(As it appeared Tuesday, February 28, 2023, in The Atlanta Journal Constitution.)
As a high school junior in 1976, I was selected to play former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter in our mock presidential election. It taught me a lesson in politics – and the performative nature of candidacy – that is as true today as in the assembly hall of my Louisiana school nearly 50 years ago.
My parents thought I should do my homework on Carter before the school event. They drove me to the local Carter for President headquarters where a campaign worker not much older than me offered an enthusiastic overview of Carter’s platform. I scribbled notes and returned home with an armful of brochures.
On the day of the mock election rehearsal, I brought a prepared campaign speech chock full of Carter’s ambitious platform details. It didn’t go as planned.
Halfway through my impassioned remarks, our civics teacher stopped me, waving her arms like an airport tarmac guard and calling out, “No! That’s all wrong!”
“You’re not doing Carter!” she yelled toward the stage. “Where’s the funny Georgia accent? We don’t need all that information. That’s too much. And smile! Smile really big!”
I was a red-faced teenager, flummoxed by her direction but eager to please. While my classmate playing Gerald Ford went through his speech – he did a pratfall as he approached the podium that pleased the civics teacher to no end – I tossed out all of my meticulous research and girded myself for another try at portraying Mr. Carter to everyone’s satisfaction.
My phony accent blended Gone with the Wind with Foghorn Leghorn. I paused between lines to flash a grin so wide it made my face hurt. My teacher nodded approvingly while my classmates at the rehearsal cackled with laughter.
I distinctly remember looking down at my speech, navigating around all the careful writing I had crossed out, and experiencing a new feeling that I couldn’t identify. Perhaps it was the feeling of my nascent youthful idealism being wiped from the pages before me.
The assembly the next day was a raucous success. Everyone laughed in all the right places, even if the crowd was decidedly in Ford’s corner. The peanuts I thought were brought to the event in support of Carter were hurled vaudeville style at me instead. But I just kept grinning, pouring out a drawl like sweet tea and giving the people what they wanted.
Jimmy Carter would carry Louisiana and most of the South on his way to the presidency, but he didn’t win my very conservative, military parish of Bossier. He was trounced there by 20 percentage points. The Carter loss was even more pronounced at my mock election.
There is a strange nexus between authenticity and cliche, between campaign details and what fits on a bumper sticker. The Carter campaign knew this as well as anyone, providing reams of platform details while producing buttons that declared, “THE GRIN WILL WIN.”
What falls away over the years is the hollow edifice of an image. Jimmy Carter’s post-presidency has revealed the man he has always been, stripped of the constraints of political stunts and policy shorthand. What remains is man who has, to paraphrase Carter’s oft-quoted Wesleyan doctrine, done all he could, by any means he could, for as long as he could.
The pride so many of us share in this legacy has this former Jimmy Carter impersonator grinning today from ear to ear.