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Hamilton Jordan and Jody Powell: The White House Whiz Kids

Meet the team that helps Jimmy Carter run the country

Jimmy Carter, Hamilton Jordan

White House Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan speaks to President Jimmy Carter.

Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

To the end of his service [the Confederate] soldier could not be disciplined. He slouched. He would never learn to salute in the brisk fashion so dear to the hearts of the professors of war. His “Cap’n” and his “Gin’ral” were likely to pass from his lips with a grin — were always charged with easy, unstudied familiarity. … And yet — by virtue of precisely these unsoldierly qualities, he was, as no one will care to deny, one of the world’s finest fighting men.
Allow what you will for esprit de corps, for this and for that, the thing that sent him swinging up the slope at Gettysburg was … the conviction … that nothing living could cross him and get away with it.
— W. J. Cash, The Mind of the South, 1941

DUKE ZEIBERT’S RESTAURANT IN Washington D.C. is the veterans hospital for the real victims of the political campaign of 1976. They’re easily spotted, lingering at their tables long after the lunch hour, rasping the old stories at each other one more time, licking their wounds. They are invariably pale, overweight and a bit rumpled. Most of them are Democrats.

In fact, they are the people who once fancied themselves the guts of the Democratic party. They were the clever ones, the strategists, eminently quotable though usually anonymously, appearing in the newspapers only as “a Democratic insider.”

Many had come out of the lower echelons of the Kennedy and Johnson presidential campaigns, others from the antiwar movement. They lived in Washington, looked older than their age and, if pressed, would admit to a political philosophy vaguely humanistic … but only if pressed. They were much more comfortable posing as political tough guys, hired guns, cynics. They waited in the desert for eight years, cracking wise through Watergate, managing a campaign here or there, secure in the knowledge that 1976 would be their turn to run the show.

It didn’t work out that way, of course. Their candidates — the Bayhs, Udalls, Jacksons, Humphreys — were taken to the cleaners by Jimmy Carter. And while a few of the old “insiders” finally attached themselves to the periphery of the presidential campaign, most were relegated to four more years of long lunches. Instead of whispering in the president’s ear, they whispered to each other, bitterly, about the yokels who had come to power.

On a recent afternoon at Duke Zeibert’s, one of the walking wounded told me: “You know, if Carter had decided in 1973 to take over Anaconda Copper, he would have used these same guys. He would have said, ‘Hamilton you handle the corporate proxies, and Jody you handle the individual proxies and the trade press.’ And they would have said, ‘Sure boss,’ and gone and done it.”

Another time I was told: “That country-boy act is as phony as a three-dollar bill. They’re tough cookies.”

And: “I always expected I’d be part of any new Democratic administration, but here I am on the sidelines watching those guys…”

It wasn’t so much Carter they envied as the apple-cheeked, clean-cut, fraternity-boy yokels with their cocky grins and smart-ass humor and interchangeable first and last names. Hamilton Jordan and Jody Powell. They were impossibly young — Jordan was 32 and Powell, 33 — and unpretentious in ways that almost seemed showy. During the campaign they had come to be known as rollicking, hard-drinking, lusty sorts. Not very big on formalities, like attending dinner parties. Jordan didn’t even wear a tie to work. Powell drove an 11-year-old VW. They didn’t lunch. They usually were friendly, but could become venomous when confronted by pretense. Hamilton, for example, was fond of putting down fluttery society types who asked how to pronounce his name: “My friends call me Jerd’n, but you can call me Jordan.”

At the same time, they were dead serious. They had been plucked by Carter from towns in the Georgia backwoods no more than 40 miles from Plains, and programmed for total loyalty to Jimmy. He had taken up all of their adult lives. There were no other allegiances possible…. or even fathomable.

It was this mixture of looseness and single-minded determination that made them so very difficult to comprehend. They were, at once, more relaxed and more disciplined than the “Democratic insiders” they’d supplanted and who now watched them from Duke’s. In a way — in that way — they were a lot like their boss.

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