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Hamilton Jordan and Jody Powell : The Team Who Brought Carter the Presidency Explains How Democrats Can Again Take the White House

January 26, 1992|David Gergen | David R. Gergen, editor-at-large for U.S. News and World Report, served as communications director for the Reagan White House from 1981 to 1983

WASHINGTON — Hamilton Jordan (pronounced Jer'-den), now 47, and Jody Powell, 48, were the "gold-dust twins" at the heart of the last Democratic campaign that captured the White House. In the past 25 years, only their Southern strategy guided the Democrats to victory. And, like Bill Clinton--the governor of Arkansas the press had seemed to be electing before any votes has been cast--their candidate was a Southern centrist governor who came out of nowhere. Jimmy Carter, whisper many Democrats, showed us that it takes a Southern moderate to win.

Jordan recognized Carter's political potential long before the country had heard of him. As a young 28-year-old, Jordan wrote up a perceptive, 70-page game plan that he presented to Carter in 1972, mapping out a strategy for winning the Democratic nomination four years later. The document was a carefully maintained secret until Carter had nearly wrapped up the prize in the spring of 1976. Carter had a strong lead over President Gerald R. Ford coming out of the conventions that summer, but stumbled badly in the weeks that followed before winning by a small margin.

Powell was the other member of that 1976 campaign team who enjoyed almost a father-son relationship with Carter. After serving as the governor's press secretary in Georgia, he accompanied Carter on early campaign swings across the country, passing out leaflets to voters and rich morsels of information to reporters. Powell won respect not only for his hard-headed sense of politics but his humor--when former Georgia Gov. Lester G. Maddox attacked his boss, Powell retorted, "Being called a liar by Lester Maddox is like being called ugly by a frog."

Since leaving the White House after a losing campaign in 1980, Jordan taught for a while at Emory University, then was felled by a lymphatic cancer that many of his friends thought would kill him. But he fought back and the disease has been in remission for more than five years. After a stint running the American Tennis Players Assn., he is now president of Whittle Books and lives in Knoxville, Tenn. In his post-White House days, Powell made a mark as a newspaper columnist and political analyst for ABC News. In 1987, he became an executive in a public-relations firm and today he is chairman and chief executive officer of Powell Tate, a communications firm whose other chief partner, Sheila Tate, was Nancy Reagan's press secretary.

Assessing the 1992 campaign, both Jordan and Powell believe that the Democrats will win in November only if they bring some of the South back into the fold. The GOP has had a hammerlock there for 20 years, broken only by Carter. Clinton's natural appeal to Southerners is one big reason he attracted early interest among Democratic pros. But any Democratic candidate must convince the country that, if elected, he won't be another Carter--and that, too, will require special campaign planning.

Gergen: In the past six elections, the Democrats have captured the White House only once, when they nominated Jimmy Carter, a Southern governor. Do you think the best chance the Democrats have to recapture the White House is to again nominate a Southerner?

Jordan: I think I would approach it a little different. I think the party has to nominate somebody who has the potential to attract the kind of centrist Democratic and independent voters that have not supported the Democratic nominee in recent elections. I think the South has disproportionately more of those types of voters--which is why I think the South is critical for the party in the general election. So I think it's not just being a Southerner, it's having the ability to appeal to mainstream voters . . . .

Powell: . . . . Nominating a Southerner has almost become a shorthand for exactly what Hamilton said. . . . If you go all the way back, eons and eons, to 1976, and look at that general election, yes--carrying most of the Southern states was essential to that election. But it was also essential that we carried some of those traditional swing states outside the South.

. . . . If you look at that vote, what you saw is that the way Jimmy Carter won was by maintaining the traditional Democratic voting patterns and traditional Democratic constituencies. As I recall, he got about the same thing that Vice President Humphrey got in '68 in the urban areas. But he was able to significantly increase the Democratic vote in suburban and rural areas. That goes to the same point of broadening the appeal.

Gergen: Do you both think it would help the Democrats if they wrap this up early? Is there any risk, for example, of peaking too soon? One thing we've seen is the Democratic nominee comes out of the two conventions ahead--then they've had trouble keeping the lead.

Jordan: I think, collectively, we've all seen that in our experience in politics. The new guy looks fresh and he wins the nomination. Then people start, particularly with an incumbent President--begin to look very seriously at that person.

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