Jimmy Carter


had been back in Atlanta for a matter of weeks when a new friend, Jack Watson, invited me to have lunch with one of the candidates running for governor, Jimmy Carter. The gubernatorial race at that stage was dominated by former governor Carl Sanders, who left office with impressively high popularity ratings, but was prevented under Georgia law from serving two consecutive terms. Having sat out for four years, but carefully staying in the public eye, Sanders was now ready to reclaim his old job. I was surprised that Jack, former marine, Harvard law school graduate, and a rising star in the Atlanta legal community, was not supporting the urbane Sanders. In fact, Jack,  knew Sanders who had approached him, (after a game of handball together), to join his campaign. Jack had surprisingly demurred. Originally Jack’s reasons had been simple. His mentor and patron at the law firm of King and Spaulding was Charles Kirbo, a shrewd corporate lawyer, who disingenuously maintained the style and demeanor of his rural Southwest Georgia origins. Kirbo had represented Jimmy Carter in a disputed election for the state senate in 1962 and after winning the case had become a close friend and advisor, playing an active role in Carter’s unsuccessful bid for the governorship in 1966.   

While Jack’s initial support for Carter was out of deference to Kirbo, he responded to Carter’s invitation to visit his home in Plains and built their own relationship.  Jack told me that the more he had gotten to know Carter, the more he admired his personal characteristics- -infinite self-discipline, tenacity, highly organized, on a constant quest for knowledge and self-improvement, religious but deeply concerned about living up to the teachings of Christianity rather than the demands of the organized church, and his ability to make you feel you had his undivided attention and that what you said was of vital interest to him.  “I saw in him” Jack told me “everything I had aspired to be and wanted to have people admire in me.” Beginning with that lunch, my own relationship with Carter would be based on much those same feelings. I was in awe of him from the beginning. Initially I was flattered that someone running for governor would feel it worth their while to have lunch with me. I had worried that I might need to conceal my involvement with the civil rights community or even that my professional life was largely devoted to providing care for the residents of one of the most impoverished areas of the city, not to mention my participation in the anti-war movement. To my great surprise, Carter, who came from the most hard core-segregationist part of the state, made it clear from the start of our lunch that he was determined to preside over the dismantling of racism in Georgia. After all the years of struggle and frustration, I had suddenly found a soft-spoken, white Georgian who shared my feelings on segregation but, more importantly, was potentially going to be in a position to do something about it. 

I was thoroughly excited as I left the lunch. For all of the frustration and sometimes agony of my involvement with the civil rights issue over the years I now saw not only vindication on the horizon, but also the possibility of participating with Carter in accomplishing the dramatic political and social change that I and my friends had long dreamed of.  In my own mind so much of the rationale for moving back to Atlanta had to do with becoming involved in politics, even though I had profound doubt about finding anyone in a position of power with whom I would be compatible.  Suddenly here was the opportunity I had fantasized about. Perhaps most importantly I not only liked Carter immensely and felt there was a curious attraction and compatibility between us. In retrospect I felt that both of us had similar strong idealistic beliefs (perhaps shaped by early exposure to Christian ideals) but we both wanted to remain under the umbrella of the establishment because only with power could you hope to achieve those goals.

Having asked what I could do to help, I was referred to an Emory political science professor, who was commissioning position papers for the Carter campaign. I wrote an analysis of the healthcare needs in Georgia. I would have liked to do more, but my free time was limited and I did not how to go about attaching myself to the state-wide operational aspects of the campaign. That fall I also went to a number of small events for Andrew Young, who was making a bid to become the first black congressman from the Deep South since Reconstruction. He failed that year, but would win Atlanta’s 5th Congressional seat in 1972. I followed Carter’s progress closely in the media and at times found his ambiguous statements about race disconcerting. I was, however, reassured that these were a necessary concession in order to get elected and by my conviction that they did not reflect his true feelings.  He won against overwhelming odds, in large part because the rural electorate did not know what he really believed.

 In his inaugural address Carter removed all doubt about where he stood on race by stating:

 “...Based on the knowledge of Georgians north and south, rural and urban, liberal and conservative, I say to you quite frankly the time for racial discrimination is over.”

 It was a historic turning point and quite unprecedented for any Southern politician to make such a definitive statement. Carter received nationwide media attention and eventually his picture would appear on the cover of Time featuring him as emblematic of a new breed of Southern governors. Many white Georgians felt he had misled and betrayed them. Yet there was also widespread understanding that change was inevitable and by taking a clear position, amid people’s fear and confusion, Carter was perceived as providing strong leadership.   

Within a few weeks of his becoming governor, Carter called and asked if Rosalynn could come to visit my mental health center. Instrumental in this was a woman named    Beverly Long, a friend of Rosalynn’s, who as president of the Georgia Mental Health Association, had worked with me to obtain federal funding for my program and was one of my most ardent supporters. When Rosalynn arrived in a neat red business suit, with security people and accompanied by a reporter from the Atlanta Constitution, I, quite inexperienced in dealing at such a high level, felt overwhelmed. After touring the facility we went to my office where we had prepared refreshments. Rosalynn, on the surface very shy but with a goal-driven tenacity, told me that she had decided to make mental illness her area of interest while her husband was governor and asked if I would help her set up a Governor’s Commission on Mental Health, which I agreed to do.

Over the next year I made regular trips to the mansion to help Rosalynn in her mental health ventures. What I did not know at the time was how unprepared she felt for the role she was being expected to fulfill. In everything from public speaking to cooking or supervising the preparation of a formal meal for official guests, she felt quite inadequate. In a manner that was typical for her, she went about systematically remedying each of her shortcomings, but she became depressed. Her condition was compounded by the fact that Jimmy not only expected everyone around him to be entirely self-reliant, but he himself worked sixteen or eighteen hour days, with little family time that was not directly related to his role as governor. None of Rosalynn’s unhappiness was apparent to me when I was with them. They invited me to meals and treated me warmly, almost like a family member.

