- "Fuzzy as a Georgia Peach"The Ford Campaign and the Challenge of Jimmy Carter's Southernness
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America's bicentennial was supposed to be a year of triumphant celebration. Although the nation could look back proudly on its founding, the present looked grim. Americans, after all, were still reeling from the Watergate scandal and Richard Nixon's subsequent resignation from the presidency, and many were feeling beaten down by a dilapidated economy beset by the confusing problem of stagflation—high unemployment, high inflation, and weak consumer demand. 1976 was also an election year. Running as the incumbent, Nixon's replacement and pardoner, Gerald Ford, presented himself as a steady hand: not flashy, but competent, and capable of leading Americans out of their economic funk—at some point. His challenger, Democrat Jimmy Carter, suggested he would do more than offer competent leadership, regain Americans' trust, and fix the economy. He would also usher the nation out of its existential doldrums, and perhaps even move it beyond the racial and political divisions of the '60s. He would, in short, heal its wounds. These were bold claims made all the more remarkable by Carter's assertion that his southern background empowered him to cure the nation's ills.
Sensing the American public's fascination with Carter's southernness during the 1976 presidential contest, Gerald Ford's Republican strategists turned to another southerner for advice. Their choice—Frances Kaye Pullen—perhaps revealed their desperation to combat a key part of the former Georgia governor's appeal. The Tennessee-born Pullen had crafted speeches for President Ford before she was transferred to Betty Ford's staff, where she performed the same duties for the First Lady; she was hardly a member of the Ford campaign's inner circle. Nevertheless, Pullen submitted a detailed and carefully crafted memo (more like "an essay," she joked). In it, she concluded that Carter successfully merged different versions of a fantasied South, enabling him to attract fellow southerners hoping to gain nonsouthern respect for their oft-maligned region and using his southernness to charm voters living outside of the region. "Carter," Pullen observed, "is playing upon two essentially conflicting myths—the 'good ole boy' rural South and the 'black and white together' new South." And his "use of the southern mystique" was nothing more than "hoke," a false picture of the region that the news media were all too eager to disseminate.1
Folksy insults aside, Pullen captured one of the central strengths of Carter's campaign: his ability to deploy captivating southern symbols that connected with voters both regionally and nationally. Carter hailed from rural southern Georgia, where he oversaw a prosperous peanut business. His presidential run occurred during a key moment: just after the Civil Rights Movement, when a racially progressive white southerner like himself could be seen as a mainstream figure well-suited to deal with the country's racial divides. He benefited from other accidents of circumstance, as well. For example, the Georgia constitution at the time prohibited the sitting governor from succeeding himself. This meant that when Carter's [End Page 63] single term as the state's chief executive ended in 1975, he was left with unlimited time to vie for the presidency. This last factor, coupled with Democratic Party rule changes on fundraising and delegate selection, made Carter's populist style of one-on-one campaigning incredibly effective. The Atlanta Constitution's editor had ridiculed him as a joke candidate when he first announced his presidential bid; by early 1976, he was a viable White House hopeful.2
In labeling Carter's southernness an asset, Pullen revealed that she had been paying attention to popular culture in addition to politics. By the mid-1970s, the white South had been, in some ways, rehabilitated on the screen and in print. Carter's campaign for the White...