How to elect a president: Jimmy Carter, two South Georgia political novices, and the unpredictable road to the White House

Hamilton Jordan and Jody Powell proved that an improbable populist coalition could capture the presidency in contemporary America—a path Donald J. Trump would follow to the White House in 2016.

Jimmy Carter election
Carter with one of his rivals for the 1976 Democratic nomination, Congressman Morris Udall of Arizona.

Photograph by Bill Ingraham/AP

“The press people are afraid I’m going to eat a fish bone and choke on it,” remarked Jimmy Carter to his brother-in-law Walter Spann. “They’re afraid they won’t have a picture when it happens.” The then 51-year-old governor of Georgia was running for president—and learning to grow accustomed to the national spotlight. Carter had wandered up to the porch at a fish fry in his hometown of Plains, where visiting journalists outnumbered locals by four to one.

Of course, it was Carter’s team who’d invited the entire press corps, according to Robert Scheer, who observed the conversation while reporting for Playboy. In fact, Scheer suspected such down-home photo ops were contrived for the media’s behalf. The campaign’s spin doctors exploited such “rural Southern exotica” to both fascinate and confound reporters, he wrote in an essay that accompanied his 1976 interview with the candidate. “The ambiguity that one feels about Carter can be maddening. Is he one of the most packaged and manipulative candidates in our time or a Lincolnesque barefoot boy who swooped out of nowhere at a time when we needed him?”

Looking back 40 years later, it’s obvious he was both.

Carter’s ascent from peanut farmer to president was engineered by a couple of political novices barely in their 30s: Hamilton Jordan, who served as campaign manager, and Jody Powell, a media liaison who would become press secretary. Without their audacious tactics, there would have been no President Jimmy Carter. Carter himself often said that nobody impacted his career more profoundly than Jordan. About Powell, he once told me that no one was closer to him except his wife, Rosalynn.

Until Jordan and Powell came along, political strategists and aides for presidential candidates had been Ivy League graduates, military brass, powerful Washington lawyers, even other politicians. Jordan and Powell were none of these. They were nonideological rule breakers with a sense of humor. And they had two loyalties: the South and the man they wanted in the White House.

In 2020, Carter is best known as the born-again Christian and Nobel Peace Prize winner who at 95 still builds houses for Habitat for Humanity and teaches Sunday school in Plains, beside the same fields where he once cultivated peanuts. This is a far contrast to the Jimmy Carter of 1976, whom gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson called one of the meanest men he’d ever met. In an appearance on Canadian public television, Thompson said, “Carter would cut my head off to carry North Dakota. He’d cut your legs off to carry a ward in the Bronx. Never apologize for it. I admired that—a person who played the game as well as he did. He will eat your shoulder right off.”

Maybe that’s why Carter needed Jordan and Powell: political hacks who looked like “a couple of rawboned, narrow-eyed, South Georgia thugs,” as Carter campaign speechwriter Patrick Anderson described them. They proved that an improbable populist coalition could capture the presidency in contemporary America—a path Donald J. Trump would follow to the White House in 2016. Though philosophical opposites, both candidates’ upset victories point to the fickleness of conventional wisdom. Carter, like Trump, shunned political jargon and appealed directly to the American people, refusing to coddle the media yet mesmerizing them to his advantage.

Jimmy Carter election
Carter with Hamilton Jordan, left, and Secret Service agent Charles T. Zboril in 1976. Carter famously liked to carry his own luggage, though some aides have reported he did so mostly when cameras were present.

Photograph by Floyd Edwin Jillson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP

On April 14, 1976, Jordan and Powell, clad in double-knit suits with wide ties between even wider lapels, were seated around a table in Washington, D.C., with Jim Lehrer, cohost of the PBS program The Robert MacNeil Report. Carter stared down from an overhead screen, his image beamed in from New York. The two operatives were being grilled about how a political irregular campaigning as “just a redneck farmer from South Georgia” had become the Democratic Party’s frontrunner.

