November 3, 2015
As the 2016 presidential election nears, I am reminded of a unique election encounter I had while covering the 1976 presidential primary campaign. The 1976 Democrat presidential primary was a hotly contested event.
The main storyline was the success of a little known former Governor from Georgia by the name of Jimmy Carter who turned the political environment upside down and captured the imagination of voters everywhere.
He was challenged in primary states by political stalwarts U.S. Senators Henry “Scoop” Jackson, (Wash); Frank Church, (Idaho); and Hubert Humphrey, (Minn); and Governors George Wallace, (Ala); and Jerry Brown, (Calif).
In 1976, Pennsylvania was a key battleground state. It was a crucial test for Jimmy Carter. It was a big, northern industrial state, with a heavily union tilt, and the former Governor needed to win such a state to keep the skeptics quiet. Most pundits at the time thought him to be a regional candidate from the south who could not win the general election.
Senator Jackson had the full support of organized labor, including the AFL-CIO, and put all his resources into winning the Keystone state in hopes of stopping Carter’s momentum.
Waiting in the wings was Senator Humphrey who desperately wanted another shot at the White House (having lost a close election to Richard Nixon in 1968) but he did not want to get involved in contested primaries.
Humphrey’s strategy was to hope for a Jackson win in Pennsylvania, and make himself available as a “draft” nominee counting on Democrat convention delegates to conclude that he would be the party’s best chance to defeat President Gerald Ford.
It was against this backdrop that I got my first taste of presidential politics as a go-getter news reporter for the McKeesport (Pa). Daily News. I was assigned to cover the candidates as they crisscrossed the Mon Valley region of western Pennsylvania.
I met up with Senator Jackson’s campaign officials, and after helping them locate a few great political stops for the candidate (something the usual news reporter wouldn’t dare do), they promised me a private interview with the candidate.
They delivered on this promise and put me in Jackson's private car in-between campaign stops, and I got my “scoop”, no pun intended.
Next, I was assigned to cover Jimmy Carter, and was excited about the opportunity. I followed the former Governor during an early morning campaign stop, where Carter was to shake hands with mill workers outside U.S. Steel's McKeesport National Works.
He stood at the plant gate along Lysle Blvd. and waited for the shift change so he could meet as many steelworkers as possible as they entered and exited the plant.
While the other Pittsburgh reporters allowed Carter to meet voters unencumbered, I saw it as an opportunity to talk with the candidate.
I asked my questions, which at first he answered. However at one point, he shot back at me, “Do you mind, I’d like to meet the voters. I wish you’d stop asking me so many questions.” I was young and taken aback by his reaction.
I sheepishly backed off into the pack with the other journalists.That might have been the end of it, if not for one of Carter’s most ardent backers who overheard the exchange, and was sympathetic to my situation.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jr., the fifth child of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor, was an early backer of Jimmy Carter, and he was with him that morning in McKeesport.
He leaned over to me, pulled me by the arm, and whispered, “Don’t let it bother you. He’s tired. Go back in here. He’ll finish in a minute and you can ask your question.”
So it was, the son of a legendary U.S. President, giving me a quick lesson in journalism and humanity.
Ask the question and don’t take the answer personally.