Running for president in the bicentennial year of 1976, Jimmy Carter -- peanut farmer, born-again Christian, and one-term governor -- played the role of Washington outsider to perfection. But his approach was more than a campaign strategy. The new president intended to govern the same way, and to carry that out he brought a whole team of outsiders to the White House, collectively nicknamed the "Georgia Mafia."
"You dance with the ones that bring you," comments journalist John A. Farrell on Carter's approach to staffing. "They were a very close-knit band of brothers. They did not have a lot in common with the national political party, they did not have a lot in common with the Congress. And they were pretty cocky guys as well."
Georgians With Connections
Most of the key positions in the executive branch were staffed by Georgians who had some connection to Carter: budget director Bert Lance; communications director Gerald Rafshoon; domestic policy advisor Stuart Eizenstat; Attorney General Griffin Bell; appointments secretary Phil Wise; Congressional liaison Frank Moore; White House counsel Robert Lipshutz. The closer one came to Carter's inner circle, the longer and deeper the connection. At the core were Carter's press secretary, Jody Powell, and de facto chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan.
Loyalty -- and Inexperience
In a profile of Jordan and Powell for Rolling Stone magazine, Joe Klein wrote, "They had been plucked by Carter from towns in the Georgia backwoods no more than forty miles from Plains, and programmed for total loyalty to Jimmy. He had taken up all their adult lives. There were no other allegiances possible... or even fathomable." Besides loyalty, the young pair brought to their jobs intelligence, irreverent humor, hard work -- and absolutely no experience in national government.
Jody Powell had grown up in rural Vienna, Georgia, the son of a farmer and a high school teacher. "He was the All-American boy: the smartest, cleverest, best-looking, most popular kid in school," wrote Klein. Like many other promising southern boys, his future boss included, Powell earned an appointment to one of the elite military academies. He was on his way to becoming an Air Force pilot when he was expelled in his final year for cheating on a history exam. "After getting kicked out for cheating," Powell later joked, "politics seemed like the next best thing."
Powell finished his degree at Georgia State in Atlanta, tried his hand at insurance, then ended up as a graduate student in political science at Emory University. In 1969, he sent a paper on southern populism to Jimmy Carter, then in the midst of a four-year campaign for governor. He soon found himself sharing hotel rooms and countless hours on the road with Carter as his driver and political handyman, and a strong bond formed between the two men. When Carter won the governorship Powell became his press secretary, a role he would play for the next ten years. During the 1976 campaign and in the White House, Powell earned a reputation with reporters for his sharp sense of humor and fierce loyalty to Carter.
Compared to Powell, Hamilton Jordan was a city boy, born and raised in the town of Albany, Georgia. Schoolmates remembered him more for his affable personality than for his performance in the classroom or on the athletic field. He grew up in a political family -- his classmates voted him most likely to become governor some day -- and remained proud of his southern heritage, even when the civil rights movement came to Albany in 1961 in the person of Martin Luther King Jr. After graduating from the University of Georgia, he spent six months in Vietnam before being sent home with black water fever; his tour of duty was long enough for him to conclude "there was no escaping the fact that the war was wrong." Back home in Albany in 1966, hating his job at a bank, Jordan started volunteering for gubernatorial hopeful Jimmy Carter. Though Carter lost, he had found a natural political talent in the twenty-four year old. Four years later, with Jordan managing the campaign, the outcome was different.
"After Jimmy became governor and Hamilton was his executive secretary, Hamilton was like the dog who chased the car and caught it. He didn't know what to do," commented one Atlanta reporter. Jordan found his stride, though, when Governor Carter set his sights on the White House. Beginning with a remarkably astute 72-page memo in November 1972, he was the primary architect of one of the most brilliant campaigns in American political history.
Once in the White House, Jordan again struggled to find a balance between policy and politics. Time magazine captured the confusion over his role when it observed, "He is everywhere because of his access to the president. He is nowhere because he has no line of responsibility and can put himself in or take himself out as he -- and the president -- want." Admittedly a poor administrator, and with Carter intent on running his own White House, Jordan did not officially become chief of staff until a major reorganization in the summer of 1979, after the Carter administration was already in big trouble.
"Each is a funnel to the president: Jody from the outside, the media; Hamilton from the inside, the staff," wrote Klein, neatly summing up their White House roles.
Powell and Jordan were also, as Time magazine noted, "the living image of [the administration's] down-home style." This laid-back aura had been an asset during the campaign, making the straight-laced, born-again Carter more appealing to young liberals. "They all had shaggy hair, they were known for partying late at night," remembers historian Douglas Brinkley. "There was a kind of youth culture around the stern father figure of Jimmy Carter, which slowly started winning over advocates to his campaign." But this style didn't play as well in a city governed by strict, though unwritten rules. "They clashed with the Washington social scene, [the] more sophisticated Georgetown dinner party crowd that wanted to get their hooks into the new president," says Brinkley. "And here you had these Georgians who were quite happy going around in blue jeans and going to Willie Nelson concerts. They did not fit into the Georgetown scene at all."
Conflicts With Congress
This refusal to play by the rules of Washington also contributed to the Carter administration's difficult relationship with Congress. Jordan and Frank Moore, in particular, feuded with leading Democrats like House Speaker Tip O’Neill from the start. Unreturned phone calls, insults (both real and imagined), and an unwillingness to trade political favors soured many on Capitol Hill and tangibly affected the president's ability to push through his ambitious agenda.
"There was an innocence, and an arrogance, about the idea that you could run the country with your Atlanta statehouse team -- you just couldn't," concludes historian Roger Wilkins. "Every president brings his people, but most presidents bring people who are seasoned people who really understand Washington and know how to move around the city. That just wasn't true of Jimmy Carter. You hate to say it, but it was often, it seemed, very amateurish."
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?