Joseph Lester “Jody” Powell
Joseph Lester “Jody” Powell was Press Secretary and spokesman for Jimmy Carter for more than a decade - first when Carter was running to become Governor of Georgia, then as Governor, Presidential candidate and finally during Carter’s term as 39th President of the United States.
Powell was more than a media front-man, and he was more than a trusted advisor; President Carter says he was closer to Jody Powell than to anyone in his life except his wife Rosalynn Carter. It was Powell and Gov. Carter who hit the road in Iowa and New Hampshire 1975 and turned “Jimmy-Who?” into the Democratic Party’s Presidential nominee in 1976.
It was Jody Powell who would first tell the media and the world of the historic peace accord at Camp David between Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Menachem Begin, and about the taking of American hostages at the US embassy in Tehran – an event which helped doom Carter’s re-election bid.
Following Carter’s defeat to Ronald Reagan in 1980, Jody Powell established himself as a leading Washington Political consultant, lobbyist and campaign advisor. He teamed with Sheila Tate, the former Press Secretary for both Nancy Reagan and George H.W. Bush to form Powell-Tate, now part of multi-national Weber Shandwick.
I interviewed Jody Powell in January 2008 at his home in rural Maryland – in a substantial, sun-filled timber house a couple of hours drive from the Capital with sweeping views over Chesapeake Bay. Powell’s southern drawl and tendency to repeat words in a kind of stutter was reminiscent of Foghorn Leghorn, but he had the commanding force of a Confederate General – a fact recognised by film -maker Ken Burns who used Jody Powell’s voice to just such effect in his landmark documentary series on the War Between the States – “The Civil War”.
Jody Powell was engaging and humorous, and as generous with his time as he was his supply of fine bourbon whisky, which we drank late into the evening after the interview. He insisted on taking my wife and me on a bumpy, bracing ride in his mud-spattered golf cart down to the bay where hunting lures were in danger of being frozen into the shallow water. As he fished the plastic ducks out, Powell said we just had to film the water fowl coming in to roost as the pale mid-winter sun began to set. As we waited, looking out from the eastern shore at the almost perfect “V” flying formations of wild geese, we discovered Powell was both a nature-lover and a hunter – these lures were to encourage the birds to land, to admire, not to shoot.
Back at the house, he showed us some mementos from his White House years; the bottle of French Champagne he and Carter opened on Air Force One after the US hostages were freed in Tehran, the bronzed shoe from the ’76 campaign, worn through on the ball of the foot from scuffing out a few thousand cigarettes. Powell invited us to come the next week to stay at the family’s hunting lodge down in Georgia to really shoot at birds and maybe see a NASCAR race. But we had a Presidential primary in South Carolina to cover and so headed off into the chill night; cheeks flushed by the open fire and aged whisky, charmed by his southern hospitality.
Eighteen months after our interview, Jody Powell died of a heart attack at that same house on Chesapeake Bay while stacking fire wood in his yard. He was 65.
John Barron: What was campaigning – retail politics – like in places like Iowa during Governor Carter’s campaign for the Democratic nomination in 1975 and 1976?
Jody Powell: Well Iowa was quite a delight in 1975 and ‘76 and Iowa is still there but you won’t ever be able to do that again I fear for a variety of reasons. It wasn’t that nobody had discovered Iowa but the Carter campaign – there were four or five other candidates there – but we spent a little more time there than others, but less money than two or three others. But we spent a lot of time in the small towns and the smaller cities getting to know people and building an organization out of volunteers for the most part – as President Carter is fond of recalling, sleeping on people’s couches – but as I recall it he got the guest bedroom and I got the couch, but anyway there was sleeping on the couches. And it was a magnificent experience that I will always treasure because you really did spend a lot of time with a lot of people who the President was going to govern, you had a lot of time to listen to them, laugh with them, argue with them... it was a very rich and good experience for someone who wants to lead this country.
It’s very rare in a Presidential campaign that a candidate has a chance to make any significant, real or meaningful contact with voters – but in a smaller state like Iowa and a caucus environment it was possible, it was also possible in New Hampshire – Florida less so. I think it’s incredibly important that we somehow design a political process that brings our candidates into that kind of contact with the people one is going to have to lead and govern. It’s very hard to do once you have two planeloads of press following you it’s hard for the people to get to you and you to get to the people frankly.