Right off, Lehrer asked Jordan about fallout from Carter’s “ethnic purity” comments. Earlier that month, when Sam Roberts of the New York Daily News had asked Carter whether black cities could survive surrounded by all-white neighborhoods, he had responded, “Yes, my next-door neighbor is black. It hasn’t hurt us—provided you give people the freedom to decide for themselves where to live . . . I see nothing wrong with ethnic purity being maintained.” The comment, buried near the bottom of a 19-paragraph story, set off a firestorm. Andrew Young, then a U.S. congressman representing metropolitan Atlanta, declared that Carter’s words “summoned up memories of Hitler and Nazi Germany” and joined with 16 other members of the Congressional Black Caucus in denouncing him.
Now, via live national broadcast, Jordan looked down at his pen as if to gather his thoughts. “I don’t think, in the long run, we have suffered any great damage to the campaign,” he said.

“But didn’t it stop the momentum?” Lehrer said.

“I think to the extent that a candidate has a problem, deals with it, and moves on, that candidate is seen as being stronger,” Jordan said.

Lehrer pushed, “You’re not taking the position that it wasn’t a problem?”

“We recognized it was a problem, Jimmy apologized for what he called an unfortunate use of words, but I think we’ve moved beyond that now,” Jordan said.

Lehrer changed course, citing critics who’d implied Carter’s managers were “too young, too inexperienced, and too Georgia provincial” to run a national campaign. He asked, “Do you ever have the feeling that you’re in over your heads?”

“The governor is listening to us right now, isn’t he?” Jordan asked. Powell lit one of his True-brand cigarettes. Smoke enveloped the awkward scene: two aides twitching under the TV microscope with their boss looking on.

“Nah, I don’t think that’s a problem for us,” Jordan answered. “As we go around the country, as we go through the primaries, it’s a learnin’ process for us. I don’t feel too provincial or too inexperienced. I may be young, but I don’t feel young anymore.” From the screen above his two young proteges, Carter grinned.

“Never again are we going to go hat-in-hand and try to get Jimmy some kind of little pissant job like vice president.”

Jordan was named after his maternal grandfather, Hamilton McWhorter Sr., who had been president of the Georgia senate. When Jordan turned nine, his grandfather gave him a subscription to Time and urged him to start watching Meet the Press on Albany’s new NBC affiliate. “My grandson’s got politics in his blood,” McWhorter bragged.

Hamilton Jordan
Hamilton Jordan

Photograph by Bill Ray

But in the summer of 1966, Jordan’s summer job was spraying for mosquitoes. He was home in Albany from the University of Georgia, where, as he would one day put it, he managed to cram four years of college into five-and-a-half. Carter, then a state senator, came to speak at the local Elks Club, testing the waters for a run at the Democratic gubernatorial nomination that fall. Jordan listened as the soft-spoken senator rambled through his prepared remarks. The audience’s response was tepid. But once Carter began answering questions, he became forthright, sincere, and spoke in the kind of plain language politicians often avoid. This was a candidate Jordan could support.

What Jordan recognized was the promise of Jimmy Carter: He’d attended the Naval Academy, had the square-jawed good looks of John F. Kennedy, and presented himself as someone who wanted to unite Georgia’s chronically divided rural and urban interests. That night, Jordan sat down and wrote the senator a letter, volunteering.

A few days later, on July 4, Carter called Jordan at 6:15 a.m.—and offered him a full-time job, which Jordan refused. In the foreword to Jordan’s memoir, No Such Thing as a Bad Day, Carter later recalled: “Reluctantly, [Jordan] changed his mind when I remarked that I’d just as soon give up the governor’s race if killing insects was more important to him than my being governor.” Jordan hopped on a bus and, within a couple of hours, was driving Carter in a convertible down Peachtree Street for Atlanta’s Independence Day parade.

