CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — It was a different time. The Ruan Center in Des Moines, with 35 floors, had just become Iowa's tallest building. Jack Trice Stadium in Ames, the home of the Iowa State Cyclones, had just opened. The farm girls were still playing 6-on-6 high school basketball — three forwards on one half of the court, three guards (permitted to dribble only twice) on the other, and no crossing the half-court line — and they were attracting thousands of spectators, as many as 7,362 to watch Warsaw defeat Bloomfield, 57-52, for the state championship in 1976.
Then again, an obscure former governor from Georgia was just then attracting a tiny fraction of that crowd when he dropped into Jim Albright's house here in Cedar Rapids two months before the 1976 Iowa caucuses. He wore the kind of fat tie that hasn't been fashionable for decades and a bright Ipana smile that even then seemed a trifle unsettling, and repeated that performance — small groups, big smile — with remarks that were refreshing in the wake of the Watergate scandal but seem irredeemably treacly today. "If you support me, I'll never make you ashamed," he told a Sioux City audience of 20; that was an overflow crowd in those days for the long shot candidate. "You'll never be disappointed. I have nothing to conceal. I'll never tell a lie."
All this came roaring back when Jimmy Carter — a transformational presidential candidate, if not a transformational president — went into hospice care this week.
Here in Iowa, he is remembered for traversing the first of the half-million miles he would travel to the presidency, usually in a borrowed car, with drivers who knew the back roads but usually not the back story of the Annapolis-trained engineer. Here in Iowa, which since its 1846 statehood has made caucuses part of its peculiar political character, he transformed how political figures campaigned for president, even as he transformed the role of this state in American politics.
He campaigned as an Everyman, or at least an Everyman who was at ease — eerily so, some analysts felt — in the rich soil of the Corn Belt. "I'm a farmer," he would say, and he meant it, though his crop wasn't the Pioneer Corn Co. Golden Harvest H2580 raised in Iowa at that time, but peanuts. (He supplied the grains of salt.) "I'm a full-time farmer. If I can exemplify what the American people would like to see in their president, then I'll be elected. If I can't meet those high demands, and I hope they are high, I don't deserve to be president."
Maybe he thought he deserved to be president, but in the early days here in Iowa, no one thought he would be — not even president of the Iowa Farm Business Association if, by chance, there were an opening in 1976. When he met for lunch with Tom Whitney, the state Democratic chairman, and Richard Bender, who 16 years later would be Sen. Tom Harkin's Iowa caucus campaign manager, in the storied Savery Hotel in Des Moines — Joe Biden would announce his first but short-lived presidential candidacy there a dozen years later — the two told him that a Southern governor was going nowhere in this state.
Hearing that, the stubborn Carter went everywhere. He saw how Sen. George McGovern of neighboring South Dakota had used the 1972 caucuses to establish his political credibility, and he was determined to use Iowa to establish not only his bona fides but also to catapult himself into the front tier of American politics. This was a man who took succor from ranking 13th in early polls but who thought he could plant a seed in Iowa's fertile soil.
"He camped out for months here," said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines. "His campaign was completely below the radar. Nobody paid any attention to them. But Carter understood this was a forum for him, a place where you didn't need to spend much money and you had to talk to real people. You couldn't use people as props here. He talked to everyday people and stayed in peoples' homes or crummy motels."
The early indicators weren't promising. On his first trip here, in February 1975, the Carter "team" rented a room in Des Moines and bought Cokes and snacks for 200. When only three people turned up, Carter wandered out the door, handed out a few brochures and — presto! — found his stride and his style. "The campaign acted as if it were 1967 and Jimmy was running for governor again — only smaller," Jonathan Alter wrote in his 2020 Carter biography, "His Very Best."
"The presidential race in Iowa in 1976 was structured in a way that someone who campaigned in the little towns in rural areas could have a huge impact," said Harkin, a retired five-term Iowa senator who easily won the 1992 caucuses. "He was willing to get into a car and drive from one town to the next, having some coffee here and some more coffee somewhere else. He went to meetings no presidential candidate ever went to, often on icy roads leading to very small towns."
Carter had a clear objective: "Our goal in Iowa is to come in first. That's what we want to do. I'm not sure we'll do it."
He didn't. Carrying a garment bag over his shoulder but no baggage from Watergate or Washington, Carter came in second, to "uncommitted" (37.2 percent), but he beat expectations. That was enough, because everyone — politicos, the press — knew that leading the pack of the actual candidates was what mattered. Carter (with 27.6 percent) did, and from that moment the Iowa caucuses were established as the first, and — because Carter built on his Iowa performance eventually to win the presidency — an exceedingly significant, contest in presidential politics. (Though the Democrats have placed South Carolina at the front of the 2024 political parade, the Republicans, who hold the more meaningful pre-convention contests next year, will continue to keep Iowa at the front.)
"Just think of such a sucker as me as president!" Abraham Lincoln said two years before he was elected. Two years before Carter won the White House, he was nobody's idea of a president nobody except for Carter himself, and a few scattered people in Iowa.
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist has a vacation home in Kearsarge.
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