Political Insider

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Donald Trump, Jimmy Carter and the definition of 'populism'

Forty years ago, Trump Tower was located on West Paces Ferry Road in Buckhead.

That is to say, the headquarters of the president-elect was the Governor’s Mansion — a spacious house, but hardly a gilded one, despite its tony location.

Then-Gov. George Busbee ceded the entire first floor of his home to Jimmy Carter — himself a former resident. That’s where, in the weeks following his November 1976 victory, Carter sorted out the major appointments of his new administration.

The Southern locale — “the people’s house,” as Lester Maddox had christened the mansion a few years earlier — was as much a statement as Donald Trump’s own decision to use his signature chunk of New York City real estate as his launch pad.

It is tempting to compare Carter and Trump. Both ran as outsiders. Carter set himself against a Washington still shaken by the Vietnam War and the corruption, then resignation, of Richard Nixon. Trump tapped the lingering, post-recession angst of white voters, and vilified the D.C. gridlock that had pit the nation’s first black president against a hostile Republican Congress.

Carter brought very different people into Washington’s power grid, and Trump is poised to do the same. Carter the Outsider had a rocky relationship with fellow Democrats who ran an insider Congress — in particular, U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

Trump the Outsider has already been introduced to U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

Both Trump and Carter have been described as populists, but here the comparison breaks down. Or demonstrates how a word’s definition can change over the course of two generations.

The peanut farmer’s populism had its roots in his Southern Baptist religion and the tiny town of Plains, Ga. The New York businessman’s populism springs from reality TV, social media, and a fierce belief in himself — as the ultimate dealmaker.

Two very different worlds.

“I’ll never tell a lie,” Carter famously said during that bicentennial campaign. This week, the president-elect’s chief spokeswoman advised us to pay less attention to words that pass Trump’s lips, and more attention to “what’s in his heart.”

Forty years ago, Carter's campaign was nearly derailed by an interview in Playboy magazine, in which he admitted to lustful thoughts. “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times,” he said. In 1976, that qualified as too much information. We were embarrassed by the confession.

Compare that with the Access Hollywood video in which Trump bragged of activity that, his nominee for attorney general admitted this week, would “clearly” amount to sexual assault. Trump supporters ignored their candidate’s confession. Bombast, even the most vulgar variety, is part of his populist charm.

The best visual measure of how populism has changed might be that famous image of a freshly sworn-in Jimmy Carter and his extended family walking down Pennsylvania Avenue. Grandson Jason Carter, a toddler and future Democratic candidate for governor of Georgia, is perched on his father’s shoulders. James Earl Carter IV, now a political researcher in Atlanta, was under his mother’s coat – a month away from being born.

The walk was close to revolutionary. The shadow of JFK’s murder still lingered. Eighteen months hadn’t passed since the attempt on President Gerald Ford’s life in Colorado. Yet Carter was unfazed.

“He told the Secret Service, ‘I want to do it,’ said Frank Moore, a deputy Carter campaign manager. Which is how Moore came to be in those Pennsylvania Avenue photographs — often mistaken as a Secret Service agent.

Witnesses able and willing to detail the 1976 transition are dwindling. The Georgia Mafia, the name given to the loyal triumvirate behind Carter, has disappeared.

Hamilton Jordan, the strategist, died in 2008 at age 63. Jody Powell, the ever-present press secretary, died in 2009 at age 65. Bert Lance, the small-town banker from north Georgia, died in 2013 at age 82.

Carter, even at 92, is too invested in the present – the guinea worm still lives, if barely – to chance comparisons between his entry into Washington and Trump's.

But we have  Moore, who at 81 now lives on St. Simons Island. He was at the Governor’s Mansion as Carter settled on his big four appointments: Defense, State, Treasury and Justice.

Moore was in Plains when CIA director (and future president) George H.W. Bush helicoptered in to fill the president-elect in on intelligence matters. “There wasn’t a question of whether he was going to have an intelligence briefing or not have it,” Moore said.

As the transition progressed, Moore shifted to the bottom floor of the Richard Russell building in Washington, where Georgia Sens. Herman Talmadge and Sam Nunn had donated some office space and the use of their phones.

“The thing you’re working on, the things going on right now, are all the appointments people forget about. I’m not talking about Secretary of Defense and so forth,” Moore said. Hundreds of patronage jobs have to be filled. U.S. marshals and attorneys have to be appointed, as do leadership spots within the rather obscure Natural Resources Conservation Service. Each appointment must be vetted through various state campaign networks. Then there were the interviews.

“I interviewed Eric Holder. Somebody in Boston said, ‘We’ve got this guy just out of Harvard, and he’s a wonderful guy. [Holder] went over to Justice,” Moore said.

And decades later became Barack Obama’s attorney general.

But about that walk down Pennsylvania Avenue. At the last minute, Carter had decided he would exit his bullet-proof limousine.

“I didn’t even know it was contemplated,” Moore said. Secret Service laid down one condition. Agents demanded the presence of someone in the family parade who could tell friend from foe in the crowd.

“[Carter] turned to me and said, Frank knows everybody I know,” said Moore. It was his backdoor into the history books.

Trump’s plans remain a secret. But here’s betting that he won’t duplicate Jimmy Carter’s walk. First, Carter’s populism was a ground game that required personal contact over a long period of time. The man virtually lived in Iowa for two years. His walk was a natural extension of that campaign.

Trump’s brand of populism, through the Internet and reality TV, is a digital phenomenon. Physical human contact isn’t necessary. Trump, in fact, has an aversion to hand-shaking and has had to force himself to do it as a politician. “ I’m…very much of a germaphobe, by the way. Believe me,” the president-elect said this week.

Further, the crowds at Trump’s massive rallies were well vetted, and well policed. Outside his debates with his GOP rivals and Hillary Clinton, Friday’s inauguration ceremony will be the first in which Trump’s organization won’t control the make-up of his audience. The same applies to D.C. parade crowds.

The second reason Trump won’t do it: Barack Obama and his family did.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.