Because I had worked in emergency rooms in California and at the Haight-Ashbury free medical clinic during the height of the “hippie movement” including during the “Summer of love,” I had become very familiar with the medical aspects of drug abuse. I did not particularly consider myself an expert in the field, but upon returning to Georgia I found that was how I was viewed. I was at least the one-eyed man in the land of the blind. Frequently I was asked to speak on the subject to both medical and lay audiences. Using the pseudonym of Dr Aquarius, I also wrote a weekly column for Atlanta’s alternative newspaper, The Great Speckled Bird, giving advice to drug users. Over the July 4th weekend in 1970, a rock concert was organized in fields in the tiny community of Byron, not far from Macon in central Georgia. Woodstock was still fresh in people’s minds and the organizers wanted to replicate that experience--very much a cultural milestone of those times. A recording company, Capricorn Records, was flourishing in Macon and several of the leading bands of the day including the Allman Brothers and Fleetwood Mac were associated with it. The owner, Phil Walden and others were the driving force behind organizing the pop festival.  With as many as a hundred thousand expected to attend the three day event, the provision of medical care became an essential part of the planning. I, along with eight other progressive physicians and a number of nurses and other health professionals, volunteered our services and organized three medical centers housed in tents, similar to military field hospitals. My Viet Nam experience served me well and, in fact, I wore my green jungle fatigues, having hastily snipped off the army medical and captain’s insignia on the lapels..

 I can well understand why people who were at Woodstock viewed it as a defining moment of their lives, as in many ways it was for America as a whole. Byron similarly proved one of the most enduring memories of my life. Three hundred thousand people, in fact, came to Byron. The temperatures were in the mid-nineties and the access roads were quickly clogged. I had to abandon my car and walk the last mile. I had planned to go home each night. It was impossible, both because you could not get in or out and because the demand on our services was so great. There is something emotionally arousing about being part of such a massive throng of people, especially when the spirit is so strongly positive. Add to that the blasting sound of Jimmy Hendrix and other top rock stars around the clock, plus the effect of a vast quantity of psychoactive drugs (mostly putting people in a very mellow state) and you had what was a surreal experience. There were hippies and other experienced drug takers in the crowd. There were also south Georgia “good old boys” more familiar with six packs of beer than psychedelics. One whom I treated for an overdose told me he had bought “one of every kind of pill I could buy and ate them all.” One of the doctors I had recruited took, upon arrival, some LSD “to see what it was like” then gave the keys to his car, which he never saw again, to a complete stranger. He vanished, leaving us short-handed for the rest of the weekend. Heat prostration was the major problem and we transfused hundreds of gallons of fluid into people who in a state of alcohol or drug intoxication, had ignored the sun and sweated themselves into oblivion. There were large numbers of adverse drug reactions, overdoses and panic attacks, mostly involving first time users. Hundreds of people cut their bare feet and a few broke bones. We worked around the clock until late on the Monday evening. All together in the three medical tents we treated more than 7,000 people. We arranged the evacuation by helicopter to the Macon hospital of about a dozen seriously ill or injured people. No one died and we delivered three babies. For that weekend, Byron had a population exceeding all but two of Georgia’s cities and they probably had access to better health care than if they had remained at home. The only sour note was sounded by a fat red-neck man who wandered into the tent and identified himself to me as a “Narcotics Agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.” He asked about the patients I was treating and then began questioning me concerning my pseudonymous column in The Great Speckled Bird. It was clear he felt I was too charitable in my attitude to drug users. “Sooner or later we’re going to get you,” he said menacingly, and left. Over the years I had become used to such hostility from segregationists, supporters of the Viet Nam war, “pro-life” activists, and those who resented me just because I did not speak with a Georgia accent. In the South, however the specter of violence was never very far from the surface.

Because there were a number of heroin addicts in the community that my mental health center served, I established a methadone maintenance program for which I had to obtain a special license from the Food and Drug Administration. I was one of only three physicians in Georgia with such a license.  By mid-1971 the steady intrusion of drug use into Georgia had become an increasingly important political issue and Carter felt obliged to take some action. In early June I received a call from Landon Butler on Carter’s staff, to say that Carter wanted to know if I would accompany him to a Senate hearing in Washington as well as help draft the testimony he would give on the drug issue. I had no idea about the format, the length, the tone, or the specificity usual in such a presentation or for that matter what in the world Carter might want to say. The role of the staff assistant to a powerful political figure was completely new and unfamiliar to me. Landon explained that the governor trusted me and would say pretty much whatever I advised. He said that Carter would like it if the testimony left the impression that he had a deep understanding of the subject, that there was no need to offer any concrete solutions to the problem, and that great emphasis should be placed on the need for the federal government to give the states more funding.  

On the day of the testimony I was to meet Carter at the governor’s mansion at 7:00 am and ride with him to the airport. At the time I thought of it as one of the most thrilling days of my life, but as dawn was breaking and I was making the short drive there, I realized I had slightly misjudged the time and I was likely to get there a few minutes late. I drove furiously and pulled in just as Carter was emerging from the mansion to get into his limousine. “I thought perhaps you had decided not to come,” he said caustically without smiling. I had learned he was a tough taskmaster and that such comments were common. In his mind they also reflected his special form of dry humor, but it took a long time for me to appreciate that. What I did know was that he was obsessed with punctuality and had I been two minutes later he would have left without me. I would see him do it to others. Reflecting on the incident in later years I realized that had I been left behind that morning, the rest of life would have been totally different. I also wondered whether I had some self-doubt or unconscious urge for self-destruction in allowing myself to come so close to jeopardizing my whole relationship with him.