Carter later lost the primary, and another Democrat, Lester Maddox, went on to become governor. The defeat was especially humiliating as Maddox was a notorious racist. Two years earlier, newspapers across the country had published photos of him threatening black activists with an ax handle as they tried to enter his restaurant near Georgia Tech, the Pickrick. He then gave out souvenir ax handles labeled “Pickrick Drumsticks” and eventually closed his business rather than integrate.

That November, Carter held his first fundraiser for 1970. A fan of the adage, “Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser,” Carter did not intend to be defeated again.

Jordan went back and finished college, then moved to Vietnam, where he worked in a civilian-aid organization for most of a year. Upon his return, Carter recruited him to manage his new campaign. Jordan joked that he got the job because he was Carter’s only supporter left.

Meanwhile, Joseph “Jody” Lester Powell Jr. was at Emory University, working on his master’s thesis about another populist politician: George Wallace, the infamous segregationist governor of Alabama and four-time presidential candidate. The pride of his Vienna, Georgia, family, Powell attended the U.S. Air Force Academy but was expelled after glancing at a course guide during an exam break. Crestfallen, he majored in political science at Georgia State, later joking, “After getting kicked out for cheating, politics seemed like the next best thing.”

Jody Powell
Jody Powell

Photograph by Bill Ray

Powell also saw potential in Carter and wrote to him in September 1969, concluding: “I was born and raised in Vienna, Georgia. My family still lives there. I expect I will always consider it as home, and the people there as friends of a special type not likely to be found elsewhere. The division of this state along rural-urban and the corresponding division of the Democratic party in the state along liberal-conservative lines disturbs me as I am sure they do you . . . We need someone who can appeal to people in Dooly and DeKalb counties. We need someone who can elicit trust and respect from people all over this state. You can do that. I’d like to help.” Carter accepted his offer and told him to call Jordan.

Neither Jordan nor Powell set out to become high-level political operatives. They just fell into politics because of Carter. Recognizing their luck, their common bond of being from Southwest Georgia—“SoWeGa”—Jordan and Powell “clicked from the beginning,” says Powell’s wife, Nan. “They were never in competition. Whether during campaigns or when Jimmy was in office, they used their talent and abilities to play very different roles.” Jordan, the adroit strategist, and Powell, Carter’s confidante.

Three out of four Georgia voters had never heard of Jimmy Carter when he set out to run for governor in 1970. Carter’s opponent in the Democratic Primary was the popular former governor Carl Sanders, a liberal who’d served from 1963 to 1967. (The state Constitution then restricted incumbent governors from running for consecutive terms.) Sanders had an 84 percent approval rating among Georgians, high-profile friends such as Hubert Humphrey and the Kennedys, and a national reputation as an emerging star of the “New South.”

But Carter’s polls also indicated that some Georgia voters perceived Sanders as too liberal. In fact, 12 to 15 percent of the electorate still identified as “populist staunch segregationist.” Neither Sanders nor Carter had made inroads with this faction. Jordan saw opportunity. His platform promised to “return the control of the Georgia Democratic Party to Georgia Democrats.” At the Southeast Agricultural Festival in Moultrie, Carter accused Sanders of selling out to the “ultraliberal wing of the Democratic party . . . exchanging the favor of Hubert Humphrey for the goodwill of Georgians.”

Carter’s team dubbed Sanders “Cufflinks Carl.” An attack ad opened with a tracking shot through a tony Buckhead establishment. “This is a door to an exclusive country club,” the voiceover said, “where big-money boys play cards, drink cocktails, and raise money for their candidate, Carl Sanders. People like us aren’t invited—we’re too busy working for a living. That’s why our votes are going for Jimmy Carter. Our kind of man, our kind of governor.” In another commercial, a utility worker climbs out of a manhole and is greeted by Carter. “I’m a working man, too,” Carter says.

