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Remembering the Weird Side of Jimmy Carter

March 16, 2009

Some Republicans are already comparing President Barrack Obama to President Jimmy Carter but a quick look back on style does not remotely bear this out.

While it is understandable that the GOP would want to conjure up the political memories of what historians say was one of the worse presidencies of all times - it is far too early to label President Obama with the ineptitude that defined Jimmy Carter’s years in the White House.

While both Carter and Obama were swept into office amid great promise and hope – and each was elected during a period of political turmoil in the country - that’s about where the similarities end in their first 50 days.

In 1976 voters were looking for someone outside Washington - someone new - after all voters figured - who could do worse after four years of Watergate and Jerry Ford? The country knew very little about Jimmy Carter - only that he had been a state senator and a one-term Governor from Georgia.. But he represented what was then called "the new south" - a term that was used to identify the new political leadership of the south that embraced progressive ideas on education, integration, and economics.

The country also became enamored with the fact that Jimmy Carter was an outsider; he carried his own luggage; and was a likeable peanut farmer with a big-wide grin. Most voters were Watergate-worn and looking for someone different - and the Carter campaign looked refreshing and hopeful.

Carter also defeated a Republican nominee - President Ford - who was not fully supported by the conservative wing of the Republican party.

So it was that Carter took the Presidential oath of office in January of 1977 and walked down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House on Inauguration Day. A new dawn of American politics was hailed that day and the country was optimistic and upbeat for the first time in many years.

But the Carter presidency began to unravel almost from the start. Carter brought with him a team of individuals from Georgia - known in the press as the "Georgia Mafia"- most of whom had little or no experience dealing with the multitude of problems the new President was soon ro encounter.

From an educational standpoint - Carter was brilliant - a graduate of the United States Naval Academy - Carter had the analytical skills to learn the nuances of just about every program in the federal government - and he could explain it to you, too.

But he never grasped the simple understanding of the Washington political process and his administration quickly got the reputation of being petty, small, and inept. Carter wanted to differentiate his presidency from what had become an imperial one under Richard Nixon so he forbid the Marine Corps Band from playing "Hail to the Chief."

In the midst of an energy crisis he ordered that the White House thermostat to be set at 65 degrees; disallowed lights to be placed on the National Christmas Tree; eliminated the use of car-service for White House staff; sold the presidential yacht, the Sequoia; and breakfast meetings with Congressional leaders at the White House consisted of coffee, juice, and a roll.

He was so obsessed and controlling of every detail as president that he even personally approved requests from staff for use of the White House tennis courts - as well as staff parking privileges at federal departments and agencies.

The political weirdness did not stop in the Oval Office - Carter’s Chief of Staff - Hamilton Jordan was persona non grata on Capitol Hill - where Speaker of House Tip O’Neil dubbed him "Hannibal Jerkin."

There was also the embarrassing late-night Washington episode alleging that Jordan spit a Pina Colada at a woman in a bar near George Washington University. The White House issued a 33-page statement denying the incident.

There are legitimate issues where Republicans differ with President Obama - but comparing him to President Carter is far-fetched - for now.