In Washington we went first to the Pentagon accompanied by a Republican congressman from Virginia named Marsh, who had set up a series of meetings with military officials for Carter to discuss the drug issue in the military and some problems he had been having with the US Corps of Engineers. It was a reflection of how few people Carter knew in Washington that he had asked a Republican with whom he was only slightly acquainted and from another state to help set up the meetings with the military.

On our way to Capitol Hill we drove past the Department of the Interior. Carter pointed it out to me and commented “the only cabinet job I would ever have an interest in would be Secretary of the Interior.” It was the first inkling I had that Carter might see a political future for himself in Washington after his mandatory one term as governor.

The hearing of the Senate Government Operations Committee was chaired by Senator Lawton Chiles, of Florida. Jacob Javits of New York and several others who were famous names to me but whom I had never seen in person were also on the committee. Carter read the prepared testimony that he had pored over on the plane ride from Atlanta and about which he had questioned me in great detail. He employed what I was learning to know as a characteristic technique of asking progressively harder and harder questions until you came to a point where there was something to which you had to admit you did not know the answer. I always thought it was his way of reminding you that no matter how much you might think you were an expert on a subject, you were not perfect. His delivery of the prepared statement was a little flat but he was sparkling during the questioning. However, he began increasingly to turn questions over to me as I sat at his side. Hearing my accent with its traces of English and even my parents’ Australian, Senator Chiles said to me “You do not sound as though you are from the South.” Carter quickly jumped in, to ensuing laughter, “Senator, he’s from the New South”--the term by which Carter and the crop of Dixie governors elected in 1970 were being regularly referred to in the press.

I had arranged that we would spend the afternoon at the District of Columbia Narcotic Treatment Program, then considered a national model for heroin addiction. It was run by Dr Robert DuPont, an undergraduate classmate of mine at Emory who had gone on to medical school at Harvard. We had stayed in contact over the years and, as a native Georgian, Bob was particularly happy to receive Carter and myself. For two hours Carter talked to addicts and to the staff. He took a particular interest in the computer system that kept track of the several thousand addicts in the system. On the plane back to Atlanta Carter told me that he would like to set up a similar program in Georgia and asked if I thought it was possible. He also asked me to draw up a plan and a rough budget for such a project.

I labored on it over the next week. It was becoming increasingly clear that someone would have to be hired to run such a program and that I was the natural candidate. In part it was because to implement a program quickly, it would have to be one of the three of us who already held a license for prescribing methadone from the FDA, and I knew the other two were either uninterested or unavailable. Landon Butler and Carter’s executive assistant, Hamilton Jordan, implied as much to me. In many ways the timing for me was ideal. I had reached a point of almost unbearable frustration at the health center. I was caught in the middle of a vicious power struggle between the black community and Emory. Black leaders both inside and outside the Center with federal money and Washington’s sympathy were emboldened and understandably intoxicated with the discovery of the substantial power they now commanded for the first time in their lives. They had not yet learned how to wield it with any degree of subtlety or how to modulate it as part of a strategy to achieve real benefits for the community.  At the same time, the administrators at Emory as overseers of the program, who did not realize how their power was ebbing away, stayed on campus and never had to speak directly to a black person. They issued edicts that had to be conveyed to the community by intermediaries like me. Accessible whites, as opposed to the real culprits, became targets for attack. In a major palace coup, the black employees managed to get the white director of the health center ousted and replaced by a black physician. I knew sooner or later I was destined for the same fate. The only thing saving me was that they could not find a black psychiatrist and although increasingly less important than the color of my skin, I was liked and regarded as sympathetic to their cause. I was on the verge of accepting a position in the medical school at the University of Pennsylvania even though I did not want to leave Atlanta. This potential job offer could not have come at a better time. 

I was, nevertheless, worried. My life since I returned to Atlanta had involved one volatile issue after another all of which I felt sure would preclude Carter, once he knew fully about them, from appointing me. Having a personal friendship and talking to me to pick my brain was one thing; appointing me to a highly visible position in the state government was something else. My involvement in the Byron pop festival and with the Great Speckled Bird were well known. I was active as a leader of the Viet Nam Veterans against the war and regularly used my medical credentials to certify individuals as unfit for the draft. In late April I had been one of the organizers of a March against Racism and Fascism led by Ralph Abernathy, organized to oppose continuing racist practices across the South. Over three days we marched forty miles in insufferable heat from Fort Valley along the rural byways of Georgia to the capital picking up countless additional marchers and racist taunts as we went. FBI and Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents with cameras lined the route. We were joined on the last day by national figures including Sen. George McGovern, Leonard Woodcock, the head of the UAW and Coretta Scott King. The march was bitterly criticized by white leaders in Georgia, especially in the legislature. One of my close friends, “Ruste” Kitfield, was the head of the Georgia ACLU. The organization had invited as honored guests for its annual fund raising dinner both McGovern and Jane Fonda. “Ruste” decided that I was the ideal person to be Jane Fonda’s host during her two day visit to Atlanta, her first to the city. Fonda was, at the time, adored and reviled for her outspoken opposition to the Viet Nam war. When I went to the airport to meet her flight, I found an FBI agent also waiting for her at the gate. The FBI agents shadowed us, without much subtlety, throughout her visit, including sitting in a car outside our apartment when Judy and I hosted a buffet dinner for her. In addition, my closest friend in Atlanta was Alabaman Charles Morgan, the famous civil rights lawyer and the Southern Regional Director of the ACLU, who had argued and won countless key decisions on behalf of black plaintiffs before the U.S. Supreme Court. He was an anathema to whites across the region. 