Jordan had him appear at three factory shifts per day to shake hands. He campaigned at football games, rodeos, and livestock and tobacco sale barns. He went after farmers, police officers, firefighters, garbage collection workers, and cleaning crews. “Isn’t it time somebody spoke up for you?” he’d ask. The campaign’s symbol was a peanut.

As state senator, Carter had helped overturn laws suppressing black votes. But a “fact sheet”—which Carter himself has denied releasing or endorsing—circulated with an Atlanta Journal photograph of Sanders, part owner of the Atlanta Hawks, in a locker-room celebration. In the picture, a black player, Bill Bridges, is pouring champagne on Sanders’s head. This image of Sanders getting his “champagne shampoo” was distributed to teetotaling churchgoers, police officers, barbershops, filling stations, and even at a Ku Klux Klan rally.

Carter openly praised Maddox, who was now running for lieutenant governor. At a fundraiser in Columbus, Carter said he represented “the essence of the Democratic party,” adding, “he has compassion for the ordinary man. I am proud to be on the ticket with him.”

Simultaneously, Carter assured Vernon Jordan, then president of the National Urban League, “You won’t like my campaign, but you’ll like my administration.” He got support from the father of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.—“Daddy King.” In June 1970, Carter predicted to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “I expect to have particularly strong support from the people who voted for George Wallace, Lester Maddox, and excellent support among the leadership of the NAACP and Negro churchmen across the state.” Turns out, he did.

Carter won the primary runoff against Sanders with 60 percent of the vote. Given the chokehold Democrats held on Georgia’s electorate at the time, Election Day was a mere formality: Carter won by some 170,000 votes. Minutes after being sworn in on January 12, 1971, Governor Jimmy Carter left Maddox fuming by declaring, “The time for racial discrimination is over.” He hung a portrait of MLK Jr. in the Capitol. And, as Maddox later told the Los Angeles Times, Carter warned him, “If you ever oppose me on any issue, I’ll meet you head-on and fight you with all the resources under my command and authority.”

Carter hadn’t even been governor for a year when Jordan and Powell set their sights on the White House. They strategized with the newest members of Team Jimmy: Gerald Rafshoon, an Atlanta advertising executive, and Peter G. Bourne, a British-born psychiatrist from Emory who had worked on mental-health issues with Rosalynn.

Their first scheme was to get Carter on the Democratic ticket as vice president, traveling to the 1972 national convention in Miami Beach. This was back when both parties’ conventions featured real politicking that could determine the presidential nominee and running mate. Jordan and Rafshoon stalked Gary Hart, then campaign manager for likely presidential nominee George McGovern. Waiting outside Hart’s hotel suite for more than an hour, “we saw three beautiful girls go in, one after another,” Rafshoon recalls. “Then, they’d come out 15 minutes later.” Figuring this must be a perk of big-time politics, Jordan turned to Rafshoon and said, “We need to get us a national campaign.”

The convention turned chaotic. McGovern didn’t take the podium to accept the nomination until 3 o’clock in the morning, and a wide range of candidates—from Shirley Chisholm and Julian Bond to Dr. Benjamin Spock—were all formally proposed as running mates. McGovern bypassed Carter, who had simultaneously campaigned against the South Dakota Senator while lobbying to join his ticket, and chose Senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri. Days later, when news broke of Eagleton’s history of shock therapy and hospitalization for depression, McGovern replaced Eagleton with Sargent Shriver, founder of the Peace Corps and a former U.S. ambassador to France.

The Georgia delegation was disenchanted with the entire process. They were convinced they could do better. Rafshoon recalls Jordan swearing, “Never again are we going to go hat-in-hand and try to get Jimmy some kind of little pissant job like vice president. If all these people could run for president, Jimmy could run for president. He’s the best retail campaigner around.”

