Washington — It was high noon at the ritual State Department briefing, and Hodding Carter III was casting a long, cool shadow. In a tone dry as dust he answered the reporters' questions which burst like gunfire around him, speaking dispassionately, unflappably about Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan.
But at 4:15 that afternoon, when the full force of the day's bad news had swept over him and he no longer had to guard every glance, every phrase, in front of the TV briefing cameras, it was different. Hodding Carter, State Department spokesman, was simply a man halfway between anger and tears over the latest devastating bad news about American hostages in Iran.
"It's bad, it really is," he says in a voice thick with emotion. "I set the timing for this [interview] because I had hoped it would be different . . . . I didn't think there would be anything quite this unfortunate at the time. Does it get to me personally" What really gets to me personally is not the job, not doing [that] kind of briefing. It is the sense of that incredible isolation and frustration that has to overcome the prisoners, their families. And what a drain this whole thing is on our nation's whole policy everywhere else. It's a continuing, draining would, and so that part of it gets to me."
On the very day the administration had anticipated a turning point, a possible announcement of the freeing of the hostages, the Ayatolloh Khomeini had again hardened his position. It was a bad news day in Room 6804 at State, where Hodding Carter was talking about his job as high wire man for US diplomacy.
"The briefing doesn't get to me at all. It's a job that I enjoy. I enjoy it some days more than others," he says bleakly.
It's a job that since the Iranian crisis has catapulted Hodding Carter, editor, civil rights activist, and scion of a Mississippi publishing family that pioneered for integration, into the nightly limelight on TV. And now into a contract with the William Morris Agency when his stint at State is over.
As Don Oberdorfer, who covers State for the Washington Post, points out, Carter is the first department spokesman to do his balancing act in front of TV cameras. With the Iranian crissi, he says, "suddenly the fount of all dispensed information on the record was this briefing, so Hodding appeared on everybody's TV set night after night. . . . He is the most visible spokesman for the administration on foreign policy since Powell's briefings are not allowed to be covered by TV, and it gives Hodding unique position, makes him a public figure. . . . I think he handles it well."
Oberdorfer, like several other diplomatic reporters questioned, calls Carter a very effective spokesman for State. He ranks him, as do others, with Ambassador Robert McCloskey, long considered the most able spokesman the department ever had (and that was in 1969-73, before TV coverage of State was allowed).
There is about the high noon briefings at State a different atmosphere from White House briefings. From Nixon's Ron Ziegler to Carter's Jody Powell, the White House encounters have often been characterized as a bear-baiting or bull-fighting adversary relationship between the briefer and the briefees. Hodding Carter is asked about that.
"Yes, oh, definitely, it's true. I dont know the reasons. Look, there are some guys in there, men and women in there, who don't mind, you know, twisting the tail from time to time. And there are those in there who have questions which bother a number of the other reporters. . . . But other than that, the relationship in there is of people fulfilling different functions. It's not of antagonists."
Sitting through a State Department briefing is like attending a conference of thermonuclear physicists -- you have a general idea of what they're talking about, but the language is so technical, the nuances so fine, that you'd have to read the headlines that afternoon to find out what really happened. It is all said, as Hank Truitt of the Baltimore Sun points out, in a form of verbal shortland.
Carter explains: "I have often thought and have some-times said that the average regular in there is probably as well informed on the overall sweep of policy . . . as anybody on the policy side of the administration. They don't know all the facts of the policymaker, they don't know as much as the policymaker, about the immediate nuances of policy. But they have a depth of understanding based on real hard work at education in the field. I mean, they have studied carefully. . . ."
That doesn't keep him from occasionally lacing his briefings with a littl emphasis. There is the classic chicken story told by briefing regulars. It's about the time perennial agitator Lester Kinsolving, now with the Washington Weekly, when just too far one day. Carter disappeared for a moment behind the podium, popped up, then hurled a rubber chicken at the offending reporter. That was, as we say in the business, strictly on background. No cameras.
