmy Carter Sets Record for Longest Post-White House Career (cartercenter.org)
- Big attack sub Jimmy Carter visits San Diego (utsandiego.com)
- Ryan says Jimmy Carter era was better than Obama’s (cnsnews.com)
- Carter: Obama Succeeded Despite ‘Bitter’ Opposition (newser.com)
- Carter: Next president should improve ties to Cuba (miamiherald.com)
- Why did Obama pretty much repackage Jimmy Carter’s 1980 convention speech? (coralvillecourier.typepad.com)
- DNC Video: Message From Former President Jimmy Carter (foxnewsinsider.com)
- Jimmy Carter Speaks (webnerhouse.com)