NINETEEN

Down Home with Jimmy Carter

During the second half of the 1970s, NASA busied itself with getting the first Space Shuttle ready to fly, and I busied myself setting my family’s house in order.

Despite the space-flight hiatus, NBC had asked me to stay on the job with a cut in pay, promising they would use me on stories elsewhere. My wife expressed her dislike for starvation and went back to her old job at our bank. Friend Dixon Gannett, the son of the founder of Gannett Newspapers, the publishers of USA Today, Florida Today, and a few dozen more fish wrappers, threw a few coins my way. He offered me the job of editor of one of his magazines. He said he couldn’t stand to see me on the public dole. I thanked him, and asked if instead I could have a paper route because it paid more. Old Dix smiled and said, “Hell no! Every person had to starve in the editorial pits before they could get a shot at the big money.”

I took Dixon’s editorial job and was then suddenly all smiles when NBC News added a career-saving assignment.

Up the road in 1976, Jimmy Carter was getting ready to run for President, and NBC decided one Georgia peanut farmer should cover another. I packed up, took my magazine-editing job on the road with me, and began tagging along with the Carter campaign.

The author is seen here with Dixon Gannett, frequent lender of money needed to secure the federal debt. (Gannett Collection).

We went all over the country covering one Jimmy Carter political rally after another, traipsing through farm fields from state to state. But as one Georgia plowboy to another, it was obvious the presidential candidate preferred them “old cotton fields back home” as a place to kick back and trade a few boyhood yarns.

I certainly didn’t consider myself Mr. Carter’s equal, but as farm boys in southwest Georgia we’d traveled down many of the same roads. The war years were a time of rationing stamps and going without, but also a time when folks in Georgia believed, devoutly, in Jesus Christ, Santa Claus, Franklin Roosevelt, the Democratic Party, and most important, their own mule.

The presidential candidate laughed when I explained his family was better than ours. They owned two mules, and my family had to rent one. And Mr. Carter added, “We had two cars on blocks in the front yard.”

There certainly was no disagreement that if you didn’t have a mule in the 1940s, you most likely went without. Anyone who lived on Southern farms in those days knew there was a bond between the farmer and his mule. The one was necessary for the survival of the other. It was important to have a mule that would obey and had a good gait. There was something pleasing about man and mule moving down a cotton row in unison in tune with the commands of “Gee” and “Haw” and “Whoa.” It was simple: If you didn’t have a mule pulling the plow, then you were doing the pulling.

That’s why those of us without a mule were left with one choice: If you wanted cash in your pocket, you got on your knees and picked the cotton from sunup until sundown. And if you were a sissy, forget about it. Especially in a hot August sun with 100-degrees-plus temperatures, crawling on your knees and pulling a heavy sack, moving your bloodied fingers as fast as you could, trying to pick one hundred pounds of cotton every day. Why? Because we were paid one cent per pound picked, and if you wanted to make a dollar, then you had to pick one hundred pounds. The future President said that must have been where the old saying “Another day, another dollar” came from.

Well, as a boy of twelve, I failed again and again, and it was beginning to look like I would never make a dollar, no matter how fast I worked. I was at the point of giving up when two of my black friends, J. W. and George, took pity. They pulled me aside and told me to pack my early-morning dew-drenched cotton very tightly in the bottom of my picking sack, and secondly, when I went to the bushes during the day, to make sure I urinated inside my picking sack to keep the cotton wet and heavy. Water spilled from the drinking jug into the sack helped, too.

I smiled. I had been introduced to the world of science. This explained cotton’s unique smell and color. And what about the cheating? In the broiling sun and with the nightly aches, it was easy to convince yourself it was justified. Daily, I walked from the cotton fields a little less honest, but with a dollar tightly in my fist.

Jimmy Carter was elected President, and we went off to the Georgia coast where the President-elect holed up a few days on Sea Island to unwind. Here he told the media that once while fishing in a cypress hole in a small, one-man bateau, his fishing was interrupted by a swamp rabbit swimming across his bow. Most reporters had never seen a one-man bateau let alone a cypress hole plentiful with good eating bream, and they sure as hell didn’t have anything else to write about. The television and radio folks got out their chuckles and microphones and the newspapers writers grabbed their supply of ridicule. They had a field day.

“President-Elect fends off an attack rabbit with his paddle,” the stories appeared in bold print, and while the ill informed heehawed, we country boys had our own good laugh. Earth’s surface is 71 percent water or thereabout, and in swamps and marshes and other areas with little solid land, swimming and slithering animals and reptiles were nothing new. When meat on your table was hard to come by, we country boys chased swimming wild hogs, rabbits, and even an occasional gator. It was obvious most of my colleagues in the media were strangers to hard times.

The reporters born during or on the latter side of the Great Depression were falling by the wayside, and I was most grateful looks weren’t a requirement for my generation. NBC executives agreed I had the perfect face for radio, and retiring was the farthest thing from my mind.

Jimmy Carter was arguably the most gentlemanly and good-natured President ever, and no one enjoyed a good laugh more. Many times, he bent over grabbing his stomach in hysterics, laughing at my lack of ability to umpire his softball games.

The President was a pretty fair country ball player, and he would field a team with his Secret Service detail. His brother Billy and the inept media would be called out to play them, and because I was hands-down the worst player on the field, I had to be the umpire. Billy, who spent the day downing his short-lived Billy Beer, thought his team would benefit from favoritism by this Georgia boy.

Well, he did get favoritism, because there was a major problem. The President and the Secret Service were good players. Billy was drunk before the third inning, and the reporters on his team were plain rotten. If we were ever to complete a game, I had to call any pitch or play in favor of the media team or we would have been at it all night. Ever hear of a game called because of sunup?

To this day I hope the President understood, because Mr. Carter would stand there rolling his eyes at my called strikes. Some of them I called strikes even if Billy just managed to roll the ball across the plate. It was a hell of a fix to be in, and I still can’t believe I stood there and argued a strike call with the President. Just where did I get the nerve to overrule the Chief Executive of the United States?

Despite his taste for beer, the President’s brother was a great guy, as were all members of President Carter’s family, and I was most grateful for the assignment and for the Carters’ hospitality. The NBC News Desk made sure I received most of President Carter’s vacation and down-home assignments and before you knew it, it was election time again, and in 1980 Ronald Reagan won the White House, and I came home to Cape Canaveral, where the launch team was working full speed ahead to get Columbia, the first Space Shuttle, into orbit.

As a journalist, I have always taken pride in being apolitical, but hanging out with the Carters was fun. There’s something to be said about the fresh wind of naiveté, and Jimmy Carter had it. There’s also something about the stink on a professional politician that’s hard to abide. President Carter never paid his dues in that club, and I must admit, returning to my first love—the space story—felt like walking in my favorite pair of shoes.

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