John Barron: Was the media less tuned-in in 1975 to the accessibility of candidates in places like Iowa than they are today?
Jody Powell: Well for one thing, the candidates started later; even we started earlier than people had before I don’t think we made our first trip to Iowa until maybe March of ‘75 – much less than 12 months before the caucuses. Now they start in Iowa two years, three years prior to the caucuses and reporters have started covering the campaigns earlier too. Now I don’t doubt that for a number of candidates early on they will have the chance to be with voters and be with smaller groups in a more natural setting than takes place in the campaign.
John Barron: Does that sort of campaigning suit some candidates more than others?
Jody Powell: I think one of the reasons that sort of campaigning is important is that it puts a premium on the need to speak as yourself, not as what your speechwriter or your campaign consultant has written down and advised you to say. Because if you are standing in someone’s living room with 20 people that you have never met before lord only knows what they are going to ask you about and how you handle yourself, what you say under those circumstances, how they read you becomes tremendously important – but it’s, it’s got to be you. At that close range people can detect phoniness and insincerity and if you are just trying to follow the script and ‘what am I supposed to say to make everyone here happy’ – very quickly.
John Barron: Was there something unique about the year you were running this kind of campaign in the appeal of a candidate (Carter) who did appear perhaps more in touch with ordinary people, rather than being a Washington-insider’- post Watergate?
Jody Powell: There is no doubt that 1976 was ideally suited for a man like Jimmy Carter and Jimmy Carter was ideally suited for that year and that time. We were really in the afterglow – if you will – of Watergate and all of the other scandals and misrepresentations and people were quite disgusted with ‘business as usual’ in the nation’s capital and were actively looking for, it was very clear, someone who was not a creature of that process and that system. Of course there were 49 other Governors out there, none of whom were creatures of that system too, so he wasn’t the only person who could have met those criteria but he perhaps saw the opportunity and he had the drive born of things he wanted to do, things he wanted to see happen, changes we wanted to see made.
John Barron: A lot of people talk about the other candidate who helped identify the significance of Iowa and the other early-to-vote states Senator George McGovern – but while he was able to use a grassroots campaign to win the nomination (in 1972) he couldn’t do so in the general. Does that say something about the candidate or the times – why was there a difference in those two elections?
Jody Powell: I think the years were different and because of that the campaigns were different. The Democratic nominating process in 1972 was bitter and divisive and at time violent and there was not a great deal of sentiment from any of the side for ‘let’s come together’. By contrast in 1976 while there were some sharp exchanges I think people of all persuasions were saying ‘oh my god let’s don’t let what happened to us in 1972 happen to us again.’ It’s also true that Governor Carter represented much more the moderate centrist wing of his party, and George McGovern, who I always thought was more moderate and centrist than he came across at that time, was seen as representing more one end (the left wing) of the spectrum.
John Barron: Being someone who had to work with the media and try to manage the way that a candidate is viewed – how do you go about stopping your candidate being portrayed in a way that perhaps doesn’t reflect their true beliefs?
Jody Powell: I don’t know that anybody has ever figured out how to stop the media from doing something it was intent upon doing. It is truly an art, and it’s an art that most of us are not very good at and we have to learn to take pride in small successes and not get too down by large failures. It is particularly if, as was certainly the case with us, this was our first Presidential campaign and we were not really familiar with the natural sort of rhythm and cycle of the press coverage of a campaign. Since then I have seen it so many times it has become almost like an old bad dream. It is certainly true that once a candidate begins to show momentum there is a tendency of reports as with everybody else to join in the cry, if you will. But as soon as that candidate becomes the frontrunner and has his or her head significantly above the crowd, then there is – and perhaps for good reason – there sets in a desire to test and probe and push and the result is that the candidate gets banged around there for several weeks. That caught me by surprise when it happened in 1976, fortunately there were those around me who said; ‘Jody that’s the way it always happens, you just gotta live through this there’s nothing much you can do except put your head down, try not to make mistakes and move ahead.’
