Back in 1970, my high school held an assembly to listen to pitches on behalf of the various people running for governor of Georgia (the Peach State allowed 18-year-olds to vote well before the enactment of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment). Most of the candidates recruited students from the school to recycle their talking points. But candidate Jimmy Carter was represented by a chubby, funny young man named Jody Powell.
That probably meant that Carter was somewhere close by, because he rarely went anywhere that year, or in his subsequent presidential campaign, without Powell, who started out as the candidate’s driver and soon became his press secretary. The driving gig was actually a step up for Powell, who had not long before been expelled from the Air Force Academy for cheating on an exam. But rarely has a politician enjoyed the services of a more unlikely (Powell liked to smoke and drink) and effective staffer. And Jody Powell soon went on a very wild ride that took Jimmy Carter through the governorship of Georgia to the White House.
It’s part of the institutional history of Washington that the Carter presidency failed because he insisted on bringing all these Georgia rubes to the White House with him, who didn’t know how to deal with the movers-and-shakers of “this town.” (I’d say inheriting an ongoing economic disaster might have been a somewhat larger factor). But Powell never lost a step, and in the most hidebound, boys-club segment of the Capitol, the press corps, this cracker who never went to journalism school or held a reporting job was soon rated one of the best press secretaries in memory. He was one of the few significant members of the Carter administration whose reputation was better going out than coming in, even though he started out pretty well.
On the news of Powell’s sudden death yesterday, ABC’s Jake Tapper made a very sad observation:
Powell and the late Hamilton Jordan, Carter’s chief of staff, were WH “whiz Kids” on a Rolling Stone cover in 1977. I doubt Carter thought he’d outlive both of them.
Jody Powell was a good ol’ boy who did very well in an unlikely life. May he rest in peace.