“The course of human events, even the greatest historical events, are not determined by the leaders of a nation or a state, like presidents and governors and senators. They are controlled by the combined wisdom and courage and commitment and discernment and unselfishness and compassion and love and idealism of the common ordinary people. And if that was true in the case of Russia where they had a czar or France where they had an emperor, how much more true is it in our own case where the Constitution charges us with a direct responsibility for determining what our government is and ought to be?”—Jimmy Carter, then Governor of Georgia, May 4, 1974, “Law Day.” University of Georgia, Athens, GA.
Hunter S. Thompson called it a “king hell bastard of a speech,” which was a large compliment from the journalist. Dr. Thompson was in Athens, Georgia, that spring day in 1974 to cover Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s perambulations around the country as he lined up support for the campaign that everyone in the country believed he was going to launch: his endless, joyless campaign for president. In May 1974, Democrats frustrated by two consecutive losses to Richard M. goddamn Nixon found themselves staring into the existential emptiness of not having an obvious front-runner even as the man in the White House himself was shrinking under the weight of Watergate, his own self-created scandal. Even with a scandal of his own making now several years behind him, Edward Kennedy had that last name. “Kennedy ’76” sounded to some like a complete sentence. Americans everywhere, of both parties and of no political party, were frustrated by, well, all of it. A generalized ugly Nixon-ness had fallen over the land.
In August 1974, Nixon resigned, and his successor, Gerald Ford, did the only thing he could do as far as the Watergate scandal was concerned: pardon Nixon. This did not guarantee a Republican loss in ’76, but it did not help; however, any court trial of a former U.S. President would not have been a speedy one, and Ford weighed the prospect of his White House accomplishing anything in 1975 and 1976 or even attracting attention versus the ongoing distraction of the possible trial and he concluded that the trial would have won the battle of headlines every day. Republicans (Ronald Reagan) as well as Democrats started salivating at the prospect of an available White House in 1976 if he ran.
Despite this, in September of that year, the 42-year-old Kennedy announced that he was not going to run for president, citing family reasons. It may be that a speech he heard in person in May showed him that the future no longer belonged to a man with a last name from the past, though.
Kennedy ostensibly attended the Law Day events at the University of Georgia that day in May 1974 to get to know a little-known governor and line up some Southern support. Carter was in the third year of his first term and had already made public his intention to not run again; secretly, he had decided to run for the presidency. Kennedy did not know this.
When journalists discuss Carter’s speech, it is remembered as the speech in which the 48-year-old governor mentions Bob Dylan and Reinhold Niebuhr. Specifically he said,
Not having studied law, I’ve had to learn the hard way. I read a lot and listen a lot. One of the sources for my understanding about the proper application of criminal justice and the system of equity is from reading Reinhold Niebuhr. The other source of my understanding about what’s right and wrong in this society is from a friend of mine, a poet named Bob Dylan. After listening to his records about ‘The Ballad of Hattie Carol’ and ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and ‘The Times, They Are a-Changing,’ I’ve learned to appreciate the dynamism of change in a modern society.
I grew up as a landowner’s son. But I don’t think I ever realized that the proper interrelationship between the landowner and those who worked on a farm until I heard Dylan’s record, ‘I Ain’t Gonna Work on Maggie’s Farm No More.’ So I come here speaking to you today about your subject with a base for my information founded on Reinhold Niebuhr and Bob Dylan.
Thompson wrote that he asked one of Kennedy’s advisers, “What the hell did I just hear?” and that the man had a smile on his face, as he was no doubt deciding for himself that Carter was a ridiculous man, and replied, “He said his top two advisers are Bob Dylan and Reinhold Niebuhr.” Thompson retrieved his tape recorder and started taping.
With the benefit of hindsight, Thompson wrote of the speech in 1976 that he knew he was in the room with something different. Of course, Thompson might have been inclined to find something different because he was looking for something different; the fact that Carter was neither Hubert Humphrey (“that rotten, truthless old freak … cackling like a hen full of amyls”) nor Ed Muskie might have been sufficient. But Thompson detected something important.
Today is August 20, 2015, and Jimmy Carter announced to the world this morning that he has cancer in his brain and will begin radiation treatments today, possibly right now as I type this. (The New York Times article, “Jimmy Carter Says Doctors Found Cancer in His Brain,” has the video embedded, which starts automatically. Subscription required.) In typical fashion, Carter publicly addressed the issue of his health in a moving press conference and said, “I’ve had a wonderful life. I’ve had thousands of friends. I’ve had an exciting and adventurous and gratifying existence.” Now 90, he said he is “looking forward to a new adventure.”
