Yet another chapter in The Hodding Carter Story begins next week. Our tousle-haired hero (known to date as the State Department spokesman who could say, "I do not think it would be useful for me to comment on that," in a way that suggests the controlled frustration of Gary Cooper in "High Noon"), leaves Washington for rustic Maine to write a memoir. It's a good enough way, he explains, to "disassociate" himself completely from government so that he can come back after the election as a journalist to cover it. Then, it's entirely possible that we will be seeing the same stern visage on our television screens saying something like "This is Hodding Carter in Washington. Goodnight."
Onward and upward. Hodding Carter had tears in his eyes on the speaker's podium the Monday after Cyrus Vance's resignation as secretary of state became public two moinths ago, and well he might. It was the end of an era. He always had said he was going to leave State when Vance went in January, but here, suddenly, the end was being thrust upon him six months early. Quiet, unflamboyant Vance, who needed a strong spokesman perhaps more than any secretary of state in recent memory, had been the perfect boss. He had given Carter trust, access and freedom to go far beyond the terse "guidelines" that summarize official policy positions. In return, Carter had given him the kind of respect and loyalty a Southerner usually reserves for his own father. The reporters who worked with Carter said he developed into one of the best (if not the best) spokesmen the State Department had ever had.
So this particular era had been a spectacularly good one for Hodding Carter. Ever since the early stages of the Iran crisis when he acted as the sole spokesman for the U.S. government, there had been around Hodding Carter's State Department suite an air of joviality that belied the dismal gray dishwater flood of bad news from abroad. Jokes, anecdotes, sometimes snatches of song drifted from the inner office. Carter in person (as opposed to his TV image) looked as sassy as a jaybird: a big Delta grin for everybody.
And why not? Except for Henry Precht, the State Department deputy who became an instant hero by finally saying "bullshit" to the Iranians, Hodding Carter was the only man in government able to benefit at all from the disaster of U.S. foreign affairs. All over the country, as he talked about the latest setback on the evening news, people were identifying with the firm set of his mouth, his dark, shadowed but steady eyes, the way his head tilted back to swell out his neck and his hands clenched in his pockets -- strength restrained, for the time being at least.
Around these hard edges, though, you could see a cleancut twinkle and bouyancy. Once a week or so there was a fine Macho grin and a toss of the curly dark hair and you knew that this . . . problem . . . was only temporary and soon Hodding Carter, and by extension the United States of America, would be back on top of the world. TV cameras would linger on the tapping of his pencil. He would be chosen over the actual secretary of state for interviews as if he were setting the policies instead of just setting their tone. "I know he's not related to the president, and it's too bad he had to get stuck with the name," one fan said recently in Dallas. "I think he ought to change it to Carter Hodding and run for president. He makes me proud to be an American."
Norman R. Brokaw, vice president of the William Morris entertainment agency, the man who signed Marilyn Monroe, Clint Eastwood, Mark Spitz and Linda Fratianne, had only to see Hodding Carter twice on the ABC evening news before his nimble brain began to compute figures. "When you build up expertise such as I have after 37 years in the business," he says, "you get to where you can recognize a quality very early on."
Watching from his Hollywood office, Brokaw plugged Carter into what he sees as a "tremendous feeling of patriotism that is now sweeping the country. I myself am so proud of being an American and when I go to bed at night it's very important to have the right person making a good presentation on the news so that I know where I stand. You feel the strength in Carter's delivery . . . you feel a great soothing quality to the American people. You can feel him stabilizing things on sensitive issues . . ."
Another Cronkite? Another Sevareid? Brokaw got his research staff busy on Carter's background. It couldn't have been better if it was scripted. "What with the family newspaper in Mississippi, the father's Pulitzer prize, the civil rights stuff, I was tremendously impressed. And when I'm impressed, I move." Brokaw called Carter about joining the William Morris stable and wrote him, not omitting the fact that Gerald Ford's net worth after signing was reported to have gone from about $300,000 to $1.6 million; that the clutch of contracts he'd gotten Spitz was worth $5 million; that he'd soon be announcing a "seven-figure deal" for Fratianne.