Carter’s handlers returned to Georgia and set their sights higher. Bourne sketched a 10-page memo that, among other items, urged Carter to write a book, to develop expertise in issues like healthcare and the environment, and to embrace the challenge of a national campaign. He gave the document to Carter, who passed it to Jordan. The team agreed to meet at the governor’s mansion on West Paces Ferry Road.

On the evening of October 17, Bourne, Jordan, Rafshoon, and Landon Butler, a new staffer in charge of special projects, gathered in the mansion’s family room. The governor walked in barefoot, wearing jeans and a T-shirt. Rafshoon recalls that Jordan opened the conversation. “We’d like to talk to you about your future,” he said. “We think you should run for president. [Pause.] Of the United States.” Carter just stared.

As the four laid out a path to “higher office,” Carter listened. They figured new party rules that made popular-vote primaries binding (prior to 1972, party leaders could overrule primary results) would create opportunity for boots-on-the-ground campaigners like Carter. The men talked until after midnight. Carter asked Jordan to gather their ideas and draw up a formal plan of action.

For the next few weeks, Jordan concocted his secret blueprint—a “master plan.” It drilled down to specifics, such as wooing Max Frankel and Tom Wicker of the New York Times by having Carter take them fishing off Cumberland Island. But the core of his strategy was mounting a populist campaign that capitalized on voters’ distrust of politicians, with the candidate visiting every place there was a primary or caucus. Jordan and Rafshoon presented Carter with a 90-page plan, dated November 4, 1972. “You have to decide,” Jordan said.

But Carter had already made up his mind. “I’ll run in every state,” he said. “I’ll make the commitment, and I’ll stay in until the very end.”

On Election Day, McGovern was annihilated, losing every state except for Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.

Step one was convincing Robert S. Strauss, a Texas attorney and former confidant to President Lyndon B. Johnson who was then chairman of the Democratic National Committee, to appoint Carter as chair of the national campaign committee—a thankless position that demanded extensive travel with no compensation. Pleased to have a volunteer, Strauss accepted the offer. Jordan became executive director and relocated to Washington in May 1973.

“This gave Hamilton a network,” Bourne says. “He could line up potential staff people. It allowed him to get to know the DNC, presidential politics, and how the nominating process would work. It also allowed Hamilton to keep Carter constantly informed.”

More importantly, Carter was making allies across the country, stumping for Democrats in the 1974 midterms. Powell traveled with him, collecting names and contact information. Carter returned to Atlanta with a fat Rolodex, including a young Arkansas law professor running for Congress: “Billy” Clinton. “When Carter ran for president, he could call them and say, ‘Can your people who helped you get elected help me in my campaign?’” Bourne says. “They were indebted.”

Jordan also encouraged Carter to invite Democrats with national profiles to stay at the governor’s mansion, allowing the governor to size up possible opponents. “Jimmy saw that Ted Kennedy drank too much; Ed Muskie had a temper; Hubert Humphrey was nice, but his time was over,” Rafshoon says. The competition seemed vulnerable.

One night, Jordan left his master plan on his office desk in Washington. The next morning, Strauss was waiting, Jordan’s manifesto in hand. “Strauss threw it back at him,” Rafshoon says. “And he said, ‘Don’t worry kid, we won’t tell anybody. They’ll think you’re crazy. This pile of shit is going nowhere.’”

But by December 1974, more than a year before the first Democratic primary and the final month of Carter’s term as governor, he traveled to Washington and announced his candidacy before the National Press Club.

With Powell by his side dealing with reporters, Carter spent months in Iowa preparing for its first-in-the-nation caucus. The two of them would double up on hotel rooms or even stay in supporters’ houses, an arrangement that helped cement their unpretentious image. Jordan, now the national campaign director, remained at the Atlanta headquarters, 1795 Peachtree Street, dissecting each precinct. When Carter won Iowa by more than a two-to-one margin, the result shocked Washington and made him the frontrunner.

