President of What?

By Diane DeVaughn Stokes

Hey, you’ve got to have confidence in yourself, no matter what you do. And, if you do something that appears stupid, laugh along with everyone else. It ain’t brain surgery. No one got hurt, right?

Well, that’s what I keep telling myself about the day I asked Jimmy Carter, “President of what?” when he told me he was running for President!

Was I embarrassed to have been the only journalist to ever ask Jimmy that question? Heck no, and here is why.

I was co-hosting a live radio show in Florence, S.C., with my partner in crime and mentor, Doug Williams, who had been behind the microphone for twenty-five years at this time, and neither one of us were incredibly astute in national politics…especially me.

Let me first set the stage for you. This was the “Holiday Show,” a LIVE public affairs broadcast on WOLS Radio…that’s SLOW spelled backward. It was Florence, S.C.’s, one and only walk right in, sit right down and let’s chat, hour and a half, never know what’s going to happen next, program! Locals knew they could wallow into the Holiday Inn Downtown dining room, sign the guest book and talk about anything they wanted to, within reason of course. This was my training ground, my journalistic boot camp.

It was the most listened to radio show in the area, and the most well respected as well. The station’s biggest claim to fame was that it was once owned by Melvin Purvis, who shot John Dillinger. However, many celebrities with much bigger names graced the airwaves: Amanda Blake who was Miss Kitty on Gunsmoke, Howard Keel of Broadway fame, and later, Jay North who played Dennis The Menace, General William Westmoreland of the Viet Nam War, and even Guy Lombardo, Mr. New Year’s Eve himself. He just happened to be having breakfast one morning when we were broadcasting, and agreed to come join us for some nostalgic conversation. But never before in the history of “The Holiday Show” had anyone announced his presidency right before our very eyes, and right before our listener’s ears!

One morning, in the middle of Doug’s commercial for Piggly Wiggly, this young man, maybe twenty years old or so, walked over from where he was eating breakfast and said, “Hi, I’m Chip, and I was wondering if my dad could come over and be on the show?”

“Absolutely,” I said. “All he has to do is sign in and tell me what he wants to talk about.” And the rest is history.

A man dressed in deck shoes, blue jeans and plaid shirt approached the table, and I quietly gestured for him to take a seat and sign his name in our little black book. About the same time, Doug finished his live commercial, and turned the microphone towards me to introduce the next guest. I explained to Doug and the listeners that this new friend just finished having breakfast with his son here at the Holiday Inn, and his name was Jimmy Carter.

“Good morning, Jimmy, and welcome to the Holiday Show,” I said.

“Yes, I am Jimmy Carter and I’m running for President!”

Without skipping a beat, I asked, “President of what?”

Keep in mind; this is Florence, South Carolina. The only Presidents we ever met were from the Rotary Club, Sertoma Club, or Civitan Club. But I’ll never forget Jimmy Carter’s answer as long as I live because he said, so proudly and boldly, “President of THESE United States.”

Jimmy Carter went on to say he was from Plains, Georgia, and had some personal business in Florence. After seeing our unusual radio format he decided to announce his presidency right there on the spot. He said the show was real “Americana,” and even though he was several months away from an official announcement, he just felt the urge to announce right NOW.

Meanwhile, I am kicking Doug under the table as if to say we have a live wire, crack pot here. Part of me thought this guy must be crazy or drunk, but he was just so likable and charming with his down-home style. Doug asked him some tough questions about his goals for the future, and I followed with a few good ones of my own, like what have you been doing professionally up until this time.

Needless to say, when he said he had been a “peanut farmer,” I about lost all self control and continued to ask if he had any political experience.

His answer shocked both of us. He said he had been the governor of the state of Georgia.

At that point I was convinced we had been shammed, however, we continued to play the little game giving Jimmy the respect and dignity we had always given every guest, good or bad.

After the interview, Jimmy and Chip disappeared into oblivion, and we were left with fifteen minutes of show time, giggling between commercials and music, wondering if we had been shammed.

The moment we signed off the air, Doug and I hastened to the radio station to do some research. Did Georgia ever have a Jimmy Carter as governor? Let’s face it, I couldn’t tell you today who the current governor of Georgia is. Could you?

But to our surprise, we found out Jimmy Carter was a former governor of the Peach State. Now we asked ourselves, was this the REAL Jimmy Carter. We even called the local Democratic Party Chairperson who said it was rumored that Jimmy Carter would soon be announcing his presidency, but they assured us had the REAL Jimmy Carter been in town they probably would have known about it.

About a year later, the whole world got to know that a peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia, was running on the Democratic ticket for President of THESE UNITED STATES. Seeing his smiling face on national television assured us that we were not spoofed on our own radio show, but rather humbly honored by his presence and surprise announcement. We had assuredly met and interviewed the REAL Jimmy Carter.

The only part of the story that Doug and I don’t agree on is that I believe, from something that Chip said to me, that Jimmy was in Florence getting a new set of teeth. After all, Florence used to be the “Dental Capital of the world.” Senior citizens would come to Florence by the busloads to get a new set of teeth in twenty- four hours. Doug maintains that Jimmy Carter could afford teeth in Georgia if he needed them.

I still think he got a new set of dentures, which might explain why no one from the Democratic Party knew anything about his visit. Whatever, to this day Doug and I still laugh about the part we played in this historic event.

Did I vote for Jimmy Carter? You bet I did. I followed his presidency with gusto and pride.

I was one of his biggest fans.

Just a few years ago, I was in Italy vacationing with my husband when Jimmy Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize. Watching the presentation on television, knowing how much he did for our country and world peace, knowing how he fostered Habitat for Humanity, and knowing how he gave Doug and me the thrill of a lifetime, I was filled with emotion and cried like a baby for the man I came to know and admire as THE REAL JIMMY CARTER!

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