News that Former President Jimmy Carter has entered hospice has renewed interest in his come out of nowhere – “Jimmy who?” – campaign for president. In this, Maine played an often overlooked role in 1976 – the year of the nation’s bicentennial – as a launching pad for his candidacy.
Though Carter’s win in the New Hampshire primary in late February of that year is typically seen as the turning point by which Carter achieved front runner status, Maine’s caucuses three weeks earlier set the stage for the future 39th President’s Granite state success. For it was Carter’s win in Maine in early February by which Carter gained crucial traction.
The run up to Maine, the January 29 Mississippi caucuses, three days before the kick off of Maine’s was one Carter had been counting on to demonstrate his strength, especially among fellow Southerners. Instead, the state supported Alabama Governor George Wallace who seized a resounding 44 percent to 14 percent win over the former Georgia governor.
The humiliation in Mississippi made Maine all the more critical as a tee up to New Hampshire.
As celebrated journalist Jules Witcover observed in his landmark Marathon: Pursuit of the Presidency 1972-1976, Maine and other pre-primary triumphs “did not remove all doubts about him, to be sure; and the precinct caucuses were, accurately speaking, only preliminaries. But he could not now be easily dismissed, and as everyone headed for the early New England primaries, they weren’t snickering at Jimmy Carter any more. What Arthur J. Hadley has called, ‘the invisible primary’ – all the pre-primary events leading up to New Hampshire – had already significantly shaped the politics of 1976.”
A key figure in Carter’s landmark performance in Maine was University of Maine Law School Professor Martin “Marty” Rogoff. Though Carter’s profile in Maine had been enhanced by the endorsement of former Governor Kenneth Curtis, and though Portland’s Ed Kearney was a major early figure, it was Rogoff who was the state’s foremost on the ground leader. In an as yet unpublished interview with this columnist in 2008 – Rogoff, who has in the last generation cemented a reputation as a prominent international law academic – explained how he came to support the future 39th president.
“ In the summer of 1975 Jimmy Carter came in to Maine and I had the opportunity to talk with him for about one hour. We met at a conference room in the Portland Jetport and was impressed by him in terms of his response to questions, his ideas, his intelligence.”
But it was more than Carter’s ideology that led Rogoff to enlist as his lieutenant in Maine. The pragmatic desire to win for his party, which had lost the last two presidential elections and was facing the challenge of trying to defeat President Gerald Ford, also came into play. After all, not since FDR ousted Herbert Hoover in the depths of the Depression in 1932 had the country voted out a sitting incumbent president.
“I am also a partisan Democrat and was very interested in the Democrats winning the White House. I thought given the electoral lay of the land at that time it was really necessary for sort of a moderate southerner to be the Democratic candidate. As things were it was necessary for a Democrat to win some states in the South which only a southerner could do as a favorite son because the region was so conservative. At that time California was a Republican state and the whole electoral climate geography looked different.
“There were people like Morris Udall and others who were potential candidates but it just seemed to me that in terms of electability Jimmy Carter had the better profile of electability.”
The caucus win in Maine in which Rogoff played a leading role not only won Carter national attention but also had a more specific media impact on New Hampshire with its upcoming “first in the nation” primary. As Rogoff himself observed a few days ago in an e-mail to this columnist:
“ We realized that a large part of the New Hampshire TV market was reached by TV stations from Portland,” this due in part because only one of the three major networks had a New Hampshire affiliate while southern Maine had all three of them, each with strong signals to the Granite state’s major population centers.
After Carter’s nomination in July, Rogoff became the official the leader of the Carter campaign in Maine. But Rogoff had more than a mere regional influence on the former Georgia governor’s presentation.
“If you remember in the beginning of the general election campaign Carter was shown usually in a sort of a denim shirt down in the peanut field shaking a peanut bush.”
At an October meeting with Carter’s campaign hierarchy in Boston, Rogoff and his fellow New England coordinators implored the higher ups:
“ He [Carter] ought to be wearing a suit and tie and look like a president and that apparently impressed people who were running the campaign in Atlanta and subsequently after that they put him in a suit and tie and made him look like a president,” Rogoff recalled.
The general election that followed bore out the validity of Rogoff’s initial assessment, namely, that it would take a candidate like Carter with southern roots to win back the White House. In one of the closest elections up that point in American history, Carter’s 297 to 240 electoral college win was achieved only by a sweep of eleven southern and border states that normally vote Republican. Now familiar Democratic mainstays such as Illinois, California and the Pacific northwest all voted Republican as did such swing states as Virginia, Indiana, and Michigan.
And Maine? Though it was one of his best states in New England, Carter lost by less than a single percentage point, a showing that was far stronger than in neighboring New Hampshire and Vermont, which Ford carried by eleven percent and even Connecticut, where the Republican ran ahead of Carter by five.
As for the Carter presidency itself Rogoff says Carter’s emphasis on human rights deserves more credit than any for the fall of the Soviet regime that occurred in the decade following his presidency.
“Because the opposition to the Soviet rule in Russia, the Soviet Union, and the Eastern European countries really took the form of human rights activism and he did a lot to stir that up so I think that had as much to do or even more than what Reagan did…If you look at the dynamics of the opposition, the rallying cry was the Helsinki accords, although Jerry Ford was the one who did the Helsinki Agreements but I think that had as much or more to do with the fall of the Soviet Union than the saber rattling later because if you look at how the opposition formed like Havel from Czechoslovakia and Sakharov and those people in the Soviet Union, it was all organized around human rights, their organizing vehicle for opposing the regime.”
However we now take time to observe the character and accomplishments of our longest lived former president, we should also remember the role that Rogoff and Maine played in lifting him from the path of obscurity and landing him on the road to the White House.
Paul Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his history and analyses on public affairs in Maine; He can be reached at:email@example.com