Has anyone out there ever been the only person to greet a presidential candidate at an airport? I own that unusual distinction. We’re talking Jimmy Carter in 1974. Back then, he was known as Jimmy Who? As we know, the Georgia peanut farmer went on to become president two years later.
Some 43 years ago, he was flown in a small private plane piloted by wealthy Brawley, CA grower Bob Meyer. That morning, they landed at Brawley’s tiny airport. At the time, Brawley’s population was 22,000, some 14 miles north of El Centro. All part of the Imperial Valley, a huge prosperous farming area two hours east of San Diego. Turned out I spent most of the day with Carter.
Meyer’s SUV-like vehicle was waiting for the farmer and Carter. I rode in the back seat, notepad and pen at the ready.
Driving by sugar beet fields, Carter asked Meyer to stop. The presidential candidate jumped out, waded into the field, without trepidation. He reached in his jeans pocket, pulled out his pocket knife, and expertly sliced open a beet. “It’s ready,” he announced with confidence.
Meyer proceeded to chauffeur him around to meet a few of the Imperial Valley’s wealthiest, including Ed Rutherford, the area’s largest cattle rancher and owner of the Planters Hotel in downtown Brawley, considered the best hotel in the Valley back then.
Later that afternoon, when I had the chance to speak alone with Meyer, I asked him why did he take Democrat Carter to meet Rutherford, a well-known Republican. Without hesitation, Meyer said, “Ed gives to both parties.”
Lesson learned. Those who can afford it, hedge their bets and give to both major parties. I was 23 and with my first newspaper as a reporter – the Imperial Valley.
That afternoon Carter held a press conference at the Imperial Valley Press, by far the number one news media outlet in the Valley. Attended by IVP Managing Editor Bob Liggett, IVP publisher Dick Fitch, a local radio station (KXO), yours truly, and a few others.
That evening at the Imperial Valley Country Club just east of El Centro, Carter was the keynote speaker at a $75-a-plate fundraising dinner-dance for California Assemblyman Tom Suitt (D- Indian Wells).
Four hundred attended, a sellout.
For most of the evening Carter took center stage. Bags of peanuts were the dinner table centerpieces. Like a wise political candidate, he was a good sport, posing for many pics. Imperial Valley Press chief photog Paul Noden. Noden asked Carter to pose being fed a peanut. It ran on the front page the next day.
Of course, the rest is history, Carter narrowly defeated incumbent President Gerald Ford.
And Bob Meyer? Not surprisingly, he was appointed Assistant Secretary of Agriculture.
J.C. was the first U.S. presidential candidate to launch a campaign so far in advance.
During his presidency (1977-1981), Carter’s mediation played a critical role in the success of the Camp David peace talks between Israel and Egypt, a great enough achievement to qualify for the Nobel Peace Prize. At a time when the cold war between East and West was still predominant, he placed renewed emphasis on the place of human rights in international politics.
In 2002, Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote social and economic development.
Carter will turn 93 on October 1. He has been battling cancer over the past few years. Immunotherapy reportedly has kept him cancer free, but he continues to have routine treatments. Earlier, he had part of his liver removed.
I will always treasure my day with Jimmy Who.