It was not so long ago that we experienced a time of goodwill in our national political life, with Jimmy Carter promising never to lie and contesting for the Presidency with the widely admired incumbent Gerald Ford. That was in 1976, a time before universal nasty feelings spewed out from our national leadership.
Now all that has changed, the time of decency is gone, and we have lost what had been an open window to the fresh air that characterized the late 1970s. I have written about those earlier days in my new memoir, Journeys With Jimmy Carter and Other Adventures in Media.
This story begins with my observations as a journalist during the John F. Kennedy years and Lyndon Johnson’s subsequent promulgation of the American war in Vietnam. It was a very good time to be a journalist, especially one with roots in Texas, and a moment for shining the light of truth on those in Washington and in the White House.
But first I had to find a way through the challenges of 20th century media, including being an eyewitness to the era of assassinations — of President Kennedy, his brother Robert, and the inspirational Martin Luther King Jr. Eventually there was some relief, being there with Walter Cronkite for the moon landing.
Then came the Watergate scandals, which proved to be prelude for the emergence of Carter. As his television advisor, I could see first hand how “Jimmy Who” promised a new democracy and brought that forth, staying in touch with the electorate, through the use of modern media, a radio call-in program involving millions, a fireside chat emulating Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and then not one American life lost in combat. That Carter had a lighting-quick mind made all this more effective.
However, it was not a perfect age, with inflation rising to 21%, the taking of U.S. diplomats as hostages in Iran, and the arrival of another candidate for the White House who seemed to see “morning in America” and promised to start anew, offering to bring new strength to our national life. Thus the cycle was to begin again: Out went Carter and in came Ronald Reagan.
To prepare now for another test at the ballot box, as American democracy faces another trial, my book ends with lessons for modern presidential elections. The challenges of the present day obligate individuals to get involved with once unknown technologies such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Yet the traditional technology of elections—yard signs, direct mail and phone banks—must still be engaged to support one’s candidates and to point out weaknesses in others.
There is a cycle in America political life, and one can only hope our coming new time will be for the best.
Barry Jagoda, a La Jolla resident, was an award-winning journalist at NBC News and CBS News who later served in the White House as an assistant for President Jimmy Carter. His new book about the Carter years was published on Friday.