My biggest concern, however, had to do with the abortion issue.  While teaching at San Jose State School of Nursing, Judith, previously quite apolitical, was outraged by the tragic death of one of her patients as a result of a botched illegal abortion. Shortly after we arrived in Atlanta she joined a group “Georgia Citizens for Hospital Abortion” (GCHA) and quickly became its legislative chairman for the upcoming session. Unlike those states that had an outright ban on abortion, Georgia was one with so-called liberal laws that permitted abortion albeit with onerous and almost insurmountable restrictions. GCHA’s goal was to get the restrictions in the law removed. Just before the legislative session began, GCHA’s president, Alan Bonser, dramatically and tragically committed suicide by jumping off the twenty-first floor of the famous interior atrium of the Regency Hyatt House. Judith was elected to succeed him. In the legislative session her bill, sponsored by two of the tiny group of Republican legislators (Republicans were the progressives in that era) and endorsed by the Atlanta Constitution, was defeated in committee by one vote. Judith immediately announced that GCHA would seek donations to send Georgia women to Washington, D.C. where a recent court decision had made abortions more easily obtainable We were inundated with calls from women around the state begging our help in getting them abortions.

Judith also announced a new strategy to challenge the Georgia law in the courts. With backing from “Ruste” Kitfield and the Georgia ACLU we found a lawyer, Marjorie Hames, who was willing to undertake such a challenge and recruit other lawyers to work on the case.  We also began looking for an appropriate plaintiff. We found one in Sandra Bensing, a 22 year-old married mother of three with a history of hospitalization in the state mental hospital, and a husband who had been arrested several times for child molestation. A patient at my health center, she was pregnant for the fourth time and severely depressed; she had been denied the right to an abortion under Georgia’s restrictive system. I became her physician of record as our lawyers filed a thirteen-page brief in federal district court for the Northern District of Georgia. Now with the pseudonym “Mary Doe,” Sandra Bensing and I headed a list of twenty-four individual and two organizational plaintiffs (eight more physicians, seven nurses, five ministers, and two social workers together with GCHA and Planned Parenthood of Atlanta) against Georgia’s Attorney General, Arthur K. Bolton, Fulton County District Attorney, Lewis Slaton (whom I had despised since his involvement in a notorious raid on a coffee house in 1959), and Atlanta Chief of Police Herbert T. Jenkins. We won the case although the state of Georgia appealed it all the way to the Supreme Court. There were several cases that year from different states challenging different aspects of the abortion laws that reached the court, but the justices eventually chose a Texas case, Roe v Wade, and our case, Doe v Bolton, as the two test cases they would hear.  It was an unexpected but memorable moment when, on December 13th, 1971, we attended the hearing at the Supreme Court together with the plaintiffs and lawyers from the Texas case, as well as the leaders of the abortion reform movement from across the country. We did not fully appreciate then that we were on the verge of a historic accomplishment that would for ever change the lives of women throughout America..[1]

More than anything, my experience in our victory with the abortion laws made me realize that a small handful of people with determination and a belief that they had right on their side could bring about dramatic social change. What had happened too, with success in the civil rights and anti-war movements, and attitudes towards drug use, all of which I had played some role, was a further re-enforcement of  my feelings that I personally could significantly impact society to improve the life of everyone, and that no challenge was too great. It also made me feel very good about America. I had come to believe fervently that whatever the country’s shortcomings, there was an opportunity to improve the imperfections in a way that existed nowhere else in the world. I was not only filled with self-confidence, but believed the only limit to what I could achieve was the inadequacy of my own vision. I also felt that my education and experience had prepared me uniquely for whatever I wanted to accomplish. All of this would play a critical role in my relationship with Jimmy Carter.

The case against the State of Georgia was still pending when Jimmy Carter called me on the morning of June 25th, 1971. He asked if I would be willing to take a leave of absence from my faculty position and come to work for him in the Governor’s office, setting up a statewide narcotic treatment program. That he was willing to hire me, knowing what he must have known, convinced me further of what an admirable person he must be. I am sure no other Georgia governor, before or since, would have taken that kind of risk. It made me feel very warmly towards him as well as thinking that he must share my views to an even greater degree than I had suspected.

Carter had created a new state agency for me to run. He was able to transfer some discretionary funds for the program, but the bulk of the required resources needed to come in the form of a multi-million dollar grant from the federal government. I was the only one who knew about the details of the application process, I had no staff and the proposal was due in Washington on June 30th. I worked straight through for three days and two nights to get it written, to gather the necessary documentation and to obtain endorsement letters from agency heads, state officials and Atlanta’s mayor Sam Massell. Carter wrote a powerful letter of endorsement to accompany the proposal, which assured its funding.

The next four months were perhaps the most intense of my life. I set up a network of treatment centers, both out-patient and residential, in every major community in the state. I hired several hundred people, negotiated countless rental agreements, set up a computer system (highly novel and groundbreaking at the time) to track every drug abuse patient in the state, and gave 187 speeches around the state promoting the program. There was intense media interest to which I was constantly trying to respond. By the end of the year we went from having zero patients in treatment to having close to 10,000. I did not take a day off, the only time that I was not working was when I was sleeping, and the amount of time for that was seriously curtailed.  My years as an intern and resident made this seem a not unusual thing to do, whereas I believe someone without that prior experience would have found such intensity and sleep deprivation unthinkable.



[1] The Supreme Court in their ruling would combine together the two cases using Roe v Wade (by which the two cases are now usually jointly referred to) to establish a woman’s fundamental right to abortion and Doe v Bolton to prevent states imposing procedural obstructions. The full story of our struggle is told in meticulous detail in David J. Garrow’s book

Liberty and Sexuality, Lisa Drew Books/Macmillan, New York, 1994.




