By Barry Jagoda
Forty years ago Friday several of us from the 1976 Carter campaign grouped together in the chill just a few steps from the Inaugural platform, waiting for the swearing-in of President-elect Jimmy Carter and Vice-President-elect Walter Mondale. Most of us had worked together for the past year responding to reporter’s questions, setting up candidate speaking locations and being of general assistance as Carter and Mondale traveled the country. Now we could hardly contain our excitement in the final moments of our passionate work.
As the new officials took their oaths of office, our group migrated toward the motorcades. In the last such candidate movement some of us had come from Blair House with Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter. Now we were ready to join up with the first official presidential journey!
Hitching a ride from the West front of the capitol to the White House seemed like a normal procedure—a traveling process in which many of us had participated hundreds of times over the months of 1976. But, of course, this was different: the first Presidential motorcade. Most of us were surprised, as were the huge crowds, when Jimmy and Rosalynn exited their limo and walked up Pennsylvania Avenue.
For me it had begun in the weeks preceding the New Hampshire primary. What a momentous beginning to a year of campaign stops, media events and Presidential debates. As Governor Carter and I climbed into his car on that primary evening of Jan. 24, 1976, one of the top reporters covering Jimmy Carter’s incredible effort, James Wooten, of the New York Times, leaned his head into the back seat window to quietly announce, “Governor, I think you have just won the Democratic nomination.” Wooten, normally quite restrained, uttered these unthinkable words. Months later, of course, his prognostication would turn into reality. But that evening Carter simply looked up and said, “Thanks Jim.” And, with his newly famous grin, added, “Good Deal!”
On that January night, the candidate and I were headed for the anchor locations of CBS News’ Walter Cronkite and the other major broadcast operations to have the New Hampshire victory celebrated and made officially un-official. This was a pattern we were to follow for the next months, making it easy for the networks to give Carter the bounce that came from winning elections state by state all the way down through the primary nominating process.
Three of us—Jody Powell, Jerry Rafshoon and I–had formed the Carter campaign debate negotiating team, arguing out the details of those crucial events with representatives of our opponent, the incumbent president, Gerald Ford. Cool and collected Carter outpointed Ford as did Senator Walter Mondale in his debate with Senator Robert Dole.
And suddenly it was election night, with the Carter team in Atlanta’s World Congress Center. The thrill, and the tension, was deep and unforgettable.
Over the next three months, while the President-elect in Plains and Atlanta mulled over and selected officials for the government, hundreds of reporters and office-seekers converged on our “Transition Headquarters” in Washington, hoping for access and consideration. But the days and weeks flew by. Suddenly, it seemed, the new President’s motorcade left the Capitol Inaugural festivities heading for the White House. President Carter was to retain wide public popularity over the next year-and-a-half.
Deputy Press Secretary Rex Granum and I could hardly believe our circumstances: As the new President reviewed the Inaugural Parade, we stood on the White House lawn. Rex said, “Well, I guess we better get over to our offices and get on with it!” As always, Rex was serious and his words gave me a shake of reality.
Having been named special assistant to the President, when I opened the top desk drawer of my new workplace, there was a note from the predecessor occupant: “Here I wrote President Nixon’s resignation speech,” were the words from Raymond K. Price. “So, I wish you and your colleagues good luck,” his short message concluded.
On the first full day of the Carter Presidency, Deputy Special Assistant Rick Neustadt and I had the privilege of hosting his father, the great scholar of the Presidency, Professor Richard Neustadt, to breakfast in the White House. We asked, “What is the secret to Presidential Power?” Quickly Professor Neustadt answered, “Keep your options open!”
A few days later, along with others, I received as a gift from Rex’s father, Iver Granum, one of the flags that had flown over the Capitol during the Inauguration. It had all seemed like a mere few moments in American history, the capstone of a brilliant political campaign and the beginning of the Carter years.
Barry Jagoda, an award-winning broadcast journalist, was special assistant to President Carter for media and public affairs. He recently retired as director of communications for the University of California, San Diego.
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