Richard Valeriani of NBC says, "Some of the special interest pleaders . . . sometimes strecth his temper to the outer limits. So he does things up there on the podium -- he'll do sight gags, little skits. . . He'll suddenly appear with his hands over his face like a mask [the day there were questions about the Shah's whereabouts] or with a hat pulled dowm over his eyes like a spook," in answer to some of the wilder questions.
Valeriani says that Hodding's 17 years of journalism as editor of the family paper, the Greenville, Mississippi, Delta Democrat-Times, gives him "enormous credibility, makes him extremely effectivec in the job.
"It also gives him a foundation from which to fight back. . . . He appears low key, rather dull and boring [on the tube] but he's really a lot livelier, has a good sense of humor. . . is a good ole boy jounalist type. And he's combative. If you're going to be a white liberal in Mississippi [where Valeriani first met him when he was covering civil rights in the early '60s] you've got to be combative. He's determined that a government spokesman should not be a punching bag for the press. . . ."
The once and future journalist who's now quoted around the world is leaning back, relaxing, for this interview on an oatmeal tweed couch in his office. You approach his office down a long corridor with a rouge-colored wall, pass through a brass-framed doorway with his name emblazoned overhead, turn left at the UPI, AP, and Reuters wire machines making little hiccuping sounds as they spew out wire copy hung in long white ribbons on the wall.
The you're in the outer office, with its rows of doors and secretaries and desks with the discreet brown paper bgas that say "BURN classified waste paper only" on the side. the door at the right, the one with a string of balloons on it, belongs to the spokesman. The spokesman's friends gave him the balloons a few weeks ago to cheer him up. The news has not kept up with the balloons.
Inside, you'd know it's Hodding Carter's office. Behind his desk there's the famous rubber chicken, lying on a sideboard along with mementos from his trips: an international, tangled collection of hotel room keys, coffee mugs, cartoons, and media mementos. The walls are paneled in smooth blond wood (from another administration), hung with reproductions: two blue Dufy and Calder paintings and a series of World War II Norman Rockwell "Four Freedoms" posters.
There used to be another poster his mother had when she was in the US Office of War Information doing domestic propaganda. It read, "Loose lips sink ships." It's gone now but not forgotten. Hodding Carter is always painfully aware that a slip of the lip could result in tragedy, the death of a negotiation or a catalyst to a war.
"I am ever mindful of the obligation of a spokesman to carefully-enuncited policy. Honestly, I don't have night-mares about it, because when I don't think I know enough, I have an iron rule which is I don't comment on it." (At the briefing that day on a nuclear reactor question, he read them the official information, then warned that their increasingly technical questions were going beyond his own knowledge -- he'd have to "take the question" and get back later on it.)
"You're not faking any reporter by pretending you know all the subjects about which they ask you questions," he says. "And second, it's a sure prescription for disaster to get into some of them. Look, they're looking at a person they know has been at this thing for three years, they're not really looking for me to know all the facts, they're looking to me for whatever hints I can give them about policy or policy changes, the current position of the US on major issues."
Could he hint a how he gives hints?
"Ah, well, the technique was around long before I was. It's everything from a physical [he shrugs] to looks, to whatever phraseology, the most obvious of which is 'I wouldn't steer you away from that', to overt, just simple declarations of policy, to the usual uses of backgrounding. . . ."
ABC's Ted Koppel calls Carter "a master of theatrics" and speaks of his use of "the kind of Mississippi jargon that's refreshing and eminently quotable." Carter will say "that dog won't hunt" for instance, to a question that's based on a wrong guess about policy.
"He's a tough, aggressive, worthy adversary. I enjoy working against him. . . . Having been a journalist he understands our strenghts and weaknesses and is not above using his journalistic background to cut us to ribbons when he can. that's fair game. He's rarely unfair. . . . I like him."
