Mark L. Hopkins: Jimmy Carter’s first Iowa speech

Mark L. Hopkins More Content Now
Mark L. Hopkins

I met Jimmy Carter on a hot summer day in 1975 when I was president of a small college in Muscatine, Iowa. Our county and the entire state of Iowa was Republican territory. Then, just as it is today, anyone who aspires to become president must begin in Iowa. More than a year before the election, I received a phone call from the Muscatine County Democratic chairman asking me if they could use the small auditorium at our college for a speech by a presidential hopeful from Georgia.

In 1975, hardly anyone outside of the state of Georgia knew who Jimmy Carter was. Interestingly, in a speech in the 1960s, John F. Kennedy said that presidential campaigns should be open to everyone so that even a peanut farmer from Georgia could become president. Sixteen years later, Carter, a peanut farmer from Georgia, did become president.

When the Carter campaign called asking the local Democratic leadership to help sit up an exploratory meeting in Muscatine County, the Democratic Committee had immediately reserved the 1,500-seat downtown auditorium. When they met to assess who might attend such a meeting, they noted that local Democratic voters were very much in the minority among the county’s population of 40,000. They were concerned that attracting a small number in a large auditorium might be an embarrassment, so they cancelled the auditorium and looked for a smaller venue. Thus, the Muscatine College auditorium became their target.

On the day of the proposed speech I heard a car door slam in the parking lot outside my office window. I looked out and saw the local Democratic chairman and a smallish man get out of a car and walk toward the front door. I went out into the hall to greet our guests. That was the first time I saw that toothy smile for which Carter was so famous. We shook hands, and while the candidate was at the water fountain the chairman asked me how many had arrived for the meeting. I told him I had been watching the parking lot for most of the last couple of hours and had not seen anyone. He suggested that perhaps the meeting would be better off in a classroom rather than the auditorium. I told him I it would be arranged and, also, that I would round up some people for him. You can always find people on a college campus.

That is how it happened that Jimmy Carter made his first speech in Iowa in a small classroom with two students, two teachers, a custodian and a college president who wished he was elsewhere. Carter noted the small number, put his speech in his coat pocket, and rearranged the chairs in a circle. In a few minutes his sleeves were rolled up, his tie was down and he was talking about the issues of middle America. That same presentation heard by seven people in July 1975 in a small college in Iowa was delivered to millions over the next 15 months. What was always obvious about Jimmy Carter was that he was a genuine, quality individual who, above all, was a very nice man.

Many don’t have good things to say about the presidency of Jimmy Carter, but all need to remember that during his four years in the White House, not one shot was fired in anger by our military and not one soldier was killed on a foreign field. In the 35 years since he left the White House, Carter has never stopped doing whatever he could to make life better for people both here and abroad.

We are going to hear much about his contributions through the Carter Center in Atlanta and elsewhere in the months to come as he fights the cancer that has taken over his body. Our prayers are with him.

Dr. Mark L. Hopkins writes for More Content Now and Scripps Newspapers. He is past president of colleges and universities in four states and currently serves as executive director of a higher-education consulting service. You will find Hopkins’ latest book, “Journey to Gettysburg,” on Amazon.com. Contact him at presnet@presnet.net.