For the 43rd episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Will Mari spoke with Amber Roessner about her book Jimmy Carter and the Birth of the Marathon Media Campaign (LSU Press, 2020).
An associate professor in the School of Journalism and Electronic Media at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Amber Roessner also is the author of Inventing Baseball Heroes: Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, and the Sporting Press in America (LSU Press, 2014).
This episode is sponsored by the University of Tennessee’s School of Journalism and Electronic Media.
Will Mari: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told. I’m your host, Dr. Will Mari, guiding you through our own drafts of history.
This episode is sponsored by the University of Tennessee’s School of Journalism and Electronic Media. Nestled near the beautiful Great Smoky Mountains, the school is home to a highly engaged group of faculty and students pursuing a diverse array of studies, research, and creative projects in the fields of journalism and media. In an era when careers evolve and change on a regular basis, the school provides its students not only critical skillsets, but also the knowledge and abilities to adapt to whatever opportunities arise throughout their future career.
In this episode, we talk to Dr. Amber Roessner of the University of Tennessee’s School of Journalism and Electronic Media –
about her book, Jimmy Carter and the Birth of the Marathon Media Campaign, published with Louisiana State University Press. All right, Amber, could you tell us briefly what your book is about?
Amber Roessner: Well, how much time do you have again?
Will Mari: [Laughs] As much time as we need.
Amber Roessner: Only kidding. Jimmy Carter and the Birth of the Marathon Media Campaign, my forthcoming account of the peanut farmer for president’s rise in the 1976 presidential campaign, offers insight into what Time hailed as one of the most astonishing political miracles in the nation’s history. A decade in the making, this book involved the representational and relational analysis of more than 25,000 media texts, memory texts, and archival documents surrounding the negotiation of political images by presidential aspirants, campaign consultants, frontline reporters, and various publics involved in the bicentennial campaign, including an in-depth interview with Carter himself.
In the final analysis … though, many cultural observers dismissed Carter’s campaign and presidency as the final chapter of Watergate, and this book reveals that the born-again politician’s miraculous rise in the bicentennial campaign signaled a new chapter in American politics and journalism, a seminal transition prompted by a seismic rupture that still reverberates today.
Will Mari: Wow, that’s really awesome. No, that sounds very exciting, and what a good moment to talk about President Carter. I mean I guess I always ask this of authors because these books are so much work but, with all that, what motivated you to research this book and to write it?
Amber Roessner: Yeah, that’s a really good question, one that many folks, including Jimmy Carter and my mother, have asked me along the way. Carter, when I had the opportunity to interview him in October –
of 2015 reminded me that books about the 1976 campaign line his shelves at his home in Plains, Georgia, and my mom said, “How on earth can you shift from a book about baseball to presidential politics?” However, for me the answer was quite simple. And I imagine that the skeptical tone of my skeptics might have sounded a bit like that of Ms. Lillian Carter when her eldest son told her that he intended to run for president. Lillian, of course, said, “President of what?” And so my shift into this research subject matter was far less dramatic than Carter’s sudden presidential ambitions in the early ’70s. Nevertheless, it spurred questions from mystified family and colleagues at my decision to
move from a fruitful area of scholarship in sports media history to what they viewed as well-plowed ground surrounding Jimmy Carter. Despite their derision, I persevered with my intent to study my back-up dissertation topic, the rise of the relatively obscure peanut farmer from Plains to the White House in 1976. And of course at the heart of this study remains a similar focus that was central to that of my first book, an interest in the negotiation of images of public figures in the media and the role that these images have on our national culture.
Will Mari: No, that’s wonderful and I think about the Carter campaign as pretty unique and definitely important. I think for a lot of people I think there’ll be a chance with your book to I think really understand why that is the case. And I guess to set the stage for that, what were they like, campaigns I mean, before the ’76 race for president with President Carter?
What was the typical campaign like before he helped to change it with his strategy?