Hank Truitt of the Baltimore Sun remembers when Carter was appointed to the job there was speculation that his reputation for having a hot temper would be a problem. "But it's never really shown up," says Truitt. He remembers only one instance in his first year, when Carter became so exasperated over a line of questioning that he stopped the briefing, said "That's it" and stalked out.
Does Hodding Carter have a temper?
"Yeah, but I work at it harder than I ever had in my life. . . . Hank Truitt said somewhere after that first year, 'Hodding, you know I heard you had a hair trigger. You sure have disguised it.' And I said, 'I sure am surprised. Because I have. . . .'"
Truitt says "We are both from the South. I can also talk Southern shorthand (as well as briefing shortland) with him. I understand him. I don't know whether Yankees do. . . . He's a type, the well-raised Southern elitist who feels his responsibilities very strongly, has an outstanding education. You know his background -- he was brought up with a sense of obligations and responsibilities."
For he is the son of the Hodding Carter who was known simply as "Big" in Greenville, Mississippi. That's where Big Hodding in 1936 founded the Delta Democrat-Times, the procivil rights paper that earned him a Pulitzer prize in 1946 and the nearly lifelong enmity of the "segs" or segregationists of Mississippi.
Living dangerously on the sword-point of controversy is nothing new to Hodding Carter III. He grew up in the small delta tow where his daddy's integrationist editorials were answered with crosses burned on the lawn, obscene letters and phone calls, economic boycotts attempting to kill the paper, hanging in effigy and death threats against his family. When Hodding Carter III came home after graduating summa cum laude from Princeton and doing two years as a lieutenant in the US Marines, he joined forces with his father. First, it was as a reporter and editorial writer in 1959, managing editor in 1962, associate publisher in 1965. He won the national Sigma Delta Chi award for editorial writing in 1961, became a Nieman fellow in journalism at Harvard in 1965.
At the same time, he was heavily involved in civil rights, helping organize a biracial Democratic party in Mississippi and later leading with great success the battle to unseat the all-white regular delegation at the 1968 national convention.
Carter says, "The most gratifying moment, considering where I had committeed time, was the Democratic convention in Mississippi in 1976, when thanks to the Carter candidacy our group got . . . what amounted to almost an even split of the state Democratic party and its executive committee and everything else. . . . We went to that convention with the [segregationist] Wallaceites and came back and were able to work [together]. But that's really the day I cried because I thought [that's] the final, formal act. . . ."
He pauses a moment, then says vahemently, "Listen, there are million things that are undone in Mississippi, but they're undone everywhere else, too. The old institutionalizedm forms of differentness, of institutionalized racism, they're gone. But there's plenty of [racism] left, plenty of poverty left, plenty of discrimination left, a statement about which I could utter as easily about Washington or Alexandria or Des Moines as now about Greenville. There's plenty of it left. I don't mean to suggest that that's over."
Along the way, before this point was reached, the Carters of Greenville were a family profile in courage. After Hodding Carter joined the paper in 1959, he remembers the threats, the hard times, the attempted boycotts, lasted another ten years. His late father, "Big," he says, "taught me a number of things, but not least important was the knowledge that only a fool wasn't going to be afraid in certain kinds of situations, particularly when you were going to be taking a position repugnant to a majority of the people you were dealing with. Only a fool wasn't afraid. But that you had to go on and act anyway. And the bravery was precisely in doing that.
"And if there ever was a man who was brave, it was my father. Because he hated it. I mean, he hated the isolation, he hated the dislike and the scorn, and he was often afraid. . . . You know it's not particularly fun to be in a situation in which people are trying to destroy you economically or physicall, or in which you're sort of the political punching bag for every two-bit politician in the state, from senator to governor to county constable."
"There were nights when the family could hardly get through dinner without a telephone death threat. . . . He [Hodding Carter Jr.] and his sons spent more than one night concealed in the bushes near the entrance to their drive in anticipation of an assault that fortunately never came. . .," notes Gene Lyons in his New York timesm magazine profile of "The Other Carters." It ran shortly after Jimmy Carter won the election and appointed Hodding Carter III, who had worked for his election, assistant secretary of state for public affairs.
