by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner
Who would every have thought that the two gentlemen circled around the stereo with us, playing Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd albums, would become Presidents of the United States?
Where have the years gone? It seems like only a few years ago that we were seated a circle of logs around a campfire at Unicoi State Park. Hamilton Jordan, the governor’s executive secretary, was on my right. About six feet further was the governor, Jimmy Carter.
The previous spring, Jimmy and Ham had selected what they thought was the cream of Georgia college students to be his first student interns – the state’s future leaders. At the end of the summer Jimmy invited us to a weekend retreat in the Georgia Mountains, where he would tap our youthful idealism to create goals for the state in the 21st century. What would the United States be like in the year, 2000?
We got almost everything wrong. We envisioned racial discord to be a thing of the past. There would be a permanent NASA base on the moon. People would be driving electric cars and the United States would be energy independent due to solar and wind power, plus more efficient drilling of oil wells within nation’s territorial boundaries. We did not anticipate the personal computer, the internet or the cellular phone. However, we did get one thing right. Pocket calculators would become almost as powerful as mainframe computers that then filled whole buildings.
That weekend was merely the end of the first chapter of a remarkable period when I sat in the front row, the deacon’s bench of history, as it unfolded in my presence. Well, how many architects can say that they have danced with both Roslyn and Amy Carter?
I was not a part of history, but was so close that I saw the intimacies of two great men’s lives, which the national media never seemed to recognize. Few humans can match the combination of intellect, religious faith, energy, inquisitiveness and humility of Jimmy Carter . . . who has now lived longer than any American president.
Two future presidents
We flash forward three years. I had graduated from Georgia Tech and spent a period of time working in Sweden. About two months after I got back from Sweden, Chip Carter and his first wife, Caron, invited Anne (a platonic friend) and I over to their garage apartment at the Governor’s Mansion for a casual social on a sunny Saturday afternoon in February 1973.
Initially, it was a little awkward for me. While a governor’s intern, I had a major crush on Caron Griffin from Hawkinsville, GA who like me was a Creek Indian. She probably didn’t even notice it because right at the end of the internship, Chip Carter had given her a big engagement ring. A few years later, while preparing an application for membership in the Tama Creek Tribe, I realized that Caron and I were distantly related. My Creek and Uchee ancestors had frequently gone to Hawkinsville in the 1800s to find spouses.
Within a few minutes after we arrived, Jimmy walked into the apartment, wearing a red Winston Cup jacket and carrying an enormous stack of 33 1/3 RPM records. Miss Roslyn had kicked him out of the Governor’s Mansion. She had invited over a group of ladies for tea and didn’t want to hear rock music in the background.
We spent the next hour or so analyzing the music of these two new Southern Rock bands, the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Then, a man, about 30 years old, opened the glass-paned door of the apartment without knocking. In a voice that periodically stuttered, he shouted, “Hey Jimmy, my plane arrived early and Roslyn said to come over here.” We thought, “Who is this jerk, interrupting our party?”
The grimaces on our faces quickly turned to frozen smiles and standing at attention, when Jimmy said, “I would like y’all to meet one of the youngest men ever to be elected to the US Senate, Joe Biden of Delaware. He was just sworn in a month ago.”
Senator Biden then introduced his nephew, who was his traveling companion. We welcomed them to our circle of chairs and sofas. However, they first asked where the bathroom was and then to be excused for a bit.
In their absence, Jimmy asked us not to mention anything about his family. Behind the Senator’s smiles, he was drowning in grief. That is why his nephew was traveling with him. Seven weeks earlier, on December 18, 1972, Biden’s wife, Neila, and baby daughter, Naomi, had been killed in a horrific automobile accident. Their young sons, Hunter and Beau had also been seriously injured, but survived.
Jimmy then explained to us that Biden was virtually unknown a year ago, but was asked to run for Senator, because it was thought that no Democrat had a chance against the Republican incumbent, Caleb Boggs, who was heavily supported by Richard Nixon. Biden’s campaign had virtually no money and was given no chance of winning. He won.
