Commentary: Jimmy Who? | KERA News

Commentary: Jimmy Who?

Sep 2, 2015

Recent news about his cancer has prompted numerous tributes to former President Jimmy Carter. Commentator Lee Cullum looks back to when she first met him.

"Jimmy Who?"

That's what many asked about Jimmy Carter when he first started running for president. This former governor of Georgia and perennial peanut farmer seemed far removed from any further prospects for power.

I was moderating a program on KERA called Newsroom when word came that Jimmy Who would be in Dallas that very night and would like to be on our show. School desegregation  would dominate our first half hour, but we offered the obscure former governor a slot near the end.

He arrived with no entourage, only someone he had known at Annapolis, and appeared so unprepossessing it was impossible to guess how impressive he would turn out to be. But when he began to speak - on schools,  race, the residue of Watergate - he was so thoughtful, so deliberative, so fresh and uncanned that we and many in our audience that night were startled into unexpected respect.  

After Newsroom, Jimmy Who met that evening with Martin Frost, a congressman and one-time reporter on our program, and that was the local beginning of a campaign put together in twos and threes. Carter got to know retailing wizard Roger Horchow who began getting calls from Rosalynn, wife of the candidate, asking for names of friends she could contact. And so it went until October when Johnny Apple of the New York Times was the first to tell the nation the astonishing news: Jimmy Who would win Iowa. This the reporter had deduced from countless conversations with people near the greenest and grainiest of grass roots. The Times had the nerve to run that piece on the front page. And Apple was right.  Carter prevailed not only in Iowa but in most of the primaries that followed.

Jimmy Carter was not lucky in the White House however. A New Yorker explained it like this: if you elect a president from a small state he will bring small people to Washington and if you elect someone from a big state he will bring big people. That seemed unkind at the time, but it turned out to be true. The Georgians could not give President Carter the caliber of support he needed. Nonetheless Jimmy Who did return the Panama Canal to its necessary owners in the nation for which it was named, and he brokered the Camp David peace accord between Menachem Begin of Israel and Anwar Sadat of Egypt, a towering achievement.

There his good fortune ended. The hostage crisis in Iran dogged Carter as did the oil shock of 1979. When the president told Americans that their problem was really national malaise, not the long lines to buy gasoline, Meg Greenfield noted in Newsweek that he was like a preacher who harped on sin when the real trouble was boilers crying out for repair. Inflation, building to 14.7 percent under Carter from its beginnings in the Nixon and Ford years, was the final blow. But Jimmy Who responded with the pivotal, most important decision of his presidency-- naming Paul Volcker to head the Federal Reserve. It was Volcker who broke the back of inflation.  

Carter’s work after Washington -- fighting disease in Africa, monitoring dicey elections in difficult countries, negotiating in North Korea earned him the Nobel Peace Prize. A true citizen of the world, he has made the planet better than it was before. I hope he sticks around a lot longer.

Lee Cullum is a veteran journalist living in Dallas.

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