John Barron: Did you sense that the media was simply looking for what was going to sell newspapers, without an agenda or ideology – or did you feel there was a push for or against particular candidates for other reasons?
Jody Powell: I have always thought that the primary bias among journalists is the same bias that affects the rest of us – it was greed and ambition, the desire to get ahead, to get a few more column-inches, to be on the front page to be successful at what you are about. That was a much more powerful driver than any particular point of view or ideology - which is not to say that journalists don’t have a point of view and sometimes that does have an impact. In the case of President Carter I think that one of the more interesting developments was that at that time more so than now a lot of journalists were southerners – television and print – I don’t know why but it had been that way for quite some time – perhaps the storytelling tradition of the rural south. In some cases that was an advantage for us because they understood who we were, who he (Carter) was, and were less inclined to misinterpret things that were not of great moment. On the other hand, particularly amongst those younger reporters, there was a desire that he (Carter) be almost perfect – they wanted this fellow who might be the first President from the deep south since the civil war, to make no mistakes, to have no warts, to have no shortcomings. And so they reacted almost emotionally if they felt he was straying from the true path of righteousness and proper behaviour. Looking back on it, it is fascinating to think about what happened there – at the times it was on occasion quite baffling and frustrating.
John Barron: Is it one of the realities of Presidential politics that every candidate and every presidency is a reaction to the last one in some way – or in the case of yours, a reaction to the Nixon administration?
Jody Powell: Well sure, to a greater or lesser extent. I’m trying to think back if there is one in my lifetime that really had not much to do with the previous campaign or the previous four years... I think it’s interesting, you spoke about Iowa a while ago; I haven’t seen this remarked upon so much, but the fact that that little state on the Democratic side (in 2008), the three frontrunners were a black, a woman and a white southerner. I remember when we started to head out to Iowa in 1975 we spoke with the then-chairman of the state Democratic party who said, trying to be helpful, and politely that he thought it would be a waste of time, that Iowa Democrats would not support a Governor from the deep South for President. So we have come a long way.
John Barron: Although in that 1976 campaign there was also a Mormon (Mo Udall) and it didn’t seem to be quite the same issue as it was for (2008 Republican candidate and former Massachusetts Governor) Mitt Romney this time around...
Jody Powell: Right. I think that was in part because Morris Udall’s religion was not so much of his life and who he was and what he did as has been the case with Mitt Romney. And also the place of religion in American politics has changed tremendously since that time – the place of religion for white Americans has changed tremendously. The black church has always played a significant role in black politics and in voting behaviour. For American Caucasians and particularly Protestants the church up until the 1980’s the churches did not play that active a role in the political process.
John Barron: Having spent the time you did in Iowa what did you make of the (2008 Caucus) result – the two winners were a black man (Democrat Barack Obama) and an Evangelical on the Republican side (Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas) – what does that say to you about Iowa and the electorate more generally now?
Jody Powell: Well, obviously it says in both cases, certainly in the case of Barack Obama that being black was not a big factor in that victory because there aren’t enough black folks in Iowa to elect much of anybody (less than 5%). Now, I also think it also says as important as evangelical voters were on the Republican side, you also had a man (Huckabee) who came across as a real person in those face-to-face contacts in those small groups people felt an attraction to a genuineness and sincerity about the fellow. Actually the lesson might be you have to look past race and religion to get at what actually went on there (in Iowa).
John Barron: All of the pundits and all of the campaigns were talking about ‘doing a Jimmy Carter’ in Iowa – and it seems of all the candidates the most like Carter was Mike Huckabee...
Jody Powell: I suspect that’s right, that he comes much closer to the model. Including the fact people felt they were talking to a real person getting real answers and that was what the fellow actually thought, but also because the press almost wilfully ignored him. Huckabee I think was more of a surprise than Carter was because when the caucuses finally rolled around in 1976 Carter was the favourite, which made us very uncomfortable, but there it was nevertheless.
John Barron: The calendar is different now, and the amount of time between states is much less so has the influence of Iowa and the early states been affected?