His younger brother, Philip, denies that he and Hodding had a Gothic childhood, growing up in that atmosphere at Feliciana (literally "happy land"), the family mansion of red plantation brick that was a landmark in Greenville. "No, it wasn't Gothic at all, it was a happy life, in a pleasant, small Southern City, with good friends. There were scary aspects to if from time to time. It was sometimes quite tense. But I don't think Hodding suffered from it. It was a remarkable kind of moral and intellectual crucible for him."
He describes his brother as "personally fastidious . . . enormously kind, to the point where he doesn't know how to get rid of boors and fools. . . . But if he ever decided you were a bad guy, if you ever did him any real injury, he'd be a truly implacable enemy. He is in many respects less volatile than my father, and in his own way is even stronger. He's more intellectual, less romantic. He is not a simple man."
Philip Carter was thumbing through soybean catalogs in New Orleans, Louisiana , when he spoke about his brother in a telephone interview. Philip, a former reporter for Newsweek and the Washington Post, had just sold his two political weeklies in Louisiana, the Courier (in New Orleans' Vieux Carre) and Gris Gris, in Baton Rouge. The family newspaper, The Greenville Delta Democrat-Times, has also just been sold for several million dollars, so both brothers are financially free to strike out in new directions. Philip explains he's "avidly interested in soybean farming" and offers a few insights into the brother who's just signed with william Morris:
"Hodding has never been less than complicated. He's alert, intelligent, persuasive. He has an extraordinary theatrical presence and a basic sense of decency. . . . He has an enormous lot to say. The man you're looking at some of the time on TV is a pent-up man with a story to tell, but he would never indulge in kiss-and-tell journalism [after he leaves State]. . . ."
There was such a flap over an Assistant Secretary of State signing with William Morris that Hodding Carter talked briefly about that. He is after all an attractive as well as articulate man: tall, dark, and crypto-handsome, with glossy black hair, uptilted cool blue-grey eyes, a subtle face which the camera loves. There are days when he looks dapper; today day is one of them, when he is wearing a grey suit with a statesman-like vest, medium blue button down shirt , black and white plaid tie.
Will we be seeing him host "Saturday Night Live," or do movie cameos? Will he go truly show biz now that he's signed with a talent agency?
He gives a strangled laugh that ends in a groan. "Oh, no, I really hate that. . . . That's the most misunderstood signing I ever did. . . . What I told people at the agency happens to be true. I'm very interested in resuming a career in journalism and after 15 years of active participation in the political process, I'm also ready to pull aside from that and write some of the books that I postponed doing. . . . And I certainly want to lecture. What I'm really not signing up to do is endorse dog food."
He points out that he went to the agency to prepare for his future because he is forbidden by his own conscience and the stipulations of his job at State from taking any speaking engagements, soliciting a job, or hustling around looking for something to do when he leaves at the end of this term. What he most wants to do, now that the paper is sold, is to "do a biographical work on Dad and on the paper and what we were all about and did. . . ."
"I've known him since the early '60s and his father before him," says Dick Moose, Assistant Secretary of state for African Affairs. "Hehs his father's son in all things, very independent-minded, indeed, doesn't run with the pack, but ideologically more conservative. He's smart, tough -- strike tough -- make it competitive, funny. . . . He has that sense of humor and sort of wild raucousness of the delta. It's marvelous."
Mr. Moose speaks of "the intensity that Hodding Carter, father and son, could stir up. But I seriously doubt that there were a lot of people who really hated [the son] that much, although he had a fair share of shotgun blasts, in the middle of the night and burnt crosses on the lawn."