Teaching Joe about Southern Rock
We continued to play albums of famous Southern Rock bands and Soul singers from Georgia such as the Allman Brothers, Ray Charles, Atlanta Rhythm Section, James Brown, Otis Redding, Lynyrd Skynyrd*, Georgia Satellites, Sam & Dave, Dennis Yost & The Classics IV, Brenda Lee and Ray Stevens.
*Lynyrd Skynyrd formed in Jacksonville, but cut their records in Atlanta . . . and first became known, while performing in Atlanta and Macon.
I hate to say this about the next president of the United States, but on that date in time, he was absolutely a nerd, when it came to popular music. He had never heard of any of these bands. He apparently didn’t even know how to dance, because if he could dance, he would have at least known the names of the rock bands. Jimmy had to teach him about popular music in baby steps in order to bring Joe up to the late 20th century.
But you know . . . there was something about that man that you couldn’t help but like. Yes, he was Duddly-DoRight square, who stuttered sometimes, but he was very sincere, well-educated and intelligent . . . very honest. He was a decent man, through and through.
Senator Biden was just the opposite of a Fascist or a Communist, who views humans abstractly as members of large groups. He was sincerely interested in the lives of individual humans. That’s the only question that Joe asked me, which I still remember after all these years. He said, “What is the daily life of typical Swedish citizen like?
Teaching Jimmy and Joe about Sweden
Jimmy had earlier told us, “Richard has been working in Sweden since graduating from Georgia Tech. Richard, didn’t you say that you flew over there the day after graduating? Tell us about the Swedish healthcare system, taxes and the politics. Do all the Swedes hate us because of the Vietnam War?”
“Yes, I woke up Sunday morning after graduation in the Atlanta suburbs and the next bed I slept in was in Landskrona, Sweden. You probably didn’t know this Jimmy, but the Georgia Department of Industry and Trade gave me an autographed photo of you and a letter, signed by you, promoting trade between Georgia and Sweden . . . to give to the Mayor of Landskrona. My first visit to a Landskrona supermarket shocked me. All of the whole chickens and canned peaches came from Georgia!”
I explained that the healthcare system was vastly superior to ours, less expensive than ours and funded by a Value Added Sales Tax, called MUMS. While I was living in Landskrona, a large group of healthcare profession students from Georgia State University visited there, to study our city’s multi-tier healthcare facilities. One of the biggest differences between Scandinavia and the United States is that all medical and nursing students get a free education, plus a salary, while attending university. Their salary increases as they have more years of education under their belt. Almost from day one at a university, healthcare students in Sweden work with patients, under the supervision of experienced doctors and nurses.
As far as political attitudes in Sweden, that nation has several political parties and a highly educated population. You can’t generalize in a multi-party democracy. Virtually no Swedes thought that the US should be in Vietnam, but not one person, while I was there, blamed me personally for the Vietnam War. They all were very gracious and hospitable. Even Swedish Communist demonstrators in downtown Landskrona were friendly to me! There were only about 20 Communists lived in Landskrona, but they were constantly demonstrating downtown.
I continued . . . virtually all Scandinavians think that the Vietnam War was a tragic mistake, but few “hate” Americans. My Swedish girlfriend’s recent letter to me typifies the general attitude. (See below.) Britt is President of the College Division of the Center Party. She is a great admirer of the United States people, but closed the letter that she sent to me two weeks ago with this statement, “Richard, the United States must get out of Vietnam. Until then, it will have no credibility as a force for democracy in this world.”
The conversation shifted to Watergate. I told them that within five days after the burglary at the Watergate Complex in Washington, the Swedish press and television news was saying that Richard Nixon and his staff ordered the break-in. Jimmy smiled and said, “Well, the Swedes are mad at us because of Vietnam, but I wouldn’t doubt if someone in the CIA was involved. I can’t imagine the President knowing about it in advance . . . maybe afterward.”
Jimmy holding a national office?
Joe became increasingly antsy as we continued to chat about world politics and listen to the new sound of Southern Rock and Soul. Finally, in a stuttered voice he said, “Jim-my-my, I hate interrupt-t the fun, but can we go-go somewhere and t-talk about what I m-mentioned on the phone?”
