Opinion: Early North Georgia campaign visits presaged Carter’s presidency, post-presidency years

AP File Photo/Suzanne Vlamis / President Jimmy Carter waves to the crowd while walking with his wife, Rosalynn, and their daughter, Amy, along Washington, D.C.'s Pennsylvania Avenue following his inauguration on Jan. 20, 1977.

Future President Jimmy Carter, in frequent visits to North Georgia in two campaigns for governor in 1966 and 1970, offered Chattanooga area residents glimpses into what his presidential campaigns, his presidency and his post-presidency might be like.

The 39th president, now under hospice care in his Plains, Ga., home, sought to be a different type of candidate from what people were used to.

Instead of rallies where people came to the candidate, he declared he would go to them. Instead of attacking opponents, he would refrain from doing so. Instead of making numerous promises, he said people were looking for excellent, efficient government.

Then-state Sen. Carter, many people may have forgotten, initially sought a seat in Congress in 1966 that was being vacated by Howard H. "Bo" Callaway, a one-term Republican who decided to run for governor.

A wire service story at the time noted he had "gained considerable respect of his fellow senators for his hard work and integrity during four years in the Senate."

That integrity, no matter what one thought of Carter's later decisions as president, would follow him into his post-presidency, where he continued to offer service to the country and to his fellow man.

In 1966, though, he did switch to the governor's race. Not long after entering it, according to Times Free Press archives, he announced he had no intention of being a candidate who expected people to come to him.

"Between now and Election Day," Carter said, "I am going to visit as many communities as I possible can, both large and small, to meet the people face to face and discuss their problems with them. That is what Georgians want in our modern-day political race."

Less than 10 years later, he would be doing that as a presidential candidate, even staying in the homes of individuals as he mounted his underdog run for the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination.

In Carter's first campaign for governor, his staff played up his toothy grin and longish hair as reminiscent of the late President John F. Kennedy, assassinated less than three years earlier.

The campaign, one report noted, was said to be counting on his "Kennedy image" and felt he was a natural for television "and for handshaking in crowds of women."

By his second, successful campaign in 1970, Carter played down such a comparison.

That he looked like Kennedy, he said in an address to the Chickamauga Lions Club, was "merely coincidence, and nothing more should, or could be implied from it."

In the 1966 campaign, Carter campaigned as a moderate, emphasizing local control of government and schools but also increased teacher pay and improved education standards.

In his presidential run 10 years later, he still sounded such themes.

"I believe in tough, competent management," Carter said in one speech. "I believe the best government is the one closest to the people. ... I believe in balanced budgets. I believe in screening out or eliminating programs that have long past served their usefulness. ... I believe that when there's a choice to be made between government and private industry, if it's an equal choice, I'd go with the private industry."

On Election Day 1966, Carter was given an outside chance to win and late on election evening was in second place in the voting, which would have secured a spot in a runoff. By the next morning, segregationist Lester Maddox had pulled ahead of him and earned a place in the runoff by 21,000 votes.

Maddox eventually won the runoff and, ultimately, the governor's office.

Carter, with his eye on a second run, returned more frequently to North Georgia, where he had won Walker County in the 1966 primary.

His 1970 campaign stance was still moderate, opposing forced busing to integrate schools, saying "taxes would be used to build lives, not bureaucracies," emphasizing highway construction (including a then-uncompleted stretch of I-75 between Chattanooga and Atlanta) and returning government to the rank-and-file citizenry.

Carter's work ethic -- one that saw him building Habitat for Humanity houses into his 90s -- didn't change, either.

A July 1970 report in the Chattanooga News-Free Press noted that he visited every store in Fort Oglethorpe during a campaign stop.

"We've got to get up early and work late if we expect to win," he said.

A month later, he appeared with fellow Democratic contender Carl Sanders (a former governor) at a Johnny Cash concert in LaFayette, and just before Election Day in September he made stops at all three Chattanooga television stations to tout his candidacy. He said at the time he had been to North Georgia 20 times in the last four years and that he drew his strength "from the people."

Carter captured nearly 49% of the vote in the primary, won the runoff with 59% and earned that same 59% in his general election win over Republican Hal Suit.

The positive, persistent, people-centered candidate with a desire to make things better that North Georgians got to know in the late 1960s was the same man who then took his "Jimmy Who?" campaign across a nation that in 1976 was still suffering from a Watergate hangover and wanted an outsider in Washington, D.C.

And that is the same Carter who later modeled an exemplary ex-presidency of nearly 46 years of volunteerism, service and humility.