Carter would frequently call me, often shortly after 7:00 am, the time he arrived in the Governor’s office. “Did I wake you up?” he would ask as a form of one-ups-manship to let me know he was already at his desk while I was still eating breakfast at home. He had a disdain for small talk and the calls often lasted less than thirty seconds. He rarely identified himself, expecting me to recognize his voice.  “Can you come to see me this afternoon?”  “Yes” I would reply and he would hang up before I could utter anything else.

The centerpiece of Carter’s governorship was the reorganization, streamlining and modernization of state government. To accomplish his goals, Carter had placed himself in serious conflict with an array of entrenched interests especially in the State bureaucracy. This meant that I too, with my novel operation and closely identified in people’s minds with Carter, became the target of many who wanted to see me fail.  The State Board of Health, which Carter had already signaled his intention to abolish or dramatically reform, was infuriated that my agency was reporting directly to him rather than being placed under the Department of Health. They commanded me to appear before them. Carter, whom I knew felt badly about dropping me in this crossfire, asked lawyer, friend and advisor Robert Lipshutz as well as Rosalynn to accompany me to the hearing.  Lipshutz was able to deflect the legal issues while Rosalynn’s presence signaled the Carters’ strong personal backing for me and served to restrain the board members from making direct personal attacks on Jimmy. Carter regularly invited me to accompany him to events around the state, to football games, speeches to sheriff’s associations and similar groups, man-made and natural disasters where he felt his presence was critical, and social events. In part it was another way of showing his backing for me as I swam in difficult had unfamiliar waters, but it also reflected the growing personal relationship between us. After one of our first meetings he took me out to his appointments secretary, Mary Beazley and said “Peter can come in to see me any time he wants to.” It placed me in a small select group around the governor. Over Christmas 1971 I went to see my mother in Britain. While there I bought an excavated Roman glass bottle and on my return gave it as a gift to Carter, an avid collector of old bottles, with a note “You will never find one of these in the clay of South Georgia.” He encouraged me to go to Plains and spend a day with his mother and brother Billy.  For much of the morning Jimmy’s brother Billy drove me around their land in a pick-up.  Late in the afternoon when I went to maverick, white-haired Miss Lillian’s home, she asked if I wanted a drink and I said coffee would be fine. She asked ”What about a real drink?” Wanting to be appropriate to the situation I suggested, perhaps a scotch. Ever after I had the unjustified reputation in the Carter family of having a weakness for scotch. I also enjoyed his sons in their twenties, especially James, known as “Chip.” I developed great affection for the whole family.                           

One day when I had flown with Carter and other State officials to Savannah, we were touring a paper mill. We were spread out across the factory floor and I sensed Carter looking at me from quite some distance away. Our eyes met. I sensed in that moment, in ways I cannot explain, that we had a special affinity. I had a powerful sense of shared destiny. I was always conscious of the promise I had made to myself on the streets of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic convention that in four years I would be inside the convention hall, and four years after that I would be back with my own candidate. Now I believed that candidate must somehow be Carter. A few weeks later when we were riding together in the back of his car to a meeting in Atlanta I asked, with some trepidation, “Have you ever thought about running for president?”  “No” he replied, adding “but if I did, I would do it like I ran for governor, going to the people and trying to shake hands with everyone in the state.” That was enough to convince me that I was not just creating a total fantasy. I was beginning to feel that fate had brought us together and that destiny was controlling our lives. Carter had all the attributes I felt were necessary to become president, including, although he was coy about it, the driving ambition.  I was the only one around him who could help him overcome his cautious reluctance to do something that on the face of it was preposterous and absurd in the political context of the time. I believed deeply that I could be the catalytic force to make it happen. It seemed not only miraculous, but a product of a force far greater than my own, that I should be in that position. I had come back to Georgia with something like this very much in mind, but that I should find someone ready, with all the necessary qualities, for whom I had the greatest admiration as a human being, and to be in the position of influence I now was, seemed incredible to me.  

I would meet with Carter in the formal setting of his office with its deep pile royal blue carpet and incongruous chrome and black leather chairs on an average of once a week. I quickly learned to come with a concise list of the concerns on which I needed decisions. I would lay out the issue in a minute or less, cite the options, and with only occasionally additional questions, Carter would make a crisp decision. Perhaps it was his military training. We would go through a list of a dozen or more items in fifteen minutes. He was a pleasure to work with. He told me early on that he would not be peering over my shoulder all the time and he would judge what I had accomplished by the end of year, not each day or each week. He also said that he expected me to make mistakes. What he required, he said, was that I be right at least fifty percent of the time. 

In late 1971, lured by the excitement of the political arena, I began to spend increasing amounts of time around the governor’s office. I developed a growing friendship with Hamilton Jordan, Carter’s “executive assistant.” Rotund and friendly, Hamilton, four years younger than me, had devoted virtually all of his adult life to Carter. If Carter was committed to me, then so was he. Hamilton loved the wheeling and dealing of politics but was not an administrator and was highly disorganized. He loved the wheeling and dealing of politics. He was an inveterate strategizer both in his head and on paper, but he had great difficulty returning phone calls or following through on commitments, both of which tended to undermine the good will he built in other ways. His relationship with his wife Nancy was unraveling, and visiting their apartment was like being in war zone. Lansing Lee, a recent graduate from the University of Georgia, tried, as Hamilton’s part-time assistant, to bring order out of the chaos. Wafting in and out of  the office was tall, grey-haired Charles Kirbo with the  honorific title of “chief of staff.” Running a full-time law practice he appeared only when there were major decisions to be made being present, however, almost all the time during the forty days the legislature was in session. I had a special affinity with a man named Cloyd Hall whom Carter sent in to deal with crises–usually involving serious racial conflicts–around the state. Cloyd was representative of a category of white Southerners, like Carter, who had long been clear in their own minds that segregation was wrong and in their own quiet ways had worked against it. Until the late sixties most of these people had been too intimidated to open their mouths. The only person around Carter with whom I had a strained relationship was his press secretary Jody Powell. Powell, like Jordan a few years younger than me, was competent at his job but had a caustic style. He always sought to portray himself as the closest to Carter and was most sensitive to others seeming to usurp that role. I felt in his heart he was still a part of the unreconstructed South and we disagreed on most matters of substance. He had been forced to withdraw from the Air Force academy after an honor code violation making my role as a decorated Viet Nam veteran a source of resentment. Our relationship was further strained later when a headline in the Washington Post quoted Carter generously saying “Peter Bourne is my closest friend in the whole world.” It was an object lesson in how potent a force jealousy can be in politics. Overall, partly because of my relationship with Carter, my slight age advantage, my education and my vastly greater experience in the world, I was, as the one real outsider, treated well with a surprising level of acceptance.

