Jimmy Carter returns

The former president was received warmly in a state that once rejected him

Blythe, left, Deborah and David Kladney listen to Jimmy Carter speak to a cocktail party crowd at their Reno home.

Blythe, left, Deborah and David Kladney listen to Jimmy Carter speak to a cocktail party crowd at their Reno home.

Photo By Stuart Murtland

Low lights pierced the warm night air. Reno residents milled around in the backyard of a forest home at the base of Mount Rose. As they sipped wine, nibbled at canapés and chatted, they stole glances at the famous man who was posing for pictures on the other side of the yard. It was an assembly line—one guest or couple would step up to him, photographer Stuart Murtland would snap the photo, and then the next stepped up. Nevadans were lined up to have their pictures taken with Jimmy Carter.

After the picture taking was finished, Carter walked over to the cocktail area and said a few words to the crowd. His son Jack, the Nevada U.S. senate candidate, had been hospitalized with a virus and lost some time on the campaign trail.

“He was nice enough to let me fill in for him this evening,” the former president said, drawing a laugh.

In fact, Jack Carter is back on the trail and keeping a heavy campaign schedule, but his father’s participation helps to make up some of the lost ground and to raise some money. Those attending this cocktail party paid dearly to be present.

“These pine trees remind me of south Georgia, so I feel like I’m at home,” Carter said.

The pleasantries finished, he plunged into his message.

“But my hope is that all of you will continue to help Jack because I think what happens here in Nevada could very well be the turning point in what this country will be for the next four to 8 to 12 years. In the last five years, we’ve had a dramatic departure from some of the basic moral values that have made our country strong and proud. … We now stand almost alone because of the ill-advised policies that we’ve had, and the departure from what earlier presidents have done.

“Not just liberal versus conservative or Republicans versus Democrats, but this administration has departed from what the previous presidents have done in some very important aspects of life of America. Compared to George Bush senior, compared to Ronald Reagan, compared to Dwight Eisenhower, compared to Gerald Ford and others, there’s been a radical departure. We now have an unprecedented policy, for instance, of preemptive war.”

Carter denounced the use of torture and secret prisons and the decision to go to war in Iraq. He deplored allying with nations like Syria to get them to conduct or allow torture that can’t be done on U.S. soil. Such behavior, he said, is “unprecedented in our nation’s history.” Carter didn’t accuse George Bush of lying about weapons of mass destruction, merely referred to going to war on “false premises, whether they were deliberate or misinterpretation, I don’t know.”

“But those kind of things have caused great sorrow in America, division in our country, division of our country between red and blue states, almost a 50-50 split in the elections, and we need very seriously to have a restoration of all those values … so that we can have a country once more for the basic values that have made us proud.”

Nevada’s election could help reverse the trend he criticized, Carter said, and his son Jack is the kind of person needed to restore values—"He was getting a degree in physics when the Vietnam War came on. He thought it was not proper for him to be hiding with a college scholarship when other people were being drafted to go to Vietnam, so he quit college and went to Vietnam and served in the Navy. … [H]e’s been involved in international commerce and agriculture, in finance and business. … He knows the country. He’s absolutely honest. Jack is strong enough internally so that he doesn’t feel the need to mislead people. … So if he tells you something, you can depend on it.”

Losing in Nevada

The first time Carter spoke in Reno was at Park Lane Mall on May 21, 1976. In his speech that day, he was not able to tell Nevadans much that they wanted to hear. Carter declined to endorse the Sagebrush Rebellion, an effort by the state to seize federally managed land. “I would be cautious about it,” he said. He left open the possibility that there would be grazing fee increases. Only his gun control stance agreed with local sentiment. Four days later, he lost the Nevada presidential primary election to JerryBrown by more than 2 to 1.

It was the first of four occasions when Carter’s name appeared on a Nevada ballot. He lost three of those elections, including the general elections of 1976 and 1980. His plan as president to install a massive missile complex across Nevada and Utah—it would have been the largest construction project in human history—added to his unpopularity in Nevada.

In the years since, the positions he took on federal land and grazing fees have gained momentum in Nevada, and the Sagebrush Rebellion probably could not pass the Nevada Legislature today. Moreover, Carter’s own image has changed. Since he left the presidency under a cloud of widespread belief that the presidency had been too big a job for him, his conduct in building low-income housing and negotiating peace agreements has contrasted sharply with other ex-presidents and has rehabilitated his image. When his son’s U.S. senate campaign in Nevada was set back by Jack Carter’s hospitalization, a campaign swing by Jimmy Carter became the remedy. And Nevada is more receptive than it once would have been.

Nevertheless, the West is still difficult for Democrats. As a presidential candidate Carter lost every Western state. The only time Democrats have done well in the West in a presidential race since then was in the three-way races of 1992 and 1996. Even then, Bill Clinton barely scraped out victories (1 percent in Nevada).

Looking West

In an interview with the News & Review, Carter said the coastal states give Democrats a fighting chance in the West. But in the Intermountain West, how do the Democrats win?

“By telling the truth and by pointing out the bad road that has been taken by this administration and the fact that we need some countering voices that are strong and independent in Washington to make sure that they don’t continue with the ill-advised policies. I think that’s the main message we need to get across.”

“You were here, I’m sure, in 2004 when John Kerry lost [Nevada] by 20,000 votes in the whole state. He carried Las Vegas and if you added Las Vegas and Reno together, he had a 20,000 vote margin. He lost the rural areas in between by five to one. Jack’s been concentrating on those rural areas, and I think he’ll do well there because he knows agriculture.”

Carter’s description of his son’s rural strategy is very much in keeping with what Nevada’s Democratic senator, Harry Reid, has been preaching since the 2004 election. In an interview with Rolling Stone in May 2005, Reid said, “Senator Kerry lost because he ignored rural America. Take Nevada as an example. … Democrats can no longer win elections in big cities. We have to go to places like Elko and Carson City and Ely and let people know who we are.” Jimmy Carter last week became the first known president to visit the farm area of Fallon.

Carter said he opposed the occasional trial balloons floated by the Bush administration about renewing nuclear testing in Nevada.

Fourteen years ago, on July 14, 1992, Carter said in a New York speech, “The world is concerned about nuclear proliferation. Here again, the United States is the major obstacle to a worldwide comprehensive test ban. Our threats against Pakistan, North Korea, Iraq, and Libya have a somewhat hollow ring when our Western deserts still shake with nuclear explosions.”

In his interview with the News & Review, Carter said, “I would be strongly opposed to any sort of nuclear testing in Nevada. In fact, I would be strongly opposed to any nuclear testing, period. We have a comprehensive nuclear test ban which should be prevailing. Unfortunately, this administration has abandoned every single nuclear arms control agreement ever negotiated since the time of Eisenhower. And it would be only in this administration that there might even be a thought of further nuclear testing out here. I would be against it.”

On the new Nevada presidential nominating caucuses that the Democratic Party has stuck in between the 2006 Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, Carter said he liked the idea.

“I think that might be good. There has to be some historic respect to Iowa and New Hampshire. I have a special affinity for those two states"—he smiled—"I carried both of them when I ran for president in ‘76, but I think it’s very good to put Nevada in there. I was in favor of it.”

Reminded that he was once not well received in Nevada, Carter again flashed the famous grin and said, “Well, that’s in the past.”