Jody Powell: Oh I think not only is it harder to catch everybody by surprise in Iowa for an underdog, but the ability to leverage that victory is much less because you don’t have the time to do it. And when I say leverage it means a lot of things, but one thing it has to mean for an underdog is money; that you can use that victory to gain the resources to compete in New Hampshire and Florida and the other states that follow. The process is so frontloaded now – we had four weeks between Iowa and New Hampshire, now it was less than a week – and followed very quickly by other states and Super Tuesday.
John Barron: Given that it now takes a war-chest of hundreds of millions of dollars to win the nomination, do you think that candidates can still do as Carter did and campaign in the early states with just a few percent in the polls five months out from the primaries and take it all the way to the White House the following November?
Jody Powell: I would like to hope that opportunity is still there, and I suppose the chances are very substantially reduced, and it’s because of money as well as the compressed nature of the nominating process. But what that means is that you have to spend so much money so much faster without the time to raise it, and so in the end it does come back to money.
John Barron: Can you explain how, when you are in the White House, people who have raised m money for you in a campaign can be afforded a certain level of access – that if you are a big donor then somebody will take your call – is that how it works?
Jody Powell: Well we were rather roundly criticised for not taking care of donors, and in any case if they did need a call back they probably wouldn’t have tried calling the press secretary anyway, but the people who are early supporters of a president, yes they are going to get somebody usually to call them back. Now the question then is what happens next? It depends on what they want and whether it is reasonable or not and somebody has to make a judgement about whether this is something that makes sense and is in the national interest? That process is something that has become much more sophisticated and much more intense because the amount of money involved is so much greater than it used to be and I think the politicians running for office hate it worse than anybody else because that’s all they have time to do is constantly beg for money.
John Barron: Do you think they feel compromised that they are in a difficult situation?
Jody Powell: The good ones do I suppose, and maybe not even just the good ones because my guess is that most of them are uncomfortable with it – whether they would admit it or not. And if you’ve been in Congress for a dozen years or so and you’ve been through five or six (election) cycles in some ways you’ve got to get a callous there, but I know some who would tell you ‘god I wish I didn’t have to do this’.
John Barron: There have been various attempts at campaign finance reform and being involved with that was seen by some as a mark against John McCain, having been co-sponsor of the McCain-Feingold Bill – why is that, if a politician says ‘let’s change this’ they almost become a pariah?
Jody Powell: Well you become a pariah in the circles that benefit from the status-quo if you attempt to change the status-quo. But that’s not entirely the whole case – there is in conservative circles a very strong philosophical view about these sorts of things which I must say I would find more persuasive if it didn’t so neatly correspond with their selfish interests.
John Barron: Can we talk about working with the media once you were in the White House? In your role where you were dealing with them on a daily basis and you are trying to put across the administration’s view; you are providing information but you are also I guess in a way trying to feed a story... is that how it is?
Jody Powell: Well you are certainly trying to present the rationale, reason and arguments for whatever decision the President has made. And I suppose there are a number of ways of doing that; one is sort of a minimal amount of information – certainly a minimal amount of give and take, a fairly tightly controlled flow of information from the White House. The other is more open and flexible – and I’ve seen both of them work. But the problem is on a day-in-day-out basis probably the more tightly controlled approach works best. The problem is that when the President gets in a bind he and the press secretary has very little to fall back on and inevitably you reach a spot where you have explained as best you can, you have for whatever reason said as much as you can say and you know, and the reporters know you’ve had to stop here before you get to the point where you’ve actually made your case or proven your point. So then reporters have got to decide ‘well now what do we think here – is he or she being straight with us or not?’And I’ve always believed that had a tremendous amount to do with all that had gone before and whether there was in general a feeling you had been straight with people on difficult things in the past.
John Barron: You talked about the southerners in the press corps and the way there was an affinity but there was also perhaps a hyper-criticism, not wanting this guy (Carter) to not be who he says he is – did you sense a collective mood in the press room?
