"If there ever was a success story in the Carter campaign, it's Phil Wise," says a Florida political operative who watched Wise put together the Carter primary victory there that knocked out George Wallace.
Wise, 25, stepped off the battlefield into Washington with a freshly-won reputation as a major force in the campaign and his choice of highly sought after jobs -working in the White House as an assistant to the President or as executive director of the Democratic National Committee. Whatever he wanted.
He wanted none of it.
Wise turned down all the offers. He said goodbye to the President in the Oval Office, packed his car and hit the Interstate for Georgia, leaving acquaintances to wonder what possibly could have possessed him to do that.
That just isn't done in Washington, where political winners and losers are clearly defined: The winners arrive triumphant, claim their jobs as a reward, bask in the glory of Their Man, become a social adornment; only the losers disappear.
But to Wise, leaving was the only honest alternative, as he explains it. Which makes what he did even more of a Washington enigma: Acts of conscience are not all that common in a city whose business is compromise.
It becomes clearer by considering his commitment to Carter, as deep as might be expected from one who grew up in Plains, just 300 yards from the Carter home.
Phil Wise doesn't remember not knowing Jimmy Carter. He was taught Sunday school by Carter. Their families are close; Carter was born in Wise Sanitorium in Plains, operated then by Drs. Thad, Sam, and Bowman Wise (dubbed "the three Wise men" by Miss Lillian, who began nurse's training there.).
So when Carter ran for office, Wise followed - beginning at the age of 15, handing out leaflets. He worked for Carter for years, fulltime even as a student at Georgia Tech during Carter's 1970 gubernatorial campaign. "One of the strongest things I felt in my life," he says, over his last beer in Washington, "was that Jimmy Carter could be President."
He felt that way almost as long ago as March, 1973, when he found out that Carter would eventually run. (Carter didn't announce until Dec. 1974.) He began helping campaign architect Hamilton Jordan plot strategy as long ago as early 1974. He helped move the furniture into the Carter headquarters in Atlanta, then ran the place.
He worked 20 hours a day, seven days a week. And even then the pace quickened. Jordan, answering Wise's request to be sent to the "field," dispatched him to Florida to run the campaign there.
"It scared the hell out of me," says Wise. "I had no experience running a campaign. I went to Boston and talked to Gene Pokorny, who worked in the McGovern campaign. He taught me political organization on paper, on two placements."
With that, Wise marched off to Florida, where he was not immediately perceived as a political force.
"He appeared on my doorstep one Sunday afternoon," says Richard Swann, a politically active lawyer in Orlando. "Here was this little guy with beady eyes, glasses, dungarees, a T-shirt. He lived out of a paper bag, I think.
"We gave him an office in our law firm. Sometimes he'd be in there with no shoes on. My law partners would tell him to keep his door shut so their clients wouldn't see him."
He didn't look the part of a President-maker; he was, after all, the country boy Jordan affectionately calls "Gomer." "Upon meeting him people weren't so sure he was really capable," says a campaign colleague, Mary Young. 'But everybody soon found out he was capable."
"The transition in that fellow from June, 1975, to when he left Florida in March, 1976, was one of just a kid on the street to a darn savvy guy," says Swann. "When he came back for a fund-raiser in July, it was the first time I ever saw him in a suit. In his first 30 days here he knew 10 times what I ever dreamed of learning about Florida politics."
He won over followers who would work almost as hard as he in much the same way Carter did. "He didn't come off as a know-it-all," says one colleague. "He was never pretentious." Another worker, Ginny Davis, adds, "He never made anybody feel they worked for him, but with him."
That was something Wise had learned in Sunday school from Carter. "He had a way of drawing you into it, not lecturing but making you feel part of the lesson," Wise remembers.
Wise rarely stopped working, often did not sleep at night. He cajoled key Florida leaders, worked the phones ceaselessly, poured over precinct maps he would spread on his office floor.
