Billy Carter was neither the first nor the last brother to embarrass a president, but he was surely the most colorful. From the time Jimmy Carter started running for president to the end of his term in office, his younger brother was never far from the spotlight. In 1976 he provided humor and a charming contrast to his straight-laced candidate sibling. But by 1980, Billy's act had worn thin, and a major controversy over his dealings with the Libyan government cast a shadow over a Carter White House that could ill-afford another problem.
Jimmy was thirteen when Billy was born, and in some ways they grew up in entirely different families. Afraid he had been too tough on his eldest son, Earl Carter doted on Billy. The boy went everywhere with his father, and neighbors recounted how much Billy seemed to take after his daddy. When Mr. Earl died suddenly of cancer in 1953, the sixteen-year-old was devastated.
Billy later admitted he was "mad as hell" when Jimmy, who had been away in the navy since Billy was six, returned to take over the family business everyone had assumed would fall to him. After "raising hell" in school he joined the Marines at seventeen and married his sixteen-year-old sweetheart. Four years of Marine Corps discipline led Billy to conclude he was "not cut out for that kind of life," and after a series of unsatisfying jobs he ended up back in Plains, wife and children in tow, to work for his older brother. Though their relationship was never easy, Billy took up more responsibility as Jimmy ventured into politics in the 1960s. By the time Jimmy became governor it was Billy who ran Carter's Warehouse, and he did it well. "I made more money for the business than Jimmy ever did," he boasted, by all accounts demonstrating a sharp mind, strong work ethic, and natural ability to get along with people.
The Only Sane One in the Family?
In the summer of 1976, with the press gathered in Plains to get acquainted with the surprising Democratic nominee for president, Billy Carter became a star. "Yes, I'm a real southern boy," Billy admitted over drinks with reporters at his gas station across from campaign headquarters. "I got a red neck, white socks, and Blue Ribbon beer." When asked about his family, he got off one of the best quips of the entire campaign: "My mother went into the Peace Corps when she was sixty-eight. My one sister is a motorcycle freak, my other sister is a Holy Roller evangelist and my brother is running for president. I'm the only sane one in the family." President Carter later wrote that the press found Billy to be "something of a country philosopher," and that "he took advantage of the chance to present the other side of the Carter family -- not so serious, full of fun and laughter."
Virtues and Vices
There was more to this "redneck country bumpkin" than most press accounts revealed. "He was one of the best-read people I know," remembers his nephew Chip. "If he didn't know something about subject, he would go find out about it, so that if you had an argument the next time, he would be the expert on it." Not only did Billy help his brother by running the warehouse well, but he was a political asset in conservative states like Texas, reassuring many of Carter's genuine southern credentials.
Billy also had a drinking problem, on display for all to see, that grew worse as the spotlight intensified. "Billy ended up with a reputation and then he tried to live up to it," Chip concludes. While his brother was busy running the country, Billy hit the talk-show circuit, cracking one-liners and hawking his own brew, Billy Beer. His self-deprecating wit made him popular, but it wasn't long before another attempt to cash in on his brother's fame led to disaster.
The Libya Controversy
In September 1978 Billy made a highly publicized trip to Libya with a group of Georgia legislators and businessmen eager to make deals. Several months later, he hosted a delegation of Libyans in Atlanta, as they looked for a place to locate a permanent trade mission. When asked why he was involved, Billy said, "The only thing I can say is there is a hell of a lot more Arabians than there is Jews." He also argued that the "Jewish media [tore] up the Arab countries full-time," and defended Libya against charges of state-sponsored terrorism by saying that a "heap of governments support terrorists and [Libya] at least admitted it."
President Carter tried to disassociate himself from the controversy that ensued, telling NBC News that he hoped people would "realize that I don't have any control over what my brother says [and] he has no control over me." Billy also apologized and explained he wasn't anti-Semitic, but the damage was done. The Atlanta Constitution remarked, "If [Billy's] not working for the Republican Party, he should be." Some time after this, Billy spent seven weeks at an alcohol addiction treatment facility in California.
A Dubious "Loan"
Once sober, Billy was no longer in demand on the talk-show circuit, so he turned again to his Libyan friends for financial help. In July 1980 he belatedly registered as a foreign agent of the Libyan government and admitted to receiving a $220,000 "loan" for oil sales he was supposed to facilitate. The press rushed to find out whether the president's brother had hawked his influence with the White House, and a new presidential scandal, "Billygate," was born. As Jimmy himself later admitted, "He was the president's brother, and therefore fair game."
On July 22, the White House issued a statement disclosing what it knew and denying that it had interfered in the Justice Department's investigation of the matter. The president also released a personal statement saying that he did not think it "appropriate for a close relative of the president to undertake any assignment on behalf of a foreign government." While all this was basically true, a number of inaccuracies and omissions would surface in the coming days which kept the scandal alive and fueled the perception that something dirty had happened.
"In truth, the White House had concealed nothing," concludes historian Burton Kaufman. "But as [it] had to keep amending its July 22 account, there was doubt cast on Carter's forthrightness with the American people." While relatively few people doubted Carter's basic integrity, the whole thing did cast further doubts on his judgment, and what Kaufman calls his "presidential timber" in the midst of the president's uphill battle for re-election. "The damn Billy Carter stuff is killing us," complained Hamilton Jordan. It was the last thing the Carter campaign needed going into the Democratic convention in August.
The Only One Who Really Suffered
If President Carter held a grudge over the whole sad affair, he didn't show it. In his memoir, he wrote that "The only one of our family who really suffered because of [my presidency] was my brother Billy." Though he managed to stay sober and out of trouble after his brother left the White House, Billy Carter succumbed to pancreatic cancer in 1988 at the age of 51.
My American Experience
Who was your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Kennedy? Reagan? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?