Carter was committed, as part of his reorganization plan for state government, to combining the health and social services programs into one “Department of Human Resources.” With my health background, I played an increasing role as an “in-house” expert in planning the new department, including writing articles about it in professional journals. I received an additional title as “Health Advisor to the Governor”. In that capacity I also helped launch an initiative labelled the “Cripplers and Killers Program” that identified the top causes of mortality and morbidity in the state and implemented strategies to deal with them. I also convinced Carter to create a “Governor’s Commission on Alcoholism” and place my friend Jack Watson as the head of it. Carter had staked his political life on the passage of his reorganization plan and when it passed the State Senate by one vote, it was the justification for an afternoon of intense celebration.

My own personal life was in difficulty. I had been ambivalent about marrying Judith from the start. My year away in Viet Nam had not helped. Although we worked well together and had few day-to-day conflicts, I was not happy and neither was she. We agreed to separate. A few weeks later she discovered she was pregnant. After agonizing discussions, we decided that staying together for that reason alone was not in the interests of the child or of ourselves. In the eighth month, Judith stopped feeling the baby moving, and her obstetrician told her it would be still-born. The last few weeks before delivery was a nightmare with people, usually strangers trying to be friendly, asking her when the bay was due. The crib and baby clothes she had bought had to be put away.  I stayed with her in the hospital throughout her labor, but instead of being one of the happiest days of our lives it was one of the saddest. I thought about the hundreds of women I had sat with during labor earlier in my career leading to great joy, but with my own child there was only misery.

 A few months after the statewide drug treatment program was set up, the Southern Governors Conference held its annual meeting in Atlanta. Carter proudly brought Governors John West (South Carolina), Reuben Askew (Florida) and Dale Bumpers (Arkansas) to tour the system’s main patient intake center in Atlanta.  “You should set up something like this in your states,” Carter told them. “ I agree,” said Bumpers  “But where would I get a Peter Bourne?” The flattery was a memorable boost to my ego. I was gratified that Carter was proudly showing off my accomplishment but more important to me was the opportunity to size up these others Democratic leaders of the “New South.” All were competent, pleasant and progressive, but with none did I feel the electricity my relationship with Carter stirred nor the sense that I was with someone truly extraordinary.

The race for the Democratic nomination for president began to heat up in late 1971. Ed Muskie was the clear front runner and when Landon Butler was invited to be his campaign director in Georgia, I told him “take it. I don’t see how you can go wrong.” It was poor advice; Muskie’s candidacy would collapse without garnering a single delegate from Georgia. My natural inclination was to support Senator George McGovern. His anti-war stance and generally liberal position on most issues appealed to me. I had also met him at the ACLU event with Jane Fonda and during the “March Against Racism and Fascism” where, as he was preparing to address the marchers at Morehouse College, I had told him how much I hoped he would run. I, however, wanted more than anything to be part of whatever Carter planned to do. He wanted to be a visible player and power broker, so had avoided endorsing any candidate, rebuffing several approaches from segregationist George Wallace, the preferred candidate of the overwhelming majority of white Georgians. Under unprecedented new rules, delegates to the party convention in Miami were to be elected at caucuses, held on March 11th 1972, in each congressional district. I ran as a delegate in the fifth congressional district. I ran “uncommitted” meaning I was not publicly identified with any of the presidential candidates. As a “Carter loyalist” I would be able at the convention to vote however he directed me. Having his own block of “uncommitted” delegates would give him enhanced bargaining power at the convention. In this unfamiliar procedure black and white liberal activists were able to turn out their supporters and sweep the field. I lost to a young African-American student committed to Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. Kirbo lost and Carter running in his southwest Georgia district narrowly pulled out a victory.

Early on in my relationship with Carter I had assumed there was a group of senior grey-haired sages whose advice Carter relied upon in making key political decisions. I quickly realized that apart from Kirbo, there were no such people. Kirbo, like those in their twenties around Carter were expert at tactical issues within the context of Georgia politics but lacked any broad strategic vison or much understanding of what was happening in the nation as a whole. My experience in the military, my training as a physician, my time in Seattle, California and Washington and outside the United States, especially southeast Asia, as well as my exposure to a diverse array of people, cultures and political movements, not to mention my childhood in Britain, gave me an informed perspective that no one else close to Carter had. Gradually I came to understand that this was one reason why Carter listened to me.  Even before I left California I had seen how the tectonic plates of history were moving. The civil rights and anti-war movements, the upheaval on college campuses and a broad desire for change had spawned a populism across the country with a vast new segment of society demanding a role in the political process. Reforms, especially in the Democratic party, made it possible for activists to play a quite unprecedented part in shaping national politics. The South, as a result of the civil rights movement and legislation of the mid sixties, was on the verge of being accepted back into mainstream of America. Its long tradition of populism was very compatible with what had happened in the rest of the country throughout the sixties. I had observed with great interest the success of George Wallace’s appeal to the disaffected in northern states in 1964 and 1968. I was convinced the stage was set for a Southern populist without the burden of segregation to emerge on the national scene. I saw it all with great clarity and absolute self-confidence that I knew as well as anyone what was happening in the country. It was that perspective that I kept conveying to Carter.  