He came to Washington. The timing was right: Carter was "besieged" with other calls and offers and needed someone to handle them. He like Brokaw's freewheeling, agressive style. He was impressed by the ideas. One month after the hostages had been taken, Hodding Carter agreed on a two-year contract with William Morris, allowing them to act through Brokaw as his exclusive agent in broadcasting, literature, speaking, and any other fields Brokaw wants to get into.
Not bad at all, considering the spokesman job was originally third on his list of preferences (after director of the U.S. Information Agency -- now the International Communications Agency -- and assistant secretary of state for African affairs). It is definitely not a routine stepping stone to stardom. One thing helped a lot: his own decision to allow TV cameras into the regular noon briefings for the first time in history (they are still not allowed in Jody Powell's White House press conferences). But even so, according to one senior reporter, "He was ready to leave last year before this Iranian business. Hodding loves the lime-light, and Iran was absolutely made to order. It gave him a new lease on life." James Anderson, UPI's senior diplomatic reporter, griped in Washington Journalism Review that Carter was getting carried away by the bright lights and using his new pulpit for cheap shots against the president's political opponents ("Mr. Connally has never understood the role of the presidency," he announded in one briefing before Connally had dropped out. "And that's why he's not going to get it.") But nobody really minded. A story is a story.
You have only to see Hodding Carter walk -- that rolling Southern shuffling swagger -- to know that you are dealing with a specific set of mannerisms. You'd hesitate to say "good old boy" or "professional Southerner," and yet these mannerisms -- winks, nudges, backslaps, guffaws, little jokes, sayings and references -- are the same kind that make folks back in Greenville, Miss. remember: "Hodding could always charm the lard right off a hog." The heavy-duty diplomatic reporters he has faced every day at the briefing are no more immune to it than anyone else, but of course it doesn't often come through on television, as per prior agreement with them. How would it look, for example, if the depressed and bitter would suddenly saw the State Department spokesman throw, as he once did, a rubber chicken at one of his questioners? Or shoot a reporter with a rubber-hand gun. Which is never to say that folks in Greenville remember Hodding Carter ever backing down from a fight.
"The briefing is a form of ritualized combat," he says. "I like the give and take."
The ritualized combat of the spokesman's job would seem to have been made to order: "The job completely separates him from what he was," a friend says. "Formerly he was personally responsible for the whole show. In this job he isn't ultimately responsible for anything. It's a nice escape." An escape of this kind is a familiar thing to certain Southerners, such as novelist Walker Percy who himself was suffocated by the "placeness" of Greenville and moved to Covington, La., just outside of New Orleans.
The point is that Hodding Carter will always be from Mississippi, unlike, say, Bill Moyers or Roger Mudd, who are no longer recognizable as Texans. His unique magnolia past is so specific, in fact, that when the president-elect first heard Hodding Carter wanted a job in Washington (having put in good solid time with the campaign in Atlanta) he didn't take it seriously. Hodding's friend and sponsor Richard Moose, now assistant secretary of state for African affairs, asked if he hadn't made an enemy or two since his name kept coming back. Hodding was mystified. Finally Jimmy Carter himself called:
"Hodding," he said. "I thought you told me in Greenville in 1975 that you wanted to stick with the paper."
"Yes sir. I did, then."
"Well, what's this about wanting a job in Washington?"
"Sir, I changed my mind."
Presto! Hodding Carter's Mississippi past had now been translated into what Norman Brokaw sees as an enduring image of the 1980s. "I'm fascinated by all the possibilities," Carter said recently from behind a string of variegated balloons tacked by reporter buddies to the door of his Senate Department office (which is exactly beneath his wife's, one floor down). "Here, clearly, I am the mouthpiece for somebody else," he went on. "But in every other aspect I am considerably freer than I was in Greenville."