Amber Roessner: That’s a really good question. For one, they were tremendously shorter. Um, [laughs] prior to the presidential reforms of the early ’70s party nominees largely were selected by political elites, Washington insiders, and political bosses in smoke-filled back rooms, a process that took very little time and required minimal campaigning. In 1952, for instance, as media historian Pam Parry might tell you, Dwight Eisenhower only announced that he was willing to run for president on the Republican ticket ten months prior to the election. However, after the 1972 McGovern-Fraser reforms were enacted in the wake of the nomination of Hubert Humphrey at the contentious 1968 Democratic Convention, presidential contenders such as McGovern in ’72 and Jimmy Carter in 1976 –
recognized the necessity of engaging in public grassroots campaigns months before the first caucuses or primaries to harness national media attention and name recognition into votes from rank-and-file party members. So prior to the shift in the primary nominating process, many presidential candidates like 1952 Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson still bristled at the idea that you can merchandise candidates for high office like breakfast cereal. However, by 1976 all presidential candidates engaged in showbiz politics using Hollywood and Madison Avenue style techniques to construct a presidential image with the aura of authenticity and to stage public events designed in the new age of campaign finance reform to attract free national media attention.
Will Mari: That’s really interesting because yeah,
I think of campaigns today as just normally long, and we of course are in the midst of one right now thinking about [this] next year, and it seems like it’s coming right up. But of course people have been running for president since last year, [laughs] which is the new normal of our modern day. I guess what made Carter’s campaign unique then with how it operated? What were his tactics and overall strategy?
Amber Roessner: Yeah. Well, I mean first of all, I think it’s really important to recognize that he was just using an extension of showbiz politics strategies that had really been adopted in the middle of the 20th century. So under these new rules of U.S. politics, presidential candidates increasingly depended on a new class of campaign workers, so such as political consultants, skilled image merchants, so pollsters, public relations consultants, advertising specialists, and
television advisors, and they capitalized on this visual authority of the mass media to sell campaigns to special interest groups and individual constituents. So Carter relied on this emerging rank of campaign operatives who worked alongside traditional campaign personnel such as press secretaries, who of course were the media liaisons who served as intermediaries between reporters and their audiences. But what Carter did that was different in ’76. He accepted this new primary rule in new politics that images don’t simply communicate messages to the masses. That images actually speak power and transform political reality. And they were the most adept at exploiting the new kingmakers under the reform system of showbiz politics.
So these were political consultants, chic celebrities, horse race obsessed frontline reporters who amplified the anti-establishment outsider’s salient personal campaign, what I refer to in the book as his un-celebrity campaign, which capitalized on sincere messages of moral reform and authentic images of a triumphant underdog. And these of course were very resonant appeals for Americans who increasingly distrusted the political establishment’s slick Madison-Avenue inspired campaigns that they were concerned were masking corrupt presidential actors. So, as I include in my book, Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist David Hab- [laughs] David Halberstam, he observed that Jimmy Carter more than
any other candidate had sensed and adapted to modern communications and national mood. So particularly he tapped into the national mood through public opinion polling and had designed this very resonant, salient message of moral reform. But he adapted to modern communications in part by going local, so that’s an extension of Samuel Kernell’s logic of going public. So he went local with a grassroots campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire and also all across the United States during the invisible primaries to attract that national media attention and name recognition to bolster him into, you know, the primary campaign in ’76.
Will Mari: And as part of that, what was his dynamic with reporters on the road? I mean what was that like with President Carter?
Amber Roessner: Yeah, that’s a great question. So initially, reporters kind of bristled at Carter’s attempts to establish rapport with them, particularly after their experiences with Johnson and Nixon. And … I mean it was a great strategy in ways that Hamilton Jordan, his campaign director, and Jody Powell, his press secretary, had to establish a close rapport with reporters, but they kind of had this outdated mentality about how to go about establishing rapport. So in one of the first campaign memos delivered to Carter
in November of ’72, they said like these stories, they can’t just be planted. Like you have to go out of your way to have a weekend with prominent reporters, prominent publishers like Katharine Graham. Nevertheless, though, Carter did attract media attention because of the way that he, you know, was an underdog victor, because of the way that he was declared a winner in Iowa, and then New Hampshire. It was kind of [this] sensational storyline, and as we know, our news media were an objective news media, were biased towards those sensational storylines about underdog winners. Right? And so he was able to really gain a lot of positive media coverage, uh, “big mo”
as it was later referred to by George W. Bush, because of his spectacular finishes in these early primaries, and he was able to use that to establish a bandwagon effect that really did carry him to the nomination. But here’s the thing, Will. On the trail, by the time kind of [in the] late primaries, Carter had really confounded these key kingmakers, and he had started to develop this kind of hot and cold adversarial relationship with elite national reporters who were on the front lines. They complained of him belittling individual reporters, that he was complaining about adverse coverage, and that he was confronting an establishment, uh, system that he deemed to be biased toward