Although I had not been elected as a delegate to the convention, the fact that I had run helped to entrench me as part of the Carter political team. Over the next several weeks, McGovern began to emerge as the probable Democratic nominee and I was the only person in the governor’s office with strong connections to key McGovern supporters both in Georgia and nationally. I was the only one at that point, Carter included, who actually knew McGovern, which considerably enhanced my political capital. The Southern Governors Conference in 1972 took place shortly before the Democratic convention. It was held at the Hilton Head Resort in South Carolina, mainly so that the governors, who did not have a great deal of pressing business to transact over the three day weekend, could spend much of the time on the golf course and in other recreational activities. By now I had a good relationship with most of these men. Carter, who did not play golf and could never stand to feel he was not being productive, decided rather than sit around the lavish resort, to visit nearby impoverished Buford and Jasper counties. Mary King, a major figure in the civil-rights movement whom I would later marry, was the project overseer in Washington for the federal funding of my health center as well as that of a similar program in these counties. She came to organize the visit. This area in the so-called low country of South Carolina had recently received heavy national attention because of its extreme poverty,  widespread malnutrition, ill-health and parasite infestation in a high percentage of children comparable to the Third World. Carter was eagerly followed by the press corps desperate for some story out of an otherwise newsless weekend. Carter’s genuine compassion and concern as he talked to people in their homes, in a little café, and on the streets further endeared me to him. He had palpable empathy that he had with these poor suffering black people. The resultant publicity, especially in The New York Times, generated some problems for Carter. It looked like grandstanding, and to draw attention to the stark poverty in an adjacent state (there was also plenty in Georgia) when he was a guest of that state’s governor seemed ungracious. Governor West, however, a man of generous spirit and a good friend to Carter, waved away any criticism. It did serve to distinguish Carter from his fellow governors. The media coverage was also a way of catching the eye of McGovern, who came to join the governors on the final night of the meeting and who had previously chaired the senate committee that had investigated the state of affairs in Jasper and Buford counties. 

By now it was clear that I would be part of Carter’s delegation going to Miami. In my eyes it made eminent sense for the liberal McGovern to choose a fiscally conservative and integrationist Southerner to run with him. I talked with Kirbo, Jordan, Powell and Landon Butler about launching a strategy to convince McGovern to pick Carter. While Jordan expressed some cautious enthusiasm, others saw it as a quixotic notion that could backfire, making Carter, not yet at the halfway point of his term, look foolishly ambitious, jeopardizing his agenda with the legislature and antagonizing most Georgians. Carter himself was skillfully cryptic in his response. He would not endorse the idea, but at the same time did not oppose it, which all of us knew was a green light to go ahead. Landon Butler, who was not coming to Miami, obtained a letter extolling Carter’s virtues from a friend who had been an aide to Robert Kennedy for me to give to McGovern’s campaign director, Gary Hart. In the meantime, at Carter’s invitation, McGovern stayed at the mansion on his way to Miami.

Carter had a problem. He wanted the national visibility of a prime time speech from the podium. George Wallace had asked if he would nominate him, but, while it would have been well received  in Georgia,  it would only do damage to Carter nationally. In addition, I flew to Miami on the same flight with my friend Julian Bond, elected as a Shirley Chisholm delegate, who told me he was filing a complaint with the credentials committee over the racial composition of the Georgia delegation. Carter certainly did not need to be in a public dispute with Julian Bond. Shortly after we arrived in Miami, Carter received a call from Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson asking if he would nominate him. Carter promised a response later in the day. That evening Hamilton Jordan and I were driving to a restaurant in his car ( because of a phobia of flying, Jordan had driven to Miami) when Carter called on a two-way radio. He said to tell Jackson that he would give the nominating speech. We stopped in a service station to use the pay phone but neither of us had any change. Eventually we convinced a passer-by to give us a dime and the call was made.

The following morning a racial formula was worked out to resolve the credentials committee dispute. It resulted in Carter being able to appoint two more people loyal to him to the delegation, but they needed to be individuals who had run in the original caucuses in March. I was one of the only two people with Carter in Miami who fitted those criteria. At a meeting of Carter’s supporters on the delegation, he seemed curiously resistant to putting my name forward.  I was upset and did not know whether, because of our personal friendship, he felt it would look like favoritism, whether he worried that not being a native Georgian, the xenophobia of some rural delegates might be a problem, or whether he wanted to come up with someone of political consequence in the state who would later feel indebted to him. It was Hamilton Jordan who took my side, pointing out that I was the obvious choice. I was voted onto the delegation and thus would fulfill my longstanding promise to myself that I would be on the floor of the convention in 1972.                                    

Walking out on the floor of the convention on the opening night, I always recall as one of the peak experiences of my life. I felt sense of destiny coming true even if I had been forced to work very hard to make it happen.  The bright lights, the band, the noise, the balloons and the chance to rub shoulders with so many famous figures that I had seen only in magazines or on television met all the expectations of the dream I had been holding for four years. I would attend several later Democratic conventions but none would have the same emotional impact on me. Politically it was more sobering. The convention was dominated by McGovern delegates who despised both Wallace and Jackson.  Nominating Jackson was not going to win Carter many friends with this audience. 

