A Time for Reckoning: Jimmy Carter and the Cult of Kinfolk

By Brinkley, Douglas | Presidential Studies Quarterly, December 1999 | Go to article overview

A Time for Reckoning: Jimmy Carter and the Cult of Kinfolk


Brinkley, Douglas, Presidential Studies Quarterly


Only seven months after Jimmy Carter was inaugurated thirty-ninth president of the United States, walking down Pennsylvania Avenue in a symbolic populist gesture of brisk commoner who disdained the "high-falutin" pretensions of limousine wealth, the New York Times published a summary of a twenty-three-page genealogy report issued by Debrett's Peerage of London, which claimed that the new chief executive had not only descended from a family of nobility that produced the first American millionaire but was also related to both George Washington and the Queen of England. Up until this report, it had been assumed that President Carter's first direct ancestor to set foot on American soil was an indentured servant who sold himself to pay his way from England to Virginia.(1) The president's middle son, Chip Carter, even made a much publicized trans-Atlantic pilgrimage to Christ's Church in Hampshire, the believed spot of origin where the Carter family coat of arms first appeared; now the New York Times raised the distinct likelihood that he visited the wrong location.(2)

Most American families have at least two conflicting genealogical charts, not to mention disjointed collateral lines, but now, courtesy of the New York Times, citizens were jettisoned into yet another new quandary of how to perceive their famously complex and multifaceted president. Was he the direct descendant of either British royalty or a white slave? While new presidents are always a little mysterious, historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. noted, Jimmy Carter "seems more mysterious than most."(3) A "populist president" was the most commonly used shorthand tag to explain Carter's approach to governing, but his critics claimed that in truth he was a "phony populist," a typical pandering opportunist trying to be all things to all people--liberal and conservative, soldier and peacemaker, peanut farmer and wealthy businessman, nuclear engineer and backwoods poet, politician and antipolitician. The president himself saw nothing unusual about his jarring juxtapositions; they were all parts of the essential Jimmy Carter, who could be understood if one studied his Georgia roots and personal history. "I don't see myself as being complex," Carter has stated. "There is a unity to everything I do which comes from my ancestors and parents and church ... and, of course, Plains and the land around it."(4)

The importance of Carter's interest in his Georgia roots had a direct influence on any number of policy decisions he made while president. Instinctively, he appointed fellow Georgians knowledgeable of his family's heritage as his closest advisors including Hamilton Jordan as White House chief of staff, Jody Powell as press secretary, Andrew Young as United Nations ambassador, Bert Lance as head of the Office of Budget Management, and Frank Moore as congressional liaison, among others. When his brother Billy behaved like a greedy buffoon--accepting a consultant's fee from Libya's Momar Quadaffi--President Carter refused to publicly repudiate him because "he was kin." Often, during the difficult Iran hostage crisis, President Carter would return to Plains, walk the land of his ancestors, clean up their gravesites, and ponder options. His understanding of racial strains, he said, came from his firsthand experience with the sharecropper system in the Deep South. And when considering human rights policy, President Carter contemplated everything from his family's slave-owning heritage to the Confederacy's loss of the Civil War.

Years before the Debrett's Peerage report--or his presidency--Carter had been intensely interested in his pedigree, trying to understand his past by discovering sunken family gravestones hidden in a tangle of kudzu and weeds and rot, rummaging through old family letters and deeds, hunting for time-forgotten clues to the Carters's and Gordys's (maternal ancestors) faded past in towns all over Georgia. His partner in these searches was his father's older brother, Alton Carter, affectionately named "Uncle Buddy" a stocky, soft-spoken raconteur of family history and the proprietor of Plains Antique Store. …

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