Nov. 27, 2006: More Conversation With Carl Sanders: His Race With Carter And His Legacy

Two significant developments came out of Carl Sanders’ race for governor in 1970 against Jimmy Carter. First, unlike Carter, Sanders refused to compromise his principles in order to get elected. Second, once the election was over, the former governor decided to leave the political arena and devote himself to building his law practice. Today, Troutman-Sanders, which he serves as chairman emeritus, is one of the 100 largest law firms in the United States, with over 650 attorneys. Carl Sanders has done well.

At our lunch, Gov. Sanders was reluctant to get into the details of his defeat by Carter, saying simply, “The thought process I went through in every campaign I ever ran was to focus my energy on talking about education and things that were needed in my district or in the state. I always assumed that if I worked hard enough, my opponent would not be able to beat me using race, but Jimmy Carter effectively used the issue to drive a wedge between the races.”

The dirty tricks he endured included a picture widely circulated in South Georgia showing Sanders, a part owner of the Atlanta Hawks professional basketball team at the time, celebrating a victory with his arms around Joe Caldwell, a black player.

Carter and his apologists have long denied any culpability, but veteran political columnist Bill Shipp told me he saw Bill Pope, Carter’s press secretary, hand out leaflets with the photograph at a Ku Klux Klan rally. Dot Wood, a good friend and former vice president of Gerald Rafshoon Advertising, which handled Carter’s media, confirms the story and said she saw boxes of the leaflets in the office. Mysterious leaflets also criticized Sanders for attending the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr. Carter made a point to say that he did not attend. (Aside: Remember Carter’s sanctimonious performance at Coretta Scott King’s funeral?)

Carter, by the way, got only 5 percent of the black vote in the campaign.

During the campaign, Carter also criticized Sanders for his support of then-President Lyndon Johnson. “I did support LBJ,” Sanders says, “because he had given Lockheed one of the largest orders ever for C-5 airplanes and a lot of money for rural development in Georgia, and I wasn’t going to turn my back on him after what he had done for the people of Georgia.”

Author Jim Cooke in his biography of Carl Sanders says that Sanders underestimated Jimmy Carter and thought people would see through Carter’s facade of portraying himself as a George Wallace-styled redneck. He refused his staff’s recommendations to fight back until it was too late, and Jimmy Carter was elected governor. Of course, once elected, Carter changed his tune, severely disappointing the arch-segregationists who has supported him.

If you want to judge Jimmy Carter’s gubernatorial campaign for yourself, be prepared to wait. It seems that the papers from that campaign reside at the Carter Center and have not yet been “processed.” Call me naïve, but I don’t think he and his apologists are anxious for you to see them. I can understand why. His image is bad enough. Why make it worse?

Carter’s hypocrisy evidently knows no bounds. After a dinner for former governors at the Governor’s Mansion, Carter told the news media that he owed so much to Carl Sanders for making Georgia such a progressive state and how much that image helped him in his presidential campaign. Pondering that comment, Sanders just shakes his head and smiles.

I asked Carl Sanders how he would like to be remembered by future generations. He thought for a moment and said, “I would like to be remembered for playing the game of politics fair and square, for having made a contribution to my state and for leaving Georgia better than I found it.” I couldn’t have said it better. His leadership pulled Georgia through one of the most difficult periods in our history, and he left the state much better than he found it. Most importantly, he did it with integrity. The man is a class act.