Ten years ago today, the closest thing to a funeral was held for Dr. Hunter S. Thompson: his ashes were shot out of a cannon 150 feet above the Colorado land he had loved for decades. He had committed suicide six months before. Thompson had imagined his funeral for a BBC program, Omnibus, in 1978. In his imaginings, the cannon was to sit atop a 150-foot-tall statue of his and Ralph Steadman’s unique Gonzo logo: a two-thumbed fist clutching a peyote button. Some of his neighbors complained that the affair was too celebrity-filled, since Johnny Depp had paid for the statue and the cannon, and dozens of fellow celebrity journalists and celebrity politicians attended. Thompson might have enjoyed the local controversy.
Jimmy Carter did not attend, but he has participated in almost every documentary filmed about Hunter Thompson. He well remembers what Thompson and Rolling Stone did for his campaign in 1976. (The Omnibus narrator in the 1978 film credits Thompson with swinging the “youth vote to Carter.”)
Carter was a different politician, or he seemed to be a mostly different politician, and Hunter Thompson, a mostly different journalist, took note. Thompson describes the America of 1974 as one in which “the underdogs of yesteryear have had their day and they blew it.” He continues, “The radicals and reformers of the Sixties promised peace, but they turned out to be nothing but incompetent trouble-makers. ‘Extremists’ at both ends of the spectrum were thoroughly discredited.”
In 1976, Thompson complained that Carter’s national campaign staff was not using the Law Day speech or encouraging him to repeat it, but he understood that it is not the middle-of-the-road speech of a moderate reassuring the electorate that things are already alright in the land. In the speech, he writes, Carter was “not concerned with preserving his moderate image as he is now. He was thinking more about all the trouble he’d had with judges, lawyers, lobbyists, and other minions of the Georgia establishment while he was governor—and now, with only six more months in the office, he wanted to have a few words with these people.”
He was speaking to the Georgia establishment, to Senator Kennedy. “There was not much anger in his voice when he started, ” Thompson writes. “But halfway through, it was too obvious for anybody in the room to ignore. There was no way to cut him short, and he knew it.”
Carter said things like:
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was perhaps despised by many in this room because he shook up our social structure that benefited us, and demanded simply that black citizens be treated the same as white citizens, wasn’t greeted with approbation and accolades by the Georgia Bar Association or the Alabama Bar Association. He was greeted with horror. Still, once that change was made, a very simple but difficult change, no one in his right mind would want to go back to circumstances prior to that juncture in the development of our nation’s society.
I … I don’t want to go on and on; I’m … I’m part of it.
He blasted a system in which justice seemed to serve only those who could afford it. (“I don’t know, it may be that poor people are the only ones who commit crimes, but I do know that they are the only ones who serve prison sentences.”) He blasted the racism that lay under it all in some southern states, like his. (“Anyone who lives in the South looks back on the last 15 to 20 years with some degree of embarrassment, including myself. To forgo the one man, one vote principle, we would now consider a horrible violation of the basic principles of justice and equality.”) He blasted lobbyists. (“The regulatory agencies in Washington are made up, not of people to regulate industries, but of representatives of the industries that are regulated. Is that fair and right and equitable? I don’t think so.”) He knew that he was speaking to a room full of lobbyists. And yet he closed with the paragraph I opened with, about our shared responsibility to build an unselfish system.
He told the room full of lawyers and politicians, “I can’t imagine somebody like Thomas Jefferson tiptoeing through the technicalities of the law, and then bragging about being clean afterwards. I believe that everyone in this room who is in a position of responsibility as a preserver of the law in its purest form ought to remember the oath that Thomas Jefferson and others took when they practically signed their own death warrant, writing the Declaration of Independence.”
Thompson went to Georgia expecting to cover one more forgettable afternoon in the campaign of a man who sometimes seemed like he did not want to be president almost as much as the part of the country that would have voted against him did not want him to be president and instead he discovered the next president. (Kennedy would live to have a grand career in the Senate.)
Carter’s idealism, expressed in that speech in 1974, came to be ridiculed when he was in the White House (who wants an idealist for president?) but it has animated his post-presidency. We are all the richer for it.
To paraphrase Gore Vidal, he is heading graciously towards the door marked Exit, and his announcement today happened to come on a sad and glorious Gonzo anniversary.
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