The last time Hodding Carter can remember crying was also the end of an era. It was 1976 he was 48 years old, and his life was about to change completely.
He had been living with a classic American dilemma: Whether to carry on in the tradition of his famous father, or to cut the ties and make his own name. Until then it had been Little Hodding. His father was Big, the legendary Greenville, Miss., editor who fought a 20-year battle for civil rights in the nation's most racist state.
In 1976 at the Mississippi State Democratic Convention in Jackson, it, became suddenly clear to Little Hodding that he could not go on. The immediate thing that made it clear was that the desegregationist coalition he had helped organize in the '60s and carried through bloody credentials fights in 1968 and 1972 had finally won what amounted to an even split going into the New York convention. That particular battle was over.It was won. But it was symbolic in a larger sense of the fact that all the black and white issues his father had introduced him to were now graying out. Life in Greenville had turned aimless. Drinking and two-day parties had taken the place of civil rights. His 20-year marriage was as sour as the rest of it. He often wondered what his father would have thought if he had lived to see it.
So, having made his decision to bury the legacy that was suffocating him (he knew some would call it selling out), Little Hodding walked from the convention hall into the spring night crying. He had inherited enough of his father's romanticism to do that. He left his wife, his newspaper and his hometown and went to work for Jimmy Carter.
When Big died in 1972, his two sons Hodding and Philip wrote twin editorials in the space where Big had once invited the entire Mississippi State Legislature to "go to hell, collectively or singly, and wait there until I back down."
Philip wrote: "We called him Big because he was. Hodding Carter was the biggest of his clan, a legend, first of all, in his own tribe. We loved him, followed him, tried to live up to him, puzzled over and swapped wild stories and proud old fighting tales about him, and sometimes in recent nights we cried."
Little Hodding wrote: "Death has stilled his voice. It has not, however, obliterated the call to conscience he heeded for so long. With God's help and in the sure knowlege that the trail Dad blazed leads toward a better land for all our people, this newspaper will answer that call as long as there is a Carter to help guide it."
But, as Hodding told the president, he changed his mind.
Last January, the Carters sold Big's famous liberal newspaper to Freedom Newspapers Inc., an ultra right-wing chain based in Santa Ana, Calif. Little Hodding left his wife of 20 years and moved to Washington. Philip is living in New Orleans. Big's widow Betty still maintains an apartment in Greenville but has sold the family house Feliciana and also spends much of her time in New Orleans. While letters of congratulation on Hodding's State Department performances have come in from other parts of the country, very few have come from his hometown. Not that there's any particular sigh of relief, now that the Carters are gone -- even though for some time his civil rights stands made Big Hodding the most hated man in town. What there seems to be more than anything in Greenville is a kind of bittersweet, slightly apathetic nostalgia: Big's son has been translated into image. "I almost cried when I saw him on television," says Dorothy Edwards, a black woman who runs a Greenville funeral business. "The more I see him the more I realize he's never coming back." Dorothy Edwards actually did cry when the paper was sold.
Liberal tears were in fact shed throughout the South. Novelist Walker Percy, whose father had invited Big into Greenville from Louisiana and helped finance him, was as shocked as anybody. "Of course I'm proud of the way he's handled his job at the State Department," he said. "But I'm not proud of the sale of the paper. A newspaper is the heart and mind of a community. There is a sense of loyalty to Greenville betrayed." ("The question of 'betrayal' would be more interesting if we were living in 1955 or 1963," Hodding says.) The Columbia Journalism Review itself editorialized against the sale and the various corporate security laws and estate tax regulations that helped force it, saying it was a bad journalistic start for the new decade. "It's a sad case indeed where an honorable moderate newspaper with a good reputation is sold to that bunch of characters," said publisher and founder Edward W. Barrