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RIP, Jody Powell

by David Gura
Sep 17, 2009

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David Gura

Last year, when we were broadcasting regularly from the Newseum, Joseph Lester "Jody" Powell, President Carter's press secretary, was a guest on our program. His friend and former colleague, Hamilton Jordan, Carter's chief of staff, had passed away, after battles with lymphoma, melanoma, and prostate cancer, and Powell agreed to visit with us, to remember him.

Earlier this week, we learned that Powell died, of a heart attack apparently, at his home in Maryland. We remembered him yesterday, during our regular visit with Political Junkie Ken Rudin, who said that "Jody Powell really, you know, got everybody. He was there whenever Jimmy Carter was there: the Israeli-Arab summit, the Iranian hostage crisis, the election against Ted Kennedy, Ronald Reagan. Jody Powell was always there."

The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg, formerly one of Carter's speechwriters, has a loving appreciation on the magazine's website, which is well worth reading. In it, he said that, "one of the disappointments of the aftermath of the Carter presidency ... was that Jody Powell didn't go back to Georgia and run for office."

Jody had the kind of unaffected charisma that wins elections. His warmth, sociability, and trustworthiness, to say nothing of his unthreatening but keen intelligence, would have made him an influential senator, the kind who can make deals and make them stick. And while he wasn't the most tightly organized guy in the world, he had leadership skills that would have made him just as good a governor.

You can read a wonderful excerpt from Hertzberg's journals, about the Iranian hostage crisis, after the jump.

Suddenly, everything is changed by the harrowing events of the last 36 hours. It started Thursday night. I stayed at the office till about 10, went and got some dinner, went home to bed, fell asleep. A little more than an hour later—maybe 1:45 or so—the phone jarred me awake. It was Caddell [Pat Caddell, Carter's pollster], calling from California, saying, "What do you know? What's going on?" About what, I said sleepily. "Are you kidding?" he shouted, and then started describing the horrible nightmare tragedy. He held the phone up to the TV so that I could hear Ted Koppel talking. He said Carter was going to address the nation at 7 a.m. and I had better get in to the office. I said I'd call him later and then lay there in the dark, thinking of the scene in the desert, in the pitch blackness, in the middle of nowhere, when the helicopter and the C-130 crashed—the flames, the screams, the terror, the sick disappointment and dread...

I threw on clothes, got in the car and drove in. On the way, for some reason, I picked up a young hitchhiker and took him as far as Pennsylvania Avenue. I picked him up because he looked like a soldier. He smelled of cigarettes and booze. He said he was an ex-Marine, and he would join up again in a second if there was a war. I was unable to talk at all. When I got to the gate, the cops, instead of just waving me in as usual, came out of the booth and shined flashlights into the car.

I went right to Jody's office. Just about the whole press office staff was there, looking haggard. Beth Lumpkin [a press aide] was taking calls from drunks and citizens, since no one from the Comments Office was in yet. I waited outside and at about 3 a.m. went into Jody's private office. He was in charge and he was magnificent. I was moved by how calm and composed and businesslike he was. As I told Al Friendly [Alfred Friendly, jr., NSC press secretary] later, if we do get in a war I want Jody to be my platoon leader.

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