superficial coverage that wasn’t focused on the issues. Nevertheless, he would come to watch his cultural appeal fade as these chic frontline reporters probed his fuzzy image craft, of what they deemed to be an enigmatic candidate. And I want to share with you, and if you’ll permit me to read for just a second, something that just really resonated with me. So neither party was completely inaccurate as Chicago Tribune, rookie campaign reporter Eleanor Randolph explained. The Nixon presidency had helped create a whole breed of political journalists who appeared in great numbers in 1976 to explain the character of presidential candidates. It was a kind of Teddy White-ism gone wild. Yet for all of us out there trying to explain what kind of person Jimmy Carter was, most of us
didn’t or couldn’t and opted to call him an enigma. And, and basically that becomes the industry’s collective shorthand for this shared antipathy that they have for Carter and with Carter. And as Randolph goes on to say, maybe it was better to say that Carter was an enigma than to say directly in the middle of the campaign that he wasn’t a particularly nice guy. So there, so I mean basically Carter is at his pinnacle and he’s already starting to see this relationship with reporters that he had worked so tirelessly to establish erode, in part because they saw some of his strategies as contrived, in part because they started to resent what was kind of an open press access starting to close amid just –
the size of it all, and then in part they were really put off by what they saw as his pious attitude, and then finally, they were [laughs] determined in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate to catch this man in a lie, this candidate who promised never to tell a lie.
Will Mari: Man, that does sound pretty dramatic actually in many ways. Oh, my goodness. And I can see how that whole context impacted Carter’s campaign, and I do wonder after Carter, you know, how did things change while he was in the White House perhaps already beginning, but with Reagan and beyond with other campaigns. What was the change with campaigns overall once he had finished his time in the White House?
Amber Roessner: Yeah. Well, first I’ll talk to you a little bit about kind of
how Carter tried to communicate with the people once he was in the White House. So Ken Auletta had this great piece, and of course he was a freelancer for the Village Voice and for, in this case, More, the media magazine, which was a spinoff of the Journalism Review that one of our division members, Kevin Lerner, just released an amazing book about. But Ken Auletta said that by the end of the campaign that reporters recognized that covering Jimmy Carter was like playing chess with Bobby Fischer. Right? And so there was this kind of game strategy dynamic that starts to emerge. Right? The president versus the press. Who will win? That’s the tagline on that cover story in More.
And so I think that by this juncture in time, both Carter and the working press, the traveling press, they saw this as a bit of a game. Right? And so Carter, for his part, recognizing that those relationships with the news media were eroding fast, starts to take on more and more of Nixon’s news media management tactics. And obviously in the immediate aftermath of Watergate, the working press, they start to resent it very deeply and start to critique that. They also start to critique what they call his cardigan gimmickry. So, his image craft. Right? And so that relationship starts to unravel –
really quickly. Carter is really attempting when he is in the White House to speak directly to the American public through what he calls his people program, which is a mixture of staged pseudo-events throughout the United States, and then media events such as the one that he had on CBS. which was referred to as “dial-a-president.” It was a Q&A session that Walter Cronkite moderated, and that individuals across the States called in and asked questions. He also attempted just to cultivate local reporters across the United States and to bypass the national press. And so, as I said, though, these are like all kind of Nixon-esque strategies, right, and
the press is deeply resentful. In the aftermath of Carter, on the campaign trail, many politicians actually embrace some of his main strategies, particularly what’s referred to as the strategy of sequence, so essentially establishing a public grassroots media campaign in the earliest caucuses and primaries. So of course that has remained – Iowa and New Hampshire. And so all candidates after that saw that as the master campaign blueprint. It was as George W. Bush said, and I mentioned earlier, the way to gain big mo, big momentum. And then you get this bandwagon effect to where even when – and, and typically it’s when, not if – even when you have an
anybody but, you know, the frontrunning candidate movement, you can withstand it because you have gained enough support in those early primaries to say, “I’m the frontrunner. You can’t unseat, the establishment can’t unseat me.” Right? And, and that’s a strategy that Carter … originated. It’s a beautiful one in many ways. Presidential actors who came after Carter saw the weaknesses of his open-access press strategy, and they went to a completely closed press strategy. Reagan, it’s so funny because right after Carter is elected he is
considered to be the great communicator, and of course he is overshadowed, and unseated in that role by Reagan, his predecessor who comes after. And Reagan, what he’s particularly successful at is, you know, these staged photo ops that Carter had been including, but something that Carter was not very good at, this official line of the day, this unified line that the administration has to give and offer the news media. Carter was particularly bad about not having that unified line, so there were always leaks in Carter’s White House. And he was also the one to deliver the news about everything
not just the good news, the bad news. So presidential actors after Carter, when they come on the scene, if there’s bad news to deliver oftentimes they send someone else out to do it, right? And Carter didn’t engage in that at all. So these were kind of some of the key things that those individuals who followed Carter learned from him and were successful at adopting to their advantage.
