Carter's First Stand For Political Integrity
MILLIONS of Americans voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976 because they liked his straightforwardness. After the political melodrama of Watergate, they were ready for the simple virtues of the man from Plains, Ga.
Four years later, however, many of those millions decided that Carter's virtues were unequal to the complex tasks in Washington. But even many of his detractors would have granted the Georgian one thing: He had integrity.
Carter's sense of honesty and moral courage are rooted deeply in his family and his character. But his integrity as a politician was to a large extent forged during a particular short period: the fall of 1962, when he first ran for public office. This was the "Turning Point" of his book's title.
The early 1960s marked a revolution in the way politics was practiced in the American South. In March 1962, the United States Supreme Court handed down its Baker v. Carr ruling that established the principle of "one man, one vote."
One of the pillars of Southern white privilege that fell before the federal decision was Georgia's county-unit rule. Under that system, tiny counties were grossly overrepresented in the state legislature. Rural political bosses, relying on the votes of a few thousand manipulated constituents, wielded tremendous power.
One of these bosses, Joe Hurst of Quitman County, became Carter's chief antagonist in the race to represent a newly redrawn multi-county district in the state Senate in 1962. Hurst had publicly backed Carter's opponent, and he wanted to make sure Quitman County did its part to give his man a victory. Hurst succeeded - or so it seemed at first.
The county boss was none too subtle in his methods. He had the voting station in the county seat transferred from a large public building to a cramped office where voters had no choice but to mark their ballots in clear view of Hurst and one of his henchmen.
These good-'ol-boy observers were not averse to suggesting how people should vote; they would even thrust their hands into the ballot box to make sure folks followed instructions. And, yes, the dead cast their votes, along with a few former residents of Quitman County who had moved away years ago.
When Carter heard that blatant fraud was in progress, he dispatched his own observers. They took notes and later rounded up voters who were willing to testify to Hurst's political thuggery. But though times were changing, county bosses still had considerable clout, and the results as certified at the county level would be hard to turn around.
Carter decided to launch a challenge regardless of the odds and enlisted in his cause people who would remain close advisers throughout his public career, such as lawyer Charles Kirbo.
The story of how Carter and a few loyal friends saw this episode through to success is good reading for anyone who cares about democracy. It's a simply told tale, but the author acknowledges the complexities of the experience.
People like Hurst distorted democracy, but they got things done quickly for their constituents. "In the old days," Carter notes, "everyone knew where to go with a problem, and the local boss had direct access to state officials, who had to be sensitive to his requests in order to get the unit votes he could deliver."
Not that he would go back to those days. Carter's message seems to be that democracy evolves in curious ways and sometimes things are lost as reforms take hold, but that the push toward greater justice and equality has to continue regardless. Changes set in motion at that "turning point" 30 years ago, he notes, are still being played out.