Jimmy smiled and responded, “No need to leave. Everyone here is family except Anne and Richard. They need to be here.” He smiled again. “I can’t decide which one of them two is going to be Georgia’s governor and which one a senator.”
Joe then asked us what we thought about Jimmy holding a national office. We all thought that he would make a great Secretary of the Navy, after serving as governor for two terms. Jimmy had been one of the rising stars in the US Navy, until he regretfully resigned to take over management of his deceased father’s peanut warehouse.
Biden listened for a while to our thoughts then asked to make an important statement. “Jimmy, I am here on behalf of the Democratic National Committee to ask you to run for president in 1976.”
There was stunned silence. After leaving the Governor’s Mansion late in the afternoon, both Anne and I agreed afterward that Jimmy didn’t have a snowball’s chance in Hades of being elected President. No Southerner could be elected president, especially a young governor. Obviously, my gifts of prophecy were equally as inaccurate in politics as they were at Unicoi State Park concerning the establishment of a moon base before the year 2000.
Behind the scenes in the Carter presidency
What the national media to this day has never realized is that although Jimmy had no experience in a national office prior to being elected President, he had behaved like a head of state when traveling overseas on behalf of Georgia’s commerce. It was Jimmy Carter that established Georgia in the international trade scene. He was the first American government leader ever in history to give a press conference in Spanish in a Latin American country. After word got out about his fluency in Spanish, the remaining countries on his tour treated him and Roslyn like they were the president and first lady.
Jimmy got along well with moderate Republicans and Democrats. They shared a dream of stopping inflation, balancing the budget, making the United States energy independent and bringing peace to the Middle East. Jimmy came very close to balancing the budget his last year. However, the main thrust of his administration was making the nation, energy self-sufficient. The oil-exporting countries in the Middle East were using the threat of another embargo to manipulate decisions in Congress.
Virtually all the economic reforms that contemporary bloggers assign to Ronald Reagan, while demonizing Jimmy, were actually implemented by the Carter Administration. Price fixing by the airline, trucking and energy industries were ended by the Carter Administration. Paul Volcker was appointed Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank Board by Jimmy Carter, not Ronald Reagan. The only difference is that Jimmy did not believe in the trickle-down theory. He refused to back massive tax reductions for the rich that Reagan later pushed through.
It was a clique commanded by Senator Ted Kennedy that sought to undermine the Carter Presidency throughout the four year term. Kennedy thought that if he made Carter look like an inept yokel, the American public would forget his role in the death of Mary Joe Kopechne at the Chappaquiddick River bridge. That didn’t happen. However, in the meantime, Kennedy made sure that all of Carter’s important legislative programs, such as the Energy Independence Act, were stalled in Congress.
There really was a Northeastern Liberal Media back then, and they crucified this southern president, any chance that they could. It was also the Kennedy Clique that constantly spread false rumors about the behavior of Carter’s staff, in particular, Hamilton Jordon and Transportation Secretary Bert Lance. Jordon was convicted by the press of being a drunk, womanizer, cocaine user and insulter of ambassadors’ wives. None of these events ever took place.
Lance was eventually forced to resign his office because once as a banker, he had accepted a dairy cow as collateral on a loan. The loan was paid back on time and in full, but the liberal media harassed Lance so much that he quit.
It is well documented by Gary Sisk in the book, October Surprise, that immediately before being nominated for Vice President, George Herbert Bush, former CIA Director, traveled to Paris to meet with officials of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Government. Bush promised the Iranians that if they would not release the imprisoned personnel of the American embassy in Tehran, the Reagan Administration would give them the military aid that they needed to defeat Iraq. It was a done deal. None dare call it treason.
There is one enigmatic event at the beginning of the Carter Presidency that we may never fully understand. Outgoing CIA Director and future president, George H. Bush, was briefing President Carter on the activities of the CIA in the Ford Administration. Carter asked him about Project Blue Book, because as governor he and his state trooper guards had actually seen a UFO while traveling on a lonely South Georgia road.
Bush moved closer to Carter and whispered information that most of the people in the room could not hear. Jimmy Carter literally began weeping and folded his head in his hands. The meeting ended suddenly. What did he hear?
Brothers Jimmy and Joe, they hardly ever knew ye.