Jody Powell, 65

Jody Powell, 65; Trusted Press Aide Helped Carter Reach White House

Jody Powell with President Jimmy Carter. Mr. Powell was a vigorous defender and trusted confidant of Carter's on the campaign trail and during the Georgia Democrat's terms as governor and president.
Jody Powell with President Jimmy Carter. Mr. Powell was a vigorous defender and trusted confidant of Carter's on the campaign trail and during the Georgia Democrat's terms as governor and president. (1979 White House Photo)

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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Jody Powell, 65, a public relations specialist for Jimmy Carter who helped orchestrate the once-obscure Georgia governor's rise to the White House in 1976 and then served as his press secretary for the full administration, died Sept. 14 at a hospital near his home in Cambridge, on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

His death, from an apparent heart attack, was confirmed by Jack Nelson, a former Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times and a friend of Mr. Powell's. After serving Carter in the White House, Mr. Powell became a founder of the Powell Tate public relations firm in Washington.

Like his boss and patron, Mr. Powell was a unlikely figure to have risen to the center of power in Washington. He grew up on a 500-acre peanut and cotton farm in Georgia and was attracted to politics at a young age.

He was a young doctoral student studying populist movements when he began working as a gofer for gubernatorial candidate Carter in 1969. His portfolio grew to include press relations, and the athletic, sandy-haired chain smoker acted as a vigorous defender of Carter when he felt his boss was unfairly maligned.

During Carter's governorship, a top opponent of busing to achieve school desegregation called the governor a "gutless peanut brain." Mr. Powell shot back a note that "respectfully" suggested the man "take a running jump and go straight to hell."

Mr. Powell became a fervent believer in Carter's chances -- running as a populist and Washington outsider -- of winning the presidency in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal that led to President Richard M. Nixon's resignation. Mr. Powell and campaign manager Hamilton Jordan became two of Carter's most trusted and effective aides during the race for the White House.

During the campaign, journalist Steven Brill wrote a potentially damaging story for Harper's magazine that ran with the headline "Jimmy Carter's Pathetic Lies." Damage control fell to Mr. Powell, and he issued a carefully reasoned 22-page rebuttal that was said to have done much to mitigate the article's impact.

Mr. Powell was occasionally faulted for not delegating enough authority, and that resulted in a rare misstep. No one reviewed Carter's fall 1976 interview with Playboy magazine. In the interview, the candidate said he periodically "committed adultery in [his] heart" and accused the late former president Lyndon B. Johnson of "lying, cheating and distorting the truth."

The story's juiciest quotes were widely picked up and damaged the candidate, and Mr. Powell accused reporters of "grubbing in the dirt." He was on collegial terms otherwise with the media, whose members enjoyed sharing confidences with Mr. Powell over beer and bourbon.

They also appreciated his talent for delivering great quips, in a cultivated Southern drawl, when news broke.

When former Georgia governor Lester G. Maddox, the state's last openly segregationist governor, tore into Carter during the presidential campaign, Mr. Powell responded in kind. "Being called a liar by Lester Maddox is like being called ugly by a frog," Mr. Powell said.

Carter had once called Mr. Powell the person who "probably knows me better than anyone except my wife," and Mr. Powell's reputation as a presidential confidant made him one of the most effective White House press secretaries of recent history, said presidential scholar Stephen Hess.


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