Will Mari: Yeah, that’s a lot of impact on his predecessors right through the present moment, and in the midst of the primary season right now you can even see some of that big mo focus with people like Vice President Biden and others seeking that sort of energy. And I guess in the end, you know, I [am] always hoping to ask this question of authors, but I guess I was hoping to ask you in particular: What is
the legacy of Carter’s media persona, especially now in the era of Trump?
Amber Roessner: Yeah, that’s a really great question and one that I’ve been thinking a great deal about lately. So I mean Carter’s legacy and the way I think of… it is his image in the nation’s collective memory. It’s certainly in a moment of flux in this era of Trump. And as I explained in a recent perspective piece in the Washington Post, this enigmatic man, as journalists referred to him on the trail, he’s enjoying something of a renaissance in the American imagination. So after many journalists and Washington insiders referred to him as a failed president, many in the Democratic Party now consider Carter someone to embrace. I mean and that was after he was considered a political pariah
for more than four decades in his party. So what we’ve seen in the last couple of years is that Democrat … presidential contenders in the 2020 race, they’re flocking to Plains. They’re making these well-publicized trips to embrace the legacy of this town’s most famous resident. And, you know, beyond that, as we’ve seen, a seat in Carter’s Sunday school class, it’s becoming one of the hottest tickets in town. And why is that? It’s because, you know, it’s because amid these kind of presidential scandals, and the social upheaval and economic uncertainty that we’re experiencing in this cultural moment, there are these eerie parallels to the moment in which Carter was elected. Right? And so we have these Democratic hopefuls that are eager to cast themselves
as Washington outsiders just like the peanut farmer turned president once did. And we’re all kind of experiencing this intense nostalgic longing for, you know, what Doris Kearns Goodwin referred to as a good and decent man, right, who led the country through this moment of national crisis. And it’s a moment like the one that we are seeing in the minds of many now. So there has been this unprecedented renaissance, one that’s prompted a number of historians to revisit Carter’s life, and particularly the narrative around his, quote, unquote, failed presidency.
Will Mari: Yeah. No, I think, I think at this moment, yeah, we have such a fascination with him because he is such a contrast, and has been, to the current president in so many, so many aspects.
But the parallels you pointed out are really interesting, Amber, and I will be reading the book.
Amber Roessner: Yeah. I’ll just add this one last thing. My publisher asked me to [laughs] offer an epilogue that addressed Carter in relation to the 2016 presidential campaign, and I mean the title of the epilogue, unless it gets changed in post-production, is, you know, “from lust in my heart to grab ’em by the pussy.” Right? Um, which, you know, what a striking contrast indeed. Right? It’s just rather amazing. Um, yeah, and I apologize for interrupting. I just…
Will Mari: Oh, you’re fine. No, it’s an important thought about him and it’s not that long ago that he was president, and he’s still with us, hopefully, as of this recording.
But I do appreciate so much the work it takes to make these sorts of studies happen, Amber, and I think you care deeply about media history and journalism history, but I also always end with this question, if I can, with authors. Why does what we do matter? Why does journalism history matter right now?
Amber Roessner: Well, I mean certainly that’s a question that I always have thought about, but particularly we tend to think about more in a moment in which we recognize that journalism is in crisis. But of course, I think that in ways journalism, this practice, is always already in crisis. And I think that it’s really important to study history because of course our past, in the words of cultural historian Raymond Williams, it determines or exerts pressures and sets limits upon
our present moment and our future prospects. And so I think it’s –anyone that is interested in the role of media in society, the role of media in the health of democracies, that they should care very, very much about media history and should have a passion for the study of media history and journalism history.
Will Mari: Thanks for tuning in, and additional thanks to our sponsor, the University of Tennessee’s School of Journalism and Electronic Media, and to Taylor & Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History. Until next time, I’m your host, Will Mari, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow. Good night, and good luck.