The next big objective was defeating Wallace in the South. They needed money. Jordan called on a young Alabama attorney named Morris Dees, a self-made multimillionaire, cofounder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Democratic fundraiser who had visited the governor’s mansion with McGovern. Ever mindful of the campaign’s frugal image, Jordan took the bus to Montgomery.

“I picked him up at the station,” Dees told me. “In those days, I used to ride a motorcycle. Hamilton jumped on the back, and we went out to my farm. I had all kinds of litigation going—death penalty opposition cases, stuff like that—and I didn’t want to get involved in another campaign. But Hamilton stayed out there for seven or eight hours talking about how Jimmy could win.” Not long after the visit, Dees agreed to become Carter’s national finance director.

In Florida, Carter attacked Wallace as an “unrealistic” candidate, portraying him as a spoiler who could ruin the election for Democrats. After Carter’s pounding, Wallace lost by 50,000 votes.

The rambunctious rookies also earned a reputation for carousing across the Sunshine State. Bourne says they acted like a “bunch of Southern fraternity boys.” Rafshoon recalls that Jordan had a raunchy, subversive sense of humor. “We raised a lot of hell together. Both of us got divorced—I won’t go further there,” he says, laughing.

Jordan promised Hunter Thompson (who was sort of an honorary member of the campaign, even though he was covering it for Rolling Stone) time with Carter the morning after the Florida victory. Thompson had traveled from Colorado for the interview, but Carter, exhausted, cut their conversation short. Angry and wanting more access, Thompson went to Jordan’s room around the swimming pool at the Carlton House in Orlando and pounded on the door. “He wouldn’t open the door,” Carter aide Greg Schneiders recalls. Thompson went to a nearby drugstore and purchased a can of lighter fluid that he doused on Jordan’s windows and on and under his door, then lit it. Jordan (who was married) came running out, girlfriend in tow.

“He literally smoked him out,” Schneiders says.

As Jordan once admitted, “Jody and I are the complete opposites of Jimmy. Neither of us are very disciplined or organized. Drink too much, smoke too much, and everything else. Well, I don’t smoke,” he said, “that’s about it.”

A senior editor at Playboy, Peter Ross Range, heard about the crew’s antics. A native Georgian, he suggested Carter for the magazine’s famous interview section. While Playboy’s request would have been rejected by conventional campaigns, Powell appreciated the power of the magazine’s more than five million readers. It was a chance for Carter to explain himself in his own unfiltered voice to a new generation outside Washington. Powell accepted, and Scheer and editor G. Barry Golson began following the campaign.

That summer, Democrats gathered in New York City for the national convention, where it was evident that a new group was in charge: the “Jimmycrats.” Even the famous 21 Club served unshelled Georgia peanuts at the bar, and its band played “Dixie.”

On Thursday night, Madison Square Garden erupted in cheers for Carter and his vice-presidential running mate, Senator Walter “Fritz” Mondale of Minnesota. In his speech accepting the Democratic nomination, Carter talked about the primary—how he’d taken his message directly to the people of America. He reminded the delegates that the Democratic Party was forged in the sweatshops of New York, the coal mines of Pennsylvania, and the mills of New Hampshire. “It is time for the people to run the government and not the other way around,” Carter said.

Mondale later wrote: “Jordan was a brilliant political strategist—underappreciated, I think, because he hit it off poorly with the Washington press corps and was never taken seriously by some in the political establishment. He was the mastermind of Carter’s primary-election strategy—a strategy that stunned the more prominent national Democrats—and he could look into the party’s future.”

Going into the fall, national polls put Carter-Mondale 30 points ahead of Ford. Headlines touted “Grits and Fritz” and the “Southern Mystique.” By Labor Day, Carter even appeared with Wallace at a rally in Birmingham, their fences mended. “Oh, how I’ve longed to see a Deep Southerner like you and me and Jimmy Carter in the White House,” Wallace said.

