When word came that former first lady Rosalynn Carter had passed away at age 96, it brought a wave of sadness. She and her husband, 99-year-old Jimmy Carter, had swept onto the national scene seemingly out of nowhere in the mid-1970s. In the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War and Watergate, they were a breath of fresh air in Washington, D.C.. Although Carter’s presidency was in most aspects disastrous, Americans at least never doubted the sincerity of the couple who lived in the White House from 1977 to 1981.
For me personally, her passing recalled the one and only time I met both Carters.
I was a 25-year-old eager beaver young journalist in late September 1986, brimming to overflowing with the self-confidence and blinding optimism of youth. I was wrapping up two years of toiling as a news writer in the editorial vineyard at CNN Headline News in Atlanta. (Which, I hasten to point out, was back when the network did actual news, as opposed to the mess that passes for news today).
I was soon to commence a new adventure as weekend anchorman and reporter at the NBC affiliate in Huntsville, Alabama. My coworkers, all fellow wet-behind-the-ears types in their 20s, threw a going-away party for me. Republican that I am, they insisted on holding it at Manuel’s Tavern, a comfortably old-school corner bar place nestled in Atlanta’s Virginia Highlands neighborhood that was a favorite watering hole of local Democrats.
It was a Friday night with the first hint of autumnal coolness in the air. The turnout was good; we packed a small private room in the rear of the bar. CNN employee parties were interesting affairs back then. Since the network broadcast news 24 hours a day, people were always going into and coming off work, meaning there was a steady stream of folks passing through the festivities. So it was that night.
We were commencing our second round of beers when a recent arrival casually announced.
“Did you guys know Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter are having dinner in another room?”
A couple of intrepid souls went off to investigate and soon returned with confirmation.
As we sat around discussing how cool it was to hang in the same place as the Carters, a friend launched a secret scheme. Without saying anything to anyone, an attractive young journalist named Joan wrote on a paper napkin, “Dear President and Mrs. Carter: We’re having a going away party for Mark Powell in the room next to yours. Please join us! CNN Writers.” She slipped away, flirted with a Secret Service agent, and asked him to pass along the note, then returned without having been missed.
A few minutes later, a strapping man in a suit walked into our room and quickly scanned the place. Someone called a friendly “Hi!” to him. He asked, “Is this the party?” Told it was, he spun around on his heels and left.
That naturally aroused a great deal of interest. As we tried to guess who the mysterious stranger was and how he had heard of our little party, Joan kept trying to speak. “Guys! I need to tell you something!” But we were too consumed by trying to figure out the man’s identity to listen.
Suddenly, the stranger walked back into the room, followed by Jimmy Carter, then Rosalynn, and then a second Secret Serice agent. We were dumbfounded. A lightning bolt striking our table couldn’t have left us more stunned.
If you have ever met a president of the United States, current or former, you are familiar with the “presidential mystique.” For when a president, any president, enters a room, the ghosts of all who served before come with him. Washington, Lincoln, Ike, JFK … they’re all there.
I stood up and applauded, and the rest joined in. Carter flashed his famous grin. “We heard there was a party going on in here, and Rosalynn and I also like a good party.” Everyone laughed. Then he asked, “So, who’s Mark Powell?” We shook hands and chatted. Then Carter went through the room, shaking each hand and asking every name.
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Rosalynn followed. “We’re so sorry to hear you’re leaving Atlanta,” she said, the perfect political wife even in retirement. Her musically soft South Georgia drawl was more pronounced than her husband’s. “Where are you going?” When I told her I was heading off to Huntsville, she said, “It’s a lovely city. Jimmy and I have friends there, and we have visited several times. But we’re so sorry you’re leaving.”
Likewise, she also shook every hand present and asked everyone their name and where they were from.
Both Carters circled back to me, and we talked for a few minutes. They explained they had worked late that evening putting the finishing touches on the new Carter Presidential Library that was set to open in a few weeks, and how they had a small apartment nearby for when they were in the city.
Goodbyes were said, there was another standing ovation, and the Carters were gone.
We sat in total silence for a few moments, trying to comprehend if what we all had just experienced had actually happened. Finally, a guy at the end of the table said, “Oh Lord — nobody brought a camera!” (It’s difficult to remember now in the Age of Cell Phones that cameras weren’t always instantly available at your fingertips).
Politics aside, they say the good someone does lives on after them. And 37 years later, that moment is still a vivid, pleasant memory for all of us who were there that night. It only took 10 to 15 minutes, but in that short window, the Carters’ kindness made us feel like the most special people on the planet.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
J. Mark Powell is an award-winning former TV journalist, government communications veteran, and a political consultant. He is also an author and an avid Civil War enthusiast. Got a tip or a story idea for Mark? Email him at [email protected].
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