Jimmy Carter, who entered home hospice care more than seven months ago, turns 99 on Sunday, and appears to be showing the same zest for life — and regard for others — he always has. A video posted last weekend on social media shows the former president and his wife, Rosalynn, contentedly riding in the back of a black SUV in the Peanut Festival Parade in their hometown of Plains, Georgia, past crowds of delighted onlookers.
While I never got to meet President Carter, I did get to work on his re-election campaign and speak on its behalf to Maryland media during a fateful election night — the unlikely result of youthful overconfidence on my part, and a genuine interest in the concerns of constituents on the part of the Carter White House.
In the spring of 1980, I was 23 and had just completed a project for a graduate class at Johns Hopkins University. It was a quantitative analysis tabulating the electoral process and the election results for all 50 states for the presidential election four years earlier, in 1976.
My professor had given me an “A” on the project. He thought it was a unique perspective, and I had this idea to share it with the White House.
I had had very little political experience at the time, although I would serve as the Baltimore City Board of Elections supervisor later on in life. I admired President Jimmy Carter, however — not so much for his administrative policies, but for his character. I remember four years earlier, watching a newsreel of Carter making a speech during the campaign. The Democrat was telling the crowd that he promised to “always tell them the truth.” It just seemed to resonate with what most people were feeling at the time, after the turbulent years of Watergate.
I also felt that he was in trouble in November because of the slow economy and the Iran hostage crisis and that maybe his staff needed some encouragement. So I gathered up as much courage as I could and mailed my report directly to the White House at the end of my spring semester. I honestly felt I would never hear anything back.
Then, in June of 1980, I was in the backyard of our home, when my mother came to the door with a puzzled look on her face. “Peter,” she said, “there’s a woman on the phone; she says she’s calling from the White House.”
Immediately I thought: Oh my God, somebody read my quantitative analysis report. The woman on the phone identified herself as a staffer from the White House for President Carter. She said the report I mailed went all the way up to the highest levels of government. “You understand I can’t name names,” I remember her saying, “but use your imagination.”
She asked if I would consider working on the Carter/Mondale re-election campaign and assured me that I would be working in the headquarters, where they would teach me everything I needed to know.
So within a few weeks. I was working in downtown Baltimore City, at the Maryland campaign headquarters. They gave me a desk right next to the campaign chairman’s office. I answered hundreds of telephone calls — from Gov. Harry Hughes to U.S. senators and famous personalities in Washington — and began to learn all the inner workings of a political campaign.
I became friends with the campaign chairman as the weeks went by, and he and others started to share stories with me of what it’s like to work at the White House. They started by answering a question that I had, about the Iranian hostage crisis. They told me it was a great stress on the president, that military leaders repeatedly went into the Oval Office, sat down with the president and planned a strategy for a rescue operation. President Carter would simply ask the same question each time, they said: “What are the estimated casualties?” When he heard the reply, he would remark “That’s simply too many.”
I was thinking: Here is a man who is constantly being criticized by his opponent in the national press for being a weak president, and yet, he has the personal conviction to value human life above all else. His team spoke of him as if they really loved him and told me he was an incredibly decent human being.
His press secretary for Maryland told me that some of the staffers had been fighting over the scheduling of the White House tennis court, which upset Carter so much, he personally put the schedule of the tennis court on the corner of his desk. “Can you imagine,” she went on to say, “the most powerful man of the free world was monitoring the schedule to make sure everyone was getting their turn playing tennis?”
A few days before the national election between Carter and Republican Ronald Reagan, the press secretary came to me and said, “We have a special mission for you on Election Day. We want you to coordinate the Maryland state election night headquarters at the AFL-CIO convention hall downtown Baltimore.”
An advance team would be arriving a day earlier to set up all the banners and signs. My job was to make sure that all the press, television, newspaper and radio were positioned in the middle of the room, facing the stage, and that the large banner was above the stage.
“Oh, and one more thing,” she warned, “make no statements to the press.”
On Election Day, I was excited and nervous at the same time. I remember saying to myself “How hard can this be?” I just have to set up everything, make sure everything is in order and wait for the leadership staff of the campaign to arrive at 8 p.m. as they’d promised.
I walked in that day and the president of the local AFL-CIO greeted me, while one of his workers commented “My god, they’re hiring them younger and younger!”
By 7:30 p.m., pretty much everyone was in position. I watched a lot of the television monitors where many of the polling places were closing. One of the reporters of WBAL Channel 11 pulled me aside and started asking questions, saying, “I understand you’re the only member of the Carter campaign staff that’s here currently.” I was very vague and a bit nervous, cognizant that I wasn’t supposed to be talking to media. By 8:30 p.m., the leadership staff had not arrived.
At that point, a newspaper and two radio reporters approached me. “Gentlemen,” I said, “give me 5 minutes, and I will be back. I need to call the campaign headquarters.” I went into the office and called, but was told that the press secretary was not available and I would have to call back. I told them this was an urgent matter, and I needed to speak to her. Finally, she got on the phone, and told me in a hushed voice that the president had been told it was not going well, and I was not to tell anyone.
“Well, we’re watching the national networks, and I didn’t hear about any projections,” I remarked to her. She just told me to believe her. Then I said “the press wants someone to represent the Carter Campaign, and it’s almost 9 o’clock.” She excused herself for a moment and came back on the phone about 3 minutes later and told me, “Peter, you have the permission to talk to the press. But they told me to tell you: Do not make any concessions.”
So now that I understood what was really happening, I was able to go back out with some degree of confidence. And I started interviewing with the radio stations, the newspapers. And then Al Sanders from WJZ-TV, Channel 13, walks over to me and he says “you’re Peter Mattes?” I said yes. He says “Jerry Turner wants to go on in 5 minutes.” During the interview, I tried to remain as positive as possible and to keep the narrative to the state of Maryland and not what was happening nationally.
I told Al Sanders, ”Remember, we had good weather today and when the sun is shining, the Democrats come out!“ He seemed to be pleased with that interview. Immediately afterward, I heard a man yell from the back of the camera that I reminded him of a young governor of Arkansas.
Well, that young governor, whose name was Bill Clinton, lost his own reelection bid that night, as did Carter. At the end of the evening, I was pleased that it was all over. And although President Carter lost the national election, he did win the state of Maryland — and my lifelong admiration.
Peter G. Mattes (firstname.lastname@example.org) owns an insurance brokerage company and has served on the boards of several community and business organizations