Fate wasn’t finished with Carter yet. Every strong run for the White House seems to follow the same arc. There is a crescendo of support and, just when it looks as if the election is all locked up, destiny intervenes: the October Surprise. Just as Carter’s campaign crested, early issues of the November 1976 issue of Playboy hit newsstands.

“Lust,” “adultery,” “shacking up.” Those were the words Jordan saw flashing across his TV set just after 7 a.m. in Atlanta. He was watching NBC’s Today host Tom Brokaw talking to Scheer and Golson. (Headline: “Now, the Real Jimmy Carter on Politics, Religion, the Press, and Sex in an Incredible Playboy Interview.”) Rafshoon called. “Are you watching this?”

“I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust,” Carter said in the piece. “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times. This is something that God recognizes I will do—and I have done it—and God forgives me . . . But that doesn’t mean I condemn someone who not only looks on a woman with lust but who leaves his wife and shacks up with somebody out of wedlock. Christ says, Don’t consider yourself better than someone else because one guy screws a whole bunch of women while the other guy is loyal to his wife.”

On the campaign plane later that day, Powell was sanguine. “What Carter doesn’t know yet is that I’m the centerfold,” he joked. Powell’s spin was that it was just Carter trying to get the “two turkeys” from Playboy to understand a Southern Baptist.

But the media shock waves were unrelenting. On the local and national evening news broadcasts, reporters teased quotations out of context. Carter’s pollster, Patrick Caddell, watched as their 30-point lead over Gerald Ford evaporated. By the first debate on September 23, Carter was behind.

Jordan and Powell concluded that the best offense was to get Rosalynn out front. Earlier that year, Rafshoon, who had publicized the 1963 Elizabeth Taylor movie Cleopatra, had filmed the governor’s wife saying, “People ask what Jimmy’s like. I tell them we live in Plains, Georgia, population 600. Everyone knows our business, so there’s never been a whiff of scandal because everyone would know it . . .” Rafshoon raced to the lab and produced commercials with Rosalynn’s sound bites. By the next morning, he’d put reels on Greyhound buses to TV stations around the country. The media moved on, but signs with slogans like “SMILE IF YOU’RE HORNY” or “I LUST FOR JIMMY” dogged Carter for the rest of the campaign.

Jimmy Carter election
Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter tear up as their Plains neighbors celebrate the 1976 election victory.

Photograph by Billy Downs/Atlanta Journal-Constitution /AP

On Election Day, the polls were in a dead heat. That night at the Omni Hotel in Atlanta, the Carter team waited as votes were counted across America. At 3:30 a.m., the state of Mississippi put Carter over the top. Networks declared that the country had just chosen Jimmy Carter as president of the United States—the first Southerner elected to the White House since Zachary Taylor in 1848.

The morning of his victory, Carter greeted supporters in the auditorium at the Omni downtown. “I welcome all of those in the United States, whether they supported me or someone else. It’s time for us to get together and correct our mistakes, ask the difficult questions, and to make our nation great.”

Later, that same group that talked in the governor’s mansion on that night in 1972 went to DeKalb and boarded a flight to Americus. From there, a motorcade took them to Plains. As they arrived, dawn was breaking. The high school band played on Main Street. Carter made his way to the platform at the depot.

“I came all the way through,” Carter said to his supporters, “and didn’t get choked up, until I—” His voice cracked, he looked at the people. There were thousands, and they were cheering. He started to cry. “Until I turned the corner and saw you standing here.”

About the author:
John Meroney remembers his grandparents keeping a peanut-shaped plastic bank with Jimmy Carter’s smile on their kitchen table. He is consulting producer on the Netflix series ReMastered and was nominated for an Emmy Award for his work on the episode “Tricky Dick and the Man in Black.” He is also author of a forthcoming book on Ronald Reagan. His writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Architectural Digest, Garden & Gun, the New Republic, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. Meroney graduated from Wake Forest University and lives in Los Angeles

This article appears in our March 2020 issue.