Martin Schram: The making of a president’s most special adviser

Martin Schram

When Charles Hammer, a theoretical physicist at Iowa State University, dialed the Georgia telephone number he was told to call in 1975 — at precisely the time he was told to call it — he had every reason to assume he was calling the campaign office of Georgia’s little-known ex-governor who was running for president.

So he was ready to introduce himself to any functionary who answered — and say he’d decided to sign on to Jimmy Carter’s longshot Iowa caucus campaign committee.

“Hi, Charlie. How’s Hazel?” Surprised, Hammer recognized the soft southern drawl. It was Rosalynn Carter. He’d dialed their home phone in Plains, Georgia. He was doubly surprised when Mrs. Carter remembered his wife, Hazel. They’d all met only once, very briefly, two weeks earlier in a little Iowa town called Atlantic (which is half a continent away from the ocean but right on the shore of the East Nishnabotna River). And he was surprised once more when Mrs. Carter mentioned that Hazel said she had a brother in Michigan. Mrs. Carter asked for his name and address and later wrote a note asking the brother if he’d help when the Carter campaign got to Michigan.

Jimmy Carter was always fond of telling writers about how Rosalynn, who died Sunday at age 96 after being diagnosed with dementia, was such a quiet and shy — even “timid” — girl when they first dated in Plains. Indeed, when Carter first ran for governor, he famously felt the need to push his wife to campaign by talking with people.

But there certainly was nothing “timid” about Rosalynn Carter by the time I got to know the Carters, while covering the 1976 campaign and their White House years for Newsday, The Washington Post and while writing a book, “Running for President 1976.” She remained soft-spoken and reserved, but had become a confident quiet campaigner, known for being kind and caring.

Part of Rosalynn Carter’s evolution came during the earliest days of that unusual campaign — when Carter asked his wife to campaign without him, on a special assignment.

As always, Carter and his strategists were positioning him as the man-in-the-middle. To his left in Campaign ’76, were liberals including the most impressive Rep. Mo Udall of Arizona. To his right was Alabama’s former Gov. George Wallace, who was campaigning, once again. So, in April 1975, Carter asked his wife and their friend, Edna Langford, to go into the heart of George Wallace country — in the northwest panhandle of Florida, which would be a key primary state in 1976.

“Jimmy just told us to go to Florida and make friends,” Langford recalled. “Make friends in George Wallace’s territory and show them that there was an alternative. So that’s what we did.”

The two women traveled on a lonely trek through the most Alabama-like small towns of Florida’s panhandle. They walked into the offices of the local newspapers and radio stations, unannounced. They ended up in news photos on front pages, with Rosalynn holding a Carter bumper sticker. At radio stations they sometimes wrote down questions someone there could ask them. In Panama City, they walked in on a Rotary Club meeting and became a news story. The liberal candidates didn’t campaign much in Florida — and Carter beat Wallace and carried that key state.

As Charlie Hammer and so many others discovered in that 1976 campaign and ever after, Mrs. Carter quietly accomplished what she set out to do. She mostly got things done — her way. But not always. Like all campaign advisers, there were occasions when she was overruled. One occurred when Carter and his advisers discovered what all candidates discover at times: They craft a careful message strategy based on a speech, the candidate delivers the speech. But then someone puts a mic in the candidate’s face, asks a question on something totally different. The candidate answers it — and that becomes the story. And that carefully crafted speech is forgotten.

Rosalynn had pressed her husband to simply not answer unwanted questions. “What I tried to get him to do was not answer the questions,” Rosalynn told me in 1976. “… Do your thing and leave. But he didn’t do it.”

It was as a first lady that Rosalynn Carter made by far her most legendary achievement. She became a crusader for one of our most vital, yet neglected, causes — mental health. She focused public attention — and our news media’s coverage – on mental health. She made treating mental health problems a matter of national urgency.

And in the process, she did one thing more for us all: Rosalynn Carter will be remembered for having given dignity to millions of people who once felt embarrassed to say they suffer from this prevalent and very treatable public health problem. We remain forever grateful.

Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at [email protected]. Send comments to [email protected].