Friday, August 6, 2004

How I Met Jimmy Carter

One of my commenters wanted to know how I met President Carter. Okay, here goes.

In 1978 I got a job as a news director for a brand-new radio station that was going on the air in Frankfort, Michigan. The station had what was then considered an “album” oriented rock format; nothing headbanger or punk but stuff that was considered B-side material by groups like The Eagles and so forth. It was mixed in with local news, weather, and live sports broadcasts of local high school basketball games. We had a network connection with the ABC FM network that got fed down a phone line, and my source of news was one of those old AP teletype machines that you see and hear in the background of movies like The Front Page. My job was to do morning newscasts, get local stories, and do a Sunday “features” program of interviews of local personalitites.

I, of course, had grander ambitions, and at some point, I wrote a letter to the White House inquiring about getting an interview with President Carter so that I could get the low-down on how his energy policy would effect rural Michigan, as if it really could (you have to remember that I was new to the news business). I heard nothing from them and I figured that I got shunted into the Whack-Job pile along with all the others. But then in late March 1979, I got a phone call from the White House Press Office. I was invited to one of the weekly conferences that they were going to hold in April. The owners of the station – Republicans all – wouldn’t put up the money for the trip, so I whipped out my Visa card and flew from Traverse City to D.C. and stayed with a friend in Georgetown the night before the conference.

The conference lasted all day in various places in the Old Executive Office Building, that huge pile of a structure that is across the alley from the West Wing. We were fed and feted by various mid-level officials, some whose names I knew, others I’d never heard of. They supplied us with policy papers and live feeds of meetings – anything they could do to hand-feed the press their side of the story. That probably explains why they invited me to the meeting – I was a reporter from a Republican county and they wanted their side presented.

After a very nice buffet lunch we were escorted over to the West Wing and into the Cabinet Room, and we (there were about twenty of us in all from all over the country) were seated at the cabinet table. We were warmed up by Press Secretary Jody Powell, and then, almost without noticing, President Carter walked in and made a small joke at Jody’s expense. We all shot to our feet, and the President sat down at the head of the table. We all got to ask a question; mine was about ethanol and how it would effect rural economies. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it was short, to the point, and on message. (I have a transcript of the session somewhere.) After about a half hour, we all got our picture taken shaking hands with the President (although mine didn’t come out so all I got later was a group shot), and a week or so after the meeting I get a short letter from the President, signed, I’m sure, by the Auto-Pen, thanking me for participating in a meeting that he found to be “extremely useful.” I phoned in a report to my radio station and got to say, “Reporting from the White House” as the outro.

That was my biggest adventure in my news career. A month or so later I was called out to cover a car accident. After a night of indulging in the local off-season recreation (getting drunk at a local tavern), a couple of friends of mine got into a VW Rabbit and did a woodsie off a sharp curve on a gravel road. By the time someone found them the next morning they were unrecognizable, and one of the ambulance drivers who reported to the scene was the wife of one of the victims. It was at that point that I basically lost my appetite for news reporting, and a couple of months later the station decided that it was cheaper to get their national news off the AP and let the DJ’s rip-run-and-read. I was only too happy to leave a job that paid me about $100 a week, and a month later I landed my first teaching job.

I still have that picture and letter from Jimmy Carter.