The convention stayed in session until the early hours of the morning as it would every day that week. I nevertheless got up early and drafted a nominating speech for Carter that payed scant attention to Jackson until the very last paragraph. It did, however, lay out a political viewpoint for Carter to articulate that I thought would appeal to the audience. It focused significantly on identifying Carter with Ted Kennedy who, although not a candidate, was widely viewed as the dominant leader in the party at the time. I gave the speech to Jordan to pass on to Carter, but when I saw Carter later in the day he said he had not received it. I found Jordan in his room and asked what had happened to my speech. He sheepishly pulled it out of the desk draw. It was clear that he had not read it but, more significantly, had decided not to give it to Carter. It was both an important revelation for me and a significant turning point in my relations with other members of Carter’s staff. I was the only person around Carter who could draft such a speech in the required time frame and with a full understanding of the convention audience (or equally pertinently, the TV audience.) However, by doing so I was encroaching on the territory of his political staff, who were happy to be friendly and helpful as long as I posed no threat to them. From then on this would always be a problem. I took the speech and gave it directly to Carter, who delivered it almost verbatim except for a couple of small changes made by his public relations assistant Gerry Rafshoon and Senator Jackson.

I tried to deliver the letter from Landon Butler’s friend to Gary Hart, but the best I could do was to hand it to someone in McGovern’s suite who promised that both Hart and McGovern would see it.   Through my friend Chuck Morgan of the ACLU, I was able to arrange for Jordan and myself to have breakfast with Bill Dougherty, the lieutenant governor of South Dakota and a McGovern intimate. He was cordial and seemed to be giving us some encouragement that Carter might be picked for the ticket. McGovern formally won the nomination in the early hours of Wednesday night, July 13th. The following afternoon he was to announce his vice presidential choice. We gathered in the Carters’ suite, eager to be there if the fateful phone call should come. No one dared put it in words. Someone rang with the rumor that Congressman Wilbur Mills had been chosen and then finally we heard that it was, in fact, Senator Tom Eagleton whom McGovern had chosen.

The final night of the convention was one of high emotion, with rousing speeches by McGovern and Kennedy. Dawn was breaking as we walked back to our hotel. Totally exhausted from a week during which I had averaged only two to three hours sleep a night, I spent most of the day in bed. Late in the afternoon I went to sit by the swimming pool, where I found Hamilton Jordan. We talked through the events of the previous five days. Hamilton was mildly discouraged by the experience, feeling that we had been unrealistic and naive to believe that we could promote Carter to a national role. Perhaps all we had accomplished was to make him look foolishly ambitious, especially back home.  As always, the frame of reference for him and others around Carter was Georgia. They found it hard to envision a larger landscape. It was He thought it was a preposterous presumption, given the bias towards the South ever since the civil war, to think that anyone, especially a politician restricted by law to one term as governor and with no experience outside the state could be taken seriously as having aspirations beyond the region.

I saw it quite differently. Here, I thought was an unparalleled opportunity to break the imposed isolation that had kept the deep South out of the American cultural and political mainstream for more than one hundred years. Increasingly I had a feeling of predestination convinced that Carter would become president, an utter conviction from which nothing would deter me over the next four years. I rode to the airport with Eleanor Clift and Joe Fleming of the Atlanta bureau of Newsweek. “You must be disappointed that Carter was not picked for the ticket,” Eleanor said to me. I had an overwhelming desire to respond “We will be back in four years and Carter will be the nominee.” But I just kept my mouth shut.

Back in Atlanta, I began to work on a memo to Carter laying out my analysis of how the political landscape had been changed by the new rules for delegate selection and fund raising making it, for the first time, possible for a relative unknown such as he to run successfully for the presidency. I not only strongly urged him to run but stressed the need for an early decision detailing the initial steps I believed he should take. In the meantime revelations about Eagleton’s history of mental illness forced McGovern to drop him from the ticket. Rosalynn Carter called asking to meet me and stressing that she would come to my house even though I volunteered to go to the mansion as I had always done. The purpose of her visit was ask me if I might be able to use my influence with people in the McGovern camp to get them to consider Jimmy as Eagleton’s replacement. My efforts to do so quickly hit a brick wall, but it convinced me that my memo would not fall on deaf ears. The following Monday I walked into Carter’s office and handed him the memo.

Several days passed and I heard nothing. Then Hamilton Jordan spoke to me. “Jimmy has shown me your memo,” he said “Rosalynn has seen it too.” He was non-committal about its merits and I was not sure whether he thought I was trying to impose my own delusions of grandeur on Carter or whether he felt I was trying to usurp his role as Carter’s primary political advisor. Three days later Carter invited the two of us together with Landon Butler and his public relations expert, Gerald Rafshoon, to meet him after dinner at the governor’s mansion.

The meeting started uneasily with Jordan, by now fully supportive of my vision, saying “Governor, as you know we are here to talk about your future.” The enormous pretentiousness of what was on all our minds made it very difficult to put the goal into precise words. “We think you should run for higher office,” he continued euphemistically. Of course, there was really only one higher office--president of the United States, but it was too momentous to actually say. Carter then began to talk about my memo and what such a venture would entail. Once the ice had been broken, we all relaxed and spent the next several hours discussing in detail the ramifications of what a decision to run would mean. There was no road map. No one, we thought, had run and won from such obscurity before. Certainly no candidate had begun planning and implementing so meticulously, so early.  But under the new rules it was not only suddenly possible suddenly for a rank outsider to get the nomination, starting to work actively years ahead was the only way to do it. I knew I was one of the only people in the country who had really understood that.

Throughout the meeting Carter had kept the conversation in the speculative realm, never giving an ironclad assurance that he had made the final decision. After we left him around midnight the four of us stood by our cars in the parking area. “Do you think he will run,”  Rafshoon asked. Yes, we all agreed was the answer.   - See also my book Jimmy Carter: From Plains to the Post-Presidency, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1995.     




© Peter G. Bourne - 2009