Jody Powell died on Sept. 14 of a heart attack. He was 65 years old.
Powell and the late Hamilton Jordan were among the key architects of Jimmy Carter’s successful run for the White House in 1976. They subsequently became part of the “Georgia Mafia” that invaded Washington along with Carter. Powell served as the president’s press secretary.
As a pastor I find it prudent not to take sides publicly in elections. As a rule, I don’t discuss for whom I voted in an election but I am willing to affirm here and now, 33 years after the fact, that I voted for Jimmy Carter in his contest with President Gerald Ford.
I regarded Ford as a good, capable and honest leader, but he had come into office as a result of the tawdry Watergate affair, which was when I first started paying close attention to national politics. My political idealism at that point would have made Jimmy Stewart’s character in the “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” look downright cynical, but I was in a mood to throw the bums out. I did not regard Ford as one of the bums, but he seemed to live on the same street. That was good enough – or bad enough – for me.
I also voted for Carter because he was from Georgia – and so was I.
The election of November 1976 was the very first election in which I was able to participate; I turned 18 just six weeks before the polling took place.
It was one of the proudest days of my life.
And my pride was compounded by the fact that I got to vote for somebody who was a Georgian, from a small town and a Baptist, all just like me.
When Powell stood before the Washington press corps to answer their questions and to articulate the president’s policies, he sounded like I did. He sounded like a Southerner and did not try to mask it.
Put simply, I was pleased to vote for Carter because I identified with him and because I thought he identified with me. I was pleased to hear Powell speaking for the president because he sounded like I did and because I sounded like he did. I was proud – Do you hear me? I said I was proud. – to have Southerners in the White House.
And I got mad when the northern “elites” and Washington insiders made fun of my Southern brothers and sisters who had moved into those swanky quarters at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I got mad when they acted as if people who looked and talked like I did had usurped someone else’s rightful place in the halls of power. I got mad when it seemed that they couldn’t wait to remove Carter from office so that they could get their power back, get their party back and get their country back.
To a degree, I can at least imagine what it must have meant to African-Americans to see someone with whom they could identify – and who could identify with them – become president of the United States.
It was so moving on election night to see so many black Americans, tears streaming down their faces, celebrating the fact that their nation, many states of which not too many decades ago denied blacks the right to vote, had progressed to the point that we could elect a black man as president of the United States.
And I can understand if they get angry when some people act as if such a man has no place in the White House and can’t wait until they can evict President Obama from office so that they can get their country back.
While much of the opposition that Carter faced stemmed from legitimate opposition to his policies and from genuine frustration at the results of those policies, it was hard for me not to believe that much of it also emerged from the prejudice of some toward those of us in the South.
While much of the opposition that Obama faces stems from legitimate opposition to his policies, it is also hard for me not to believe that much of it emerges from the prejudice – perhaps subconscious – that some harbor toward those who do not look like they do.
I do not and cannot begrudge the natural and understandable pride that African-Americans feel in the election of Barack Obama any more than I think that people should have begrudged the natural and understandable pride that I felt as a Southerner in the election of Carter – and in the work of Powell as his press secretary.
It is the politics of identity. Our default setting is to support those with whom we identify.
But people are capable of thinking. We should not simply and habitually and reflexively and blindly support those who look like we do or who talk like we do or who are from our region or our race or our religion.
Besides, even as an 18-year-old first-time voter, I realized that we were not really electing a president of southern Americans; we were electing the president of all Americans. This time around we were not electing a president of African-Americans; we were electing the president of all Americans.
So, even when we disagree with the president’s policies, I hope that we will do the right thing and pray for him. I hope that people will put irrational fear behind them. I hope that people will acknowledge their latent or manifest prejudices, see them for what they are, and move beyond them.
After all, the politics of identity should finally mean that we all identify with each other as fellow members of God’s diverse human creation and secondarily that we identify with each other as fellow Americans.
There I go with that Mr. Smith idealism again!
Curriculum editor with Smyth & Helwys Publishing in Macon, Georgia.