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The Real Jimmy Carter

Ronald Kessler By Monday, 21 April 2008 08:47 AM EDT Current | Bio | Archive

As former President Jimmy Carter met with Hamas leaders and laid a wreath at the tomb of terrorist Yasser Arafat, Americans were wondering who Carter really is.

Carter came into office portraying himself as a man of the people, a peanut farmer who cares about the problems of working class Americans. But Secret Service agents, Air Force One stewards, and White House residence staff saw an entirely different picture.

While Richard Nixon was known to the Secret Service as the strangest modern president, Carter was known as the least likeable. If the true measure of a man is how he treats the little people, Carter flunked the test. Inside the White House, Carter treated those who helped and protected him with contempt.

“When Carter first came there, he didn’t want the police officers and agents looking at him or speaking to him when he went to the office,” Nelson Pierce, an assistant White House usher, told me for my book "Inside the White House: The Hidden Lives of the Modern Presidents and the Secrets of the World's Most Powerful Institutions." “He didn’t want them to pay attention to him going by. I never could understand why. He was not going to the Oval Office without shoes or a robe.” [Editor's Note: Get Ron Kessler's book. Go here now.]

“We never spoke unless spoken to,” said Fred Walzel, who was chief of the White House branch of the Secret Service Uniformed Division. “Carter complained that he didn’t want them [the officers] to say hello.”

“Carter came into the cockpit once in the two years I was on with him,” James A. Buzzelli, an Air Force One flight engineer, told me. “But [Ronald] Reagan never got on or off without sticking his head in the cockpit and saying, ‘Thanks, fellas,’ or ‘Have a nice day.’ He [Reagan] was just as personable in person as he came across to the public.”

Meanwhile, Carter refused to carry out the most important responsibility a president has — to be available to take action in case of nuclear attack. When he went on vacation, “Carter did not want the 'nuclear football' at Plains,” a Secret Service agent said (the "nuclear football" is a briefcase used by the president to authorize the use of nuclear weapons when away from fixed command centers). “There was no place to stay in Plains. The military wanted a trailer there. He didn’t want that. So the military aide who carries the football had to stay in Americus,” 10 miles away from Carter’s home in Georgia.

Because of the agreed-upon protocols, in the event of a nuclear attack, Carter could not have launched a counterattack by calling the aide in Americus.

“He would have had to drive 10 miles,” the agent said. “Carter didn't want anyone bothering him on his property. He wanted his privacy. He was really different.”

Through his lawyer, Terrence B. Adamson, Carter denied that he refused to keep the nuclear football near him in Plains and that he instructed uniformed officers not to say hello to him in the White House.

But Bill Gulley, who, as director of the White House military office, was in charge of the operation, confirmed that Carter refused to let the military aide stay near his residence.

“We tried to put a trailer in Plains near the residence for the doctor [who travels with the president] and the aide with the football,” Gulley said. “But Carter wouldn’t permit that. Carter didn’t care at all.”

Carter — codenamed Deacon by the Secret Service — was moody and mistrustful.

“When he was in a bad mood, you didn’t want to bring him anything,” a former Secret Service agent said. “It was this hunkered down attitude: ‘I’m running the show.’ It was as if he didn’t trust anyone around him. He had that big smile, but when he was in the White House, it was a different story.”

“Carter said, ‘I’m in charge,’” a former Secret Service agent said. “‘Everything is my way.’ He tried to micromanage everything. You had to go to him about playing on the tennis court. It was ridiculous.”

One day, Carter noticed water gushing out of a grate outside the White House.

“It was the emergency generating system,” said William Cuff, an assistant chief of the White House military office. “Carter got interested in that and micromanaged it. He would zoom in on an area and manage the hell out of it. He asked questions of the chief usher every day. ‘How much does this cost?’ ‘Which part is needed?’ ‘When is it coming?’ ‘Which bolt ties to which flange?’”

At a press conference, Carter denied reports that White House aides had to ask him for permission to use the tennis courts. But that was more dissembling. In fact, even when he was traveling on Air Force One, Carter insisted that aides ask him for permission to play on the courts.

