Then and Now: Washingtonians Are Happier When People We Know Are Running the Country

Newcomers to Washington: Hamilton Jordan and Jimmy Carter in the Oval Office.

Jimmy Carter, the former governor of Georgia, was elected president in 1976, taking office after four Washington insiders—John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford—had occupied the White House for 16 years. Like President Trump in 2017, President Carter came to Washington in 1977 as very much an outsider.

After President Carter had been in office for a year, the Washingtonian asked some longtime residents of the nation’s capital “So What Do You Think of the New People?”

Ervin Duggan, novelist: “The atmosphere is one of total bafflement. Old Washington is confused by his entourage. It’s so amusing to see intelligent people so confused. Carter had no desire to be one of them. He doesn’t ask their advice and he’s not in the least insecure. They can’t believe he doesn’t want to be one of them.”

Joe Sweeney, manager of Sarsfield’s bar: “They were naive and unsophisticated when they came into town but I think they’ve made the adjustment. The majority are excellent customers and they’re no more rowdy than the rest of our customers, but then we allow more lenient behavior than most bars. I mean if they want to get drunk and dance on the bar, it’s okay with us.”

Bob Woodward, reporter: “I think they’re nice people. I think, though, I have a rather perverted perspective. I find them open, accessible, thoughtful—certainly more so than the Nixon White House—but, shit, I was in a rather awkward position.”

Mr. X, stockbroker: “He’s hard-working and sincere but he’s got to improve his staff. They’re just too inexperienced. Businessmen are unwilling to make any commitments. There is a state of confusion and concern.”

Tommy Jacomo, assistant manager of the Palm: “The Carter people are obviously hard workers; they usually come in when they get off work, around 9 or 9:30 p.m. They’re not bad tippers—they all tip 15 or 20 percent. You can’t listen to waiters. They’re all money hungry. To them, if you don’t tip 50 percent you’re a lousy tipper.”

Robert Daniels, manager of the Old Ebbitt Grill: “I think the waiters would rather have Republicans.”

True Davis, bank president and former ambassador: “Socially, they could better their Washington image by being seen more. The First Lady has traditionally been honorary chairman of a number of charity organizations. Rosalynn Carter has declined this and more. Business-wise, when he first came in office, Carter had the business community behind him. Now I think that support is eroding….As for the informality in the White House, the tone of dress could be better. Blue jeans are beneath the dignity of the office.”

Jeff Ellis, vice-president of Ridgewell Caterers: “They’re entertaining in a much lower key….We do hear more southern talk and we are serving more peanut soup.”

Tom Curtis, radio-TV personality:  “The women under 40 like the Carter people. They’re young like the Kennedys but there’s very little of the Kennedy aloofness. These guys aren’t at all aristocratic or preppy. They’re almost like a group of Kappa Alphas.”

Mrs. X, a third-generation Washingtonian: “Well, I’ve lived here long enough to have seen a number of administrations and I must admit this one is by far the most dull. After the initial shock of seeing Rosalyn with her shoes off and Amy reading a book at a state dinner and the President attending a meeting in his blue-jean jacket, they became virtually invisible.”

Art Buchwald, columnist: “How do you tell a Carter person? I can’t tell them from the leftover Johnson people. I think they should wear pins or buttons so you can tell they’re Carter people.”

Ben Wattenberg, author and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute: “One has a sense the natives are restless. The interesting sociological thing with Carter is so many of his appointments outside the Cabinet level come from the militant activist movement and that’s what’s getting him in so much trouble.”

Bess Abell, assistant to Joan Mondale: “Life in Washington goes rolling along—just like it does in Cleveland.”

James Rowe, lawyer and New Dealer: “I think Carter’s too new to comment on. Washington’s not much different now than before. Nice town. Always was. Still is.”
P.S. In looking at how Washington welcomed Jimmy Carter in 1977 versus how the city has reacted to new president Donald Trump, it should be noted that in 1976 Jimmy Carter carried the District of Columbia with 82 percent of the popular vote, while in 2016 Donald Trump won only 4 percent of the DC popular vote. The District of Columbia has become ever more Democratic as the size of the federal government has grown.

As for press coverage, Washington in 1977 was a two-newspaper city, with the more conservative Washington Star tending to balance the coverage of the more liberal Washington Post. DC media coverage in the 1970s also was more focused on the neutral reporting of stories versus the more subjective journalism of today.

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