Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Day Jimmy Carter Was Elected

The day that Jimmy Carter was elected president is a day that is vividly imprinted in my memory — for a couple of reasons.

My father's mother died that day, and my father went to Dallas ahead of the rest of the family to work on the funeral arrangements. My mother, my brother and I followed the next day.

The 1976 election was memorable for me, too, because Election Day was the day that certain students from my school (myself included) were spending with various city and county officials. It was kind of a career day, except I don't think it was called that. Anyway, the students would report on their days at a local luncheon for the Jaycees or Kiwanis or whatever it was a couple of weeks later.

I had been assigned to the county clerk, who was very busy that day, dropping in on polling places to see if everything was on the up and up — so my memory of that day is of spending a lot of time getting in and out of the county clerk's car and following him into polling places where he shook hands with folks, talked about voter turnout, asked some routine questions and left.

We never paused to caution protesters about legal restraints at polling places or anything like that — even though we did see some people carrying signs for candidates for everything from president to city council. If they were standing closer to the polls than they should have been, the county clerk never said anything to them.

Oh, and my memory is that it was cold and overcast that day — not too cold (probably in the 50s) — and I don't remember if it ever started to rain, but the threat seemed to be an ongoing concern. I heard several people speculate that turnout might be suppressed by the possibility of bad weather.

Carter always enjoyed an enormous lead over Gerald Ford in the polls in Arkansas — I think the eventual margin of Ford's defeat there was second only to the margin in Carter's home state of Georgia — so turnout was never a factor.

Carter was a "born again" Southern Baptist, which was a subject of some concern in some quarters but not in Arkansas. Most of the people in Arkansas were Baptists then (and, presumably, most are still Baptists), whether they used the phrase "born again" to describe themselves (although most of the Baptists I knew did describe themselves that way).

It would have taken events of biblical proportions — a flood, say, that rivaled the one in Noah's day — to keep enough Carter supporters from going to the polls to give the state to Ford.

Never, not for one second, did I ever doubt that Carter would win Arkansas, but the race had narrowed considerably in the rest of the country in the closing weeks of the campaign. There were several other states where the outcome was far from certain, and the turnout in those states could hold the key to the outcome of the election.

That evening, I watched the election returns. I was unapologetically for Carter — as were most Arkansans that year — but I wasn't old enough to vote, and I watched, first with excitement, then with a growing sense of frustration, as Carter drew ever closer to the magic number in the Electoral College — and then seemed to stall.

Then, just before 3 in the morning, Mississippi was projected to be in Carter's column, pushing the Georgian over the top.

I probably got about three hours of sleep that night. The next day was a school day, and, since the family was going to be out of town for my grandmother's funeral, Mom wouldn't think of letting me stay home unless I was genuinely sick.

And she knew I wasn't sick — just tired.

My memories of that day after the election are hazy, but some things stand out. I remember greeting my friend Phyllis (of whom I have written here frequently since she died last year) with a warm embrace and the exclamation, "Thank God for the Solid South!"

Nearly every Southern state (with the exception of Virginia) was in the Democratic column. Such a thing has not happened again — even though Democrats have nominated Southerners for president and/or vice president in six of the eight elections since.

(In hindsight, it has been impossible for me to avoid comparisons between Carter's victory in 1976 and Barack Obama's in 2008 — and it has been equally impossible for critics of Obama's presidency to resist comparing his administration to Carter's.

(Carter's election in 1976 was hailed as a triumph for populism, as was Obama's 32 years later. It was a breakthrough for Southern politicians, who, for more than a century, had only become president when the incumbent died — not quite the same thing as being the first black president but similar in its symbolic value.)

I suppose Mom could have let me stay home that day. She withdrew my brother and me from school early, anyway, and we began the drive to Dallas — which took us about six hours. I guess Mom figured I could doze in the car.

Maybe I dozed off for awhile, but I don't remember it. I remember listening to the car radio and hearing, over and over again, news reports about President–elect Carter.

And after we arrived at my other grandmother's home, I watched on TV, for the first time, Carter's emotional return to his tiny hometown of Plains, Ga., where it seemed nearly every resident had gathered to await his arrival.

Upon seeing his friends and neighbors, Carter broke down, weeping in shameless gratitude for their unflagging support.

It was a moving moment just before the end of a year that had more than its share of moving moments. This one I had only heard about on the car radio, and it was so much more moving to see, even if it was on tape.

My grandmother was a Republican who wasn't pleased that Carter had beaten President Ford — but she didn't say anything. She knew how much I had wanted Carter to win.

The next four years didn't turn out the way I anticipated, but I've never regretted supporting Jimmy Carter in 1976.

And I have never forgotten how I felt when he won.

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