Jody Powell: Oh sure. And some of them were over a longer period of time and some were of the moment. There were a few folks who had a problem with the southern aspect of it. I remember a young woman who covered the justice department one night in a group tell me, after a few drinks I might say, that whenever she heard Attorney general Griffin Bell open his mouth with that deep southern accent all she could think about was the slaves being whipped up and down the rows of the cotton fields! And I thought ‘Holy...My God! We have got a long ways to dig ourselves out of that!’But you did have some of that. Interestingly enough, given all that has happened since then there were more than a few reporters who were very uncomfortable with President Carter’s (southern Baptist) religion. Now I have so often said, he probably read more of the bible and quoted it less than a lot of President’s we’ve had, but at the same time he didn’t try to deny or hide his religion and the role it played in his life and there were a few folks who couldn’t bring themselves to believe that it wasn’t hypocritical for all those years. I know a number of them have finally, after all these years, have said finally the fellers 80-something years old he’s still doing it he must believe in it.
John Barron: So you were dealing with a certain amount of cynicism?
Jody Powell: Yep, well, look, journalists are in a way paid to be cynical and it’s hard to spend as much time covering politics and government and the White House as those folks did without some cynicism creeping in.
John Barron: Did you advise the President as to how he should deal with the media, what persona to put over, how he should behave in front of the cameras?
Jody Powell: Well yes and no. There are certain basic things about dealing with a camera – as you well know – it’s not a natural thing being in front of a camera and being natural in front of a camera doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll come across as being natural when someone sees that on the tube. So there are things one needs to learn in order to come across decently on camera. President Carter never really was – as he would be the first to admit – an accomplished orator. He was very good in the give-and-take of question and answer and extemporaneously – so we worked with marginal success on helping him become more comfortable with delivering that set-piece speech from a text. And I think as I look back over tapes now from the beginning of the administration and towards the end I do think he became more comfortable as time went along. Beyond that it was really more dealing with specific answers, specific topics and approaches about how to best describe where we are or this event or particular issue. And of course there were others involved in that process too.
John Barron: Was there a change in gears when you go from running a campaign to running a country – and what was that like?
Jody Powell: Oh of course. It’s similar to going from a gubernatorial campaign to being in a governor’s office, only bigger. Everything is writ much larger if it’s the White House as opposed to the governor’s office. I’ve always said I was really quite fortunate that I didn’t know quite what I was getting in to because if I had it would have probably scared me to death and probably couldn’t have done it at all. Fortunately you do get a bit of a honeymoon although our honeymoon was really more of a one-night stand, but you did have a little piece at the beginning and a little time where they said ‘OK give these folks a chance to get their feet on the ground’.
The other thing that had been largely true up through our administration, even in our case the outgoing administration – we had beaten Jerry Ford for the Presidency but his people could not have been more helpful and decent about trying to help us get off to a good start. And I think the Reagan people would say the same thing about us when we left in 1981. I have some doubts about whether that tradition has always been honoured in the years since.
John Barron: Do you think, knowing President Carter as well as you do - that there was an ‘Oh My Gosh!’ moment - it’s one thing to run for the Presidency but another to be sitting behind the desk in the Oval Office?
Jody Powell: I don’t know. Knowing him as well as I do I am quite sure that if there had been one then I probably would not have been able to detect it. I’m sure there must have been a point where one realises the magnitude of the job you’ve undertaken to do in a way that’s different and more than whatever you had before. Maybe it’s election night, maybe it’s somewhere in the transition, maybe it’s after the inauguration or maybe when you are faced with one of those truly Presidential decisions that brings it home to you that it’s different.
John Barron: Does it take a particular kind of person to seek that office in the first place, that wants to become what is effectively the most powerful person on earth?
Jody Powell: I think it takes a particular – I would says ‘kinds’ of people – when I look at the President’s of my lifetime, other than all being boys, I don’t know what the common thread is there. You obviously have to, for whatever reason... I was going to say you have to feel like you can do something important, but I’m not sure that was the case with all of the President’s... people may have run for other reasons. So I don’t know there is one thing that sets the people who seek and win that office apart.
John Barron: Given that, can you look at a field of candidates now and say ‘they’ve got it, they haven’t’?
Jody Powell: I don’t know if one can do that accurately but that is what we do isn’t it? I have always thought that is the first cut people make when they look at a field of candidates and it is a different cut that for any other office in this country for obvious reasons, and it’s ‘Can I see this person as President of the United States? Do they seem to be the person who has whatever it is that makes a President?’