One of the people who helped make Jimmy Carter president is from Jacksonville and he remembers the 99-year-old Georgian, now in a hospice, as a man who was “rock solid on his morals and faith.”
Mike Hightower helped engineer Carter’s campaign for president in Northeast Florida.
He knew Carter from a chance encounter late in 1974. A schoolteacher and secretary of the local Democrat Party, Hightower was in Kansas City as a delegate to a telethon put on by Sen. Lloyd Benson.
As he walked into a crowded meeting room, he literally got pushed into a corner and found himself with Carter. Hightower struck up a conversation by asking him who he was. Carter said he was the governor of Georgia and was running for president. After a half-hour discussion, Hightower gave him his card and left.
“In April he came to Jacksonville, and we had lunch at the Blackstone,” Hightower recalls.
Carter drew a map of Florida on a napkin and pointed at Northeast Florida. He told Hightower that if he could get within 10 percent of George Wallace there, he would get the Democratic nomination.
Northeast Florida was a Wallace stronghold.
When Carter asked for his help, Hightower swallowed hard and agreed. His only experience had been a minor role in Mayor Hans Tanzler’s 1971 re-election campaign, and he was now in a presidential campaign.
There were 13 volunteers in Florida helping to run Carter’s campaign, including Dr. Emmett Ferguson, who had been a classmate of Carter’s at the Naval Academy, Martha Barrett and City Councilman Johnny Sanders of Jacksonville. The NE Florida group managed to get within 300 votes of Wallace in the 1976 election, Hightower said.
While Carter was president, Hightower was named director of the Farm Administration in Florida, with 56 offices and a $300 million budget.
Later, Hightower was an executive at Blue Cross-Blue Shield and served 16 years on the board of the JEA.
In the meantime, he had become a Republican and supported the re-election of President Ronald Reagan. When he told Carter that, Carter merely laughed.
Hightower recalls, however, that Carter had formed a close personal relationship with Gerald Ford, the man he defeated in 1976. Carter did the eulogy at Ford’s funeral.
“He was my mentor, my coach. He and (his wife) Rosalynn were always nice to me and my wife, Sue,” Hightower said. He last saw Carter in Atlanta nearly 20 years ago.
Hightower called Carter an “extraordinary” man who didn’t duck blame as today’s politicians routinely do.
Although there was much criticism of Carter’s presidency, Hightower said, “It is easy to throw rocks but look at what he accomplished. And he became a global leader as an advocate for human rights and democracy.” One historian wrote that Carter’s foreign policy, which included brokering peace between Egypt and Israel, had been able to “break up the Arab alliance, side-line the Palestinians, build an alliance with Egypt, weaken the Soviet Union and secure Israel.”
“He was the hardest-working former president we’ve ever had,” Hightower said, citing Carter’s work with Habitat for Humanity.
Carter made a number of trips to Jacksonville. In one of the early visits, he attended a civic club meeting on the Westside. I was also there and ended up having breakfast with him. I found him to be serious and sincere and when I saw him on subsequent visits he always stopped to chat.
I learned two interesting facts about him. He was using a Jacksonville memory expert to help him better remember people and events, which always is a plus for politicians, and he had an ongoing exchange of letters with 1930s movie star Mae West, which she apparently had initiated.