In a less serious vein, Mr. Moose also lets on that the State Department spokesman has a weakness for hot tamales from Doe's Eat Place in Greenville. that goes along with Carter's admitted fondness for dancing, jogging, collecting contemporary art, siwmming, listening to show tunes, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. He is an omnivorous reader, fiction and nonfiction, including fellow Mississippi like novelists Walker Percy and William Faulkner.He read eight Faulkner novels as a marine at Quantico, sandwiched in between "manuals on machine guns and war periods."
His longtime friend and lawyer Ronald Goldfarb says Carter "likes the amenities, summering in Maine and relaxing in the winter in the Caribbean. And he's very comfortable in the limelight, in the middle of things. He was born to it, enjoys it, is happy as a hog in mud."
There are some people who know Hodding Carter well who think he's changed in the last few years, since his second marriage, to Pat Derrian, assistant secretary of state for human rights. They think that since his marriage to her, Hodding Carter is calmer, more settled in himself, more sober, more at peace with himself.
She is a slender, vivacious brunette whom he met in Mississippi when they were both involved in civil rights. Together they have seven children. Hodding's brother Phillip says, "Pat is direct and to the point, while he tends to be circumspect and diplomatic. He is very perceptive about people, but she is enormously so."
Pat Derrian at this writing is in India on a month-long State Department mission. Her husband says of her, "She's a first-class human being of great conscience and intelligence. I am very fortunate." It is obvious when he talks about her that they have a close marriage, to use Kurt Vonnegut's phrase, "a universe of two."
When he is asked how he relaxes he says, "just being with Pat, actually. We do almost everything together."
Do their careers ever collide?
"No, it's very very smooth. I mean shehs dealing with substantive problems, and I'm dealing as the spokesman with enunciating them but not formulating them. . . . so that we're doing vastly different jobs. But we share we each other's grounding and perception so that we can talk about the jobs with a great deal of shortland, know what each one's talking about."
In his role of spokesman for Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, the vivid and quotable Carter is sometimes contrasted to his less colorful and quotable boss. He bridles at that; there is the first of temper in the entire interview. He says he just can't accept that premise. He includes Cyrus Vance among the handful of the truly decent men he has known.
"How he chooses to perform his public role is based on a lifetime of public service, in which he's been a remarkable servant of the republic. If he doesn't think that being a good song and dance man is the way to do it, I've got to respect that, because he's been at it a great deal longer than I have. And to more effect . . . . I think for a good reason a number of major figures in history probably have avoided the TV camera. Everybody forgets that Theodore Roosevelt had a piping little voice. One of the really unfortunate aspects of America today is that flash and diligree is regarded as an adequate substitute, is in fact demanded so often, instead of substance."
As a journalistical spokesman, then, does he ever feel that the press in distorting the news?
First, he talks about TV:
"I don't have much worry about the distortion of what I'm trying to say . . . Television does a good job of carrying what you say. The problem for television is brevity, period . . . The people who practice journalism in broadcasting are very a ware of it. They do try to compensate. But the form itself is inherently distoring. It is also extraordinarily important as a medium of communication in this country. And iths going to get more so. I don't see new generations of deep readers coming from there."
Then he talks about journalism as a whole:
"You live by a news cycle which is almost dedicated to the proposition that the journalist is going to look at things as though he is arising in a new world every day. And which puts a premium on the predictive rather than the descrptive, i. e.: 'The administration was scheduled to lose by a large margin today. . . .' 'On the verge of the collapse of our talks in Tanzania, the Secretary of State said. . . .' The need to say definitively things about events which neither the actors nor the observers can really be definitve about at all produces some bad distortions in the daily business of journalism. . ."
But he concludes that you can take all the things that are wrong with journalism "and add 'em all up and analyze and bite on it and all. . . but you've got to begin with the sure knowledge that the people of this country are better served by journalism as practiced here than the people of any other nation (that is the people of any other nation by their forms of journalism). And two, that the full-throated functioning of journalism, with all its defects, is essential to the kind of political process in which we're engaged."