"When Phil Wise came to Florida he was like the foot itch," says Davis. "Once you get it you can't get rid of it. He'd call people and call them and call them. You'd have to learn to love him, you couldn't get rid of him."
Wise resisted all attempts to get him to ease up.
"I could never get him to take time to have dinner with us," says Swann."He might come up to the house at midnight to raid the icebox, but that's all."
"My big thing," says Davis, "was to get to the office before him. I came in as early as 6:30 and he was still there."
Davis says Wise was merely adhering to another Carter characteristic, his work ethic. She says, "Jimmy Carter used to say he could get up at 6 a.m. and be President or sleep 'til 9 and be a peanut farmer in Georgia."
Wise remembers taking off only 24 hours in his 8 1/2 months in Florida. He flew to Richmond, Va., on Christmas Eve for a family reunion at his sister's house. "He spent most of the time with his maps in the basement," says his sister, Marily.
The day after the Florida primary he flew to Wisconsin to take over the campaign there. Then to Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey, which he also ran, maintaining all the while a sense of humor, Davis recalls, "Three of us were getting on the New Jersey Turnpike in a Winnebago covered with Carter stickers and the guy at the toll booth got all excited and said, 'Is jimmy Carter in there?' Phil said, 'Yeah, he's in the back brushing his teeth."
But Wise says he was worn down badly by then, "physically, emotionally drained. I had given all my energy, every resource I had. I wanted to get away from it.
"The general election was more of a media thing. Because I grew up knowing Jimmy Carter I felt my greatest strength was out persuading other people about him. I thought my strengths had been taken advantage of in the primaries."
But he was persuaded to go on, and colleagues say he performed as selflessly as before.
"I never thought about what I wanted to do after he was elected. I didn't want ot take the time from what I was doing. After the June 8 primaries Hamilton had said, 'Start thinking about what you want to do in the White House.' I had no idea what went on at the White House. And I thought it would be irregular even to try to think about it.
"I had no great desire to end up in Washington." He says personal power had never appealed to him. "And I had even less of a desire on Nov. 2. My basic perception of Washington , and it became stronger as I talked to people around the country, was that here was this leadership settled in, talking to one another, not reaching out to the shopkeeper in Orlando or the dock worker in Tampa.
"Did I feel I would be missing something? Oh, heavens, no.After the election there was a lot of talk in the Atlanta headquarters about who was going to Washington. I got out of Atlanta. I went to West Palm Beach to take a couple of days off.
"Then things started moving fast again. Hamilton sent word to get about half a dozen of us to start the transition. So I came to Washington.
"One day I grabbed Hamilton when we were walking down the hall at the transition office and I told him, 'None of this stuff going on interests me. But if you really want me up here what about the Democretic party?' The Democratic National Committee offered a lot more flexibility than working in the bureaucracy, even than in the White House."
So he took a last look at the White House table of organization - "I didn't see anything I wanted" - and accepted the job as executive director of the DNC. Some colleagues thought wrongly that he had been the victim of political infighting and was "exiled" to the NDC. It may have been a less prestigious location than inside the White House but it was a place where he could "reach out" to the people at the grass roots, the thing he said wasn't being done in Washington.
But once there he realized it wasn't for him, at least not now. "If I had been rested, if I had the energy, I'd have done it," he says. "But Nov. 2 was a beginning of something, not an end. I didn't have the energy to start again. It would be wrong to be up here and not be able to give 100 per cent. I mean the 100 per cent I had to give after the campaign was nowhere near the 100 per cent I have during the campaign.
"So I called Hamilton and told him I just couldn't do it."
Then Wise went to explain his feelings - that he wanted to give more than he had - to Carter in the Oval Office three days after the inauguration. "He understood," Wise says. "He told me I could come back any time." Wise says he may, he isn't sure; back in Atlanta, he's planning a three month vacation in Europe.
"He could have sat up there," says Swann, "and been one of the leaders of the country. Yet to turn and walk away from it, well, that's kind of his mark."