Carter Blast a Reminder of His ’70 ‘Dark Campaign’
“I think as far as the adverse impact on our nation around the world, this administration has been the worst in history.”
So said Jimmy Carter about the Bush Administration in his recent, celebrated interview with the Arkansas Gazette. The 39th President coupled his salvo at the 43rd with a shot at outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair as “abominable” for supporting George W. Bush in the Iraqi War.
Strong medicine, and especially from the man whose Sunday school teaching, labor with Habitat for Humanity and pursuit of international mediation led liberal New York Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo to dub him “the nation’s best ex-President.”
To many elder statesmen in Georgia, however, their former governor’s over-the-top outburst and subsequent attempt to retreat from his harsh words were no surprise. Rather, they evoked the vitriolic 1970 campaign that is a part of his life that the 82-year-old Carter has written of only in passing and has never spoken about publicly. He has told friends that he “felt bad” about it and prayed for forgiveness.
In 1966, then-State Sen. Jimmy Carter ran for governor of Georgia as a racial moderate and progressive Democrat. He placed third in the Democratic primary eventually won by arch-segregationist Lester Maddox.
Four years later, with Maddox termed out, Carter planned to run again. But all signs indicated this was a hopeless mission: Carl Sanders, who had won national recognition as a spokesman for the “New South” while governor from 1962-66, decided to run for a second, non-consecutive term. During Sanders’ stint in the governorship, Georgia had lured new industry to the state and improved its infrastructure, and blacks were permitted to serve in the legislature for the first time. In contrast to Mississippi and Alabama, there was almost no racial turmoil in the Peach State during the Sanders era, and the governor enjoyed an excellent working relationship with the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations.
When the 45-year-old Sanders announced his comeback bid in 1970, most Georgia Democrats appeared to agree with his slogan: “Carl Sanders Should Be Governor Again.” A poll taken for Carter in September 1969 showed Sanders beating him among likely primary voters 53% to 21%.
“Some images have to be projected regarding Carl Sanders,” Carter wrote in a pre-campaign memo, “more liberal … pretty boy … nouveau riche … excluded George Wallace from the state….You can see some of these are conflicting, but right now we just need to collect all these rough ideas we can.”
They did. Slamming his opponent as “Cufflinks Carl” (a term actually coined by a Republican but popularized by Carter), the Plains peanut farmer styled himself as a “working man” and “basically a redneck.” In contrast, he denounced Sanders as a rich man, handmaiden of the Atlanta business community and major newspapers, and someone who used the governorship to enrich himself.
“This is the door to an exclusive country club,” blared a Carter TV spot crafted by media maestro Gerald Rafshoon that showed a private club, where, it said, “The big money boys play cards, drink cocktails and raise money for their candidate—Carl Sanders. People like us aren’t invited. We’re busy working for a living. That’s why our votes are going for Jimmy Carter—our kind of man, our kind of governor.”
At a time when white backlash was mounting against court-ordered school integration and outgoing Gov. Maddox was immensely popular, Carter played the “race card.” As Sanders biographer James Cook noted, Carter “made a point of visiting a segregated academy, cozying up to George Wallace and Lester Maddox and injecting profanity into his speeches.” Such tactics won Carter the support of such rabid segregationists as former Gov. (1954-58) Marvin Griffin and political operative Roy Harris of Augusta, who had run Wallace’s winning campaign in Georgia in the 1968 presidential election. (Of that campaign, Harris said: “When you get down to it, there’s only one issue … and you spell it ‘n—-r..’")
Although Carter actually differed little on issues from fellow progressive Democrat Sanders, he relentlessly linked his opponent to national Democrats in an effort to woo the Wallace-Maddox vote. “I don’t think Hubert Humphrey has a right to come into Georgia and tell us who our next governor should be,” declared Carter, reminding audiences of Sanders’ friendship with the Democrat who had placed third in their state in the race for President two years before.
“Jimmy the Fabricator,” is how Sanders dismissed his opponent. “He has absolutely no credibility as a responsible candidate.” When the former governor finally gave in to Carter’s demands that he release his net worth, it turned out that his wealth was $685,624 — not much more than Carter’s $366,000, which excluded the value of his 2,000-acre farm. As for Carter’s charge that Sanders was a tool of the Atlanta “big boys,” Carter had his own high-powered support in Atlanta — “superlawyers” Charles Kirbo and David Gambrell and Atlanta Constitution and Journal owner Anne Cox Chambers, the largest single contributor ($26,000) to the Carter campaign.
(Despite Mrs. Chambers’ ownership, both Atlanta dailies endorsed Sanders, as did 51 other newspapers throughout Georgia. Only one major daily, the Columbus Enquirer, endorsed Carter.)
In the days before the September 9 primary, thousands of “fact sheets” blanketed Georgia’s white Baptist communities and lawmen. One showed Sanders, a part owner of the Atlanta Hawks basketball team, being doused with champagne by Hawks star Lou Hudson, an African-American—“a dangerous smear that interjected both race, alcohol and high-living” into the campaign, pundit Bill Shipp wrote in the Atlanta Constitution. Another sheet pointed out Sanders had attended the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Carter had not). Still another claimed an alliance between Sanders and Julian Bond, the civil rights leader who had been seated in the state legislature after a protracted court battle.
Carter would deny he had anything to do with the leaflets. But two former vice presidents of the Rafshoon agency later insisted that the Lou Hudson campaign leaflet was prepared by the Carter camp and boxed at the agency office.
On September 9, Carter stunned the press, pollsters, most politicians and Sanders himself by leading the six-candidate primary with 48.6% of the vote to 37.7% for the former governor. In the run-off two weeks later, Carter walloped Sanders by a 3-to-2 margin.
Almost immediately after becoming the Democratic nominee, Carter set out to court hostile black voters, and in November, he defeated Republican Hal Suit with 59% of the vote. He proclaimed that “the days of discrimination are over” in his inaugural address, appointed an unprecedented number of blacks to state offices and was featured on the cover of Time magazine. The rest, as they say, is history.
But Some Don’t Forget
Carter is known today as a humanitarian and Nobel laureate. But, occasionally, as when he blasted Bush and Blair, the memory of a mean-spirited man who set aside standards of decency for political ambition 37 years ago is vividly revived.
“It would be difficult to find anything high-minded about Carter’s campaign,” Gary Fink wrote in Georgia Governors in an Age of Change. “He stirred up both class and race prejudices to skewer his opponent, Carl Sanders.”
Sanders himself said that Carter “very deliberately and very insidiously … went around the state and totally misrepresented himself and his political philosophy, as a conservative, George Wallace-type conservative….He bottled up what I would call, for lack of a better description, an attractive bottle of snake oil.”
After Carter’s most recent controversial remarks, I e-mailed Sanders, now 81, and a partner in a major Atlanta law firm. He replied: “I have no interest in making any comment about Carter. I hope that you understand.”