“It is a true story about the tennis courts,” said Charles Palmer, who was chief of the Air Force One stewards. Because other aides were afraid to give Carter the messages asking for permission, Palmer often wound up doing it.

“He [Carter] approved who played from on the plane,” Palmer said. “Mostly people used them when he was out of town. If the president was in a bad mood, the aides said, ‘You carry the message in.’ On the bad days when we were having problems, no one wanted to talk to the president. It was always, ‘I have a note to deliver to the president. I don’t want him hollering at me.’”

Palmer said Carter seemed to relish the power. At times, Carter would delay his response, smugly saying, “I’ll let them know,” Palmer said. “Other times, he would look at me and smile and say, ‘Tell them yes.’ I felt he felt it was a big deal. I didn’t understand why that had to happen.”

Early in his presidency, Carter proclaimed that the White House would be “dry.” Each time a state dinner was held, the White House made a point of telling reporters that no liquor — only wine — would be served.

“The Carters were the biggest liars in the world,” Gulley said. “The word was passed to get rid of all the booze. There can’t be any on Air Force One, in Camp David, or in the White House. This was coming from close associates of the Carter family. I said to our White House military people, ‘Hide the booze, and let’s find out what happens.’ The first Sunday they are in the White House, I get a call from the mess saying, ‘They want bloody marys before going to church. What should I do?’ I said, ‘Find some booze and take it up to them.’”

“We never cut out liquor under Carter,” said Palmer, the chief of the Air Force One stewards. “Occasionally, Carter had a martini,” Palmer said. He also had a Michelob lite. “Rosalynn may have had a drink . . . She had a screwdriver.”

Towards the end of his term, Carter became suspicious that people were stealing things and listening to his conversations in the Oval Office.

“They were becoming very paranoid,” said a General Services Administration (GSA) building manager in charge of maintenance of the west wing. “They thought GSA or the Secret Service were listening in.”

One afternoon, Susan Clough, Carter’s secretary, insisted that some of the crude oil in a vial had been stolen from the Oval Office. The vial was a gift to Carter from an Arab leader.

“Susan Clough swore up and down that someone poured some of it out,” a GSA manager said. Even though the vial was sealed, “There was a big fuss over it. The Secret Service photographs everything in the president’s suite. They photographed it [again], and it hadn’t been touched. It shows the paranoia.”

After Reagan was inaugurated, GSA discovered that the Carter staff had left garbage in the White House and had trashed furniture in the old Executive Office Building, much as Bill Clinton’s staff trashed the White House before President Bush moved in.

GSA saw “furniture, desks, and file cabinets turned over,” a GSA building manager said. “They shoved over desks. We had to straighten it out. It was 15 or 20 desks in one area. It was enough to look like a cyclone had hit.”

After he was voted out of office, Carter occasionally stayed in the townhouse GSA maintains for former presidents at 1716 Jackson Place. On the walls of the townhouse are photos of former presidents. GSA managers had to check on the premises and found that while Carter was there, Carter would remove the photos of Republican presidents Ford and Nixon and decorate the townhouse with another half-dozen 16-inch by 24-inch photos of himself.

Each time, Charles B. (Buddy) Respass, then the GSA manager over the White House, became irate because GSA had to find the old photos and hang them up again.

Carter, through Adamson, denied this. He also denied that he thought people were listening to his conversations in the Oval Office. But Lucille Price, the GSA manager who then reported to Respass, said, “Carter changed the photos . . . He didn’t like them [Ford and Nixon] looking down at him. We would find out he would put photos of himself up,” Price said. “Then he would take the photos of himself back with him,” she said. “He was a wimp.”

In telling Iran-supported Hamas that it should stop its rocket attacks on Israel, Carter no doubt thought he was still sitting on Air Force One, savoring the power of letting aides know when they could use the tennis courts.

[Editor's Note: Get Ron Kessler's book. Go here now.]

Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via
e-mail. Go here now.

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As former President Jimmy Carter met with Hamas leaders and laid a wreath at the tomb of terrorist Yasser Arafat, Americans were wondering who Carter really is. Carter came into office portraying himself as a man of the people, a peanut farmer who cares about the problems...
jimmy, carter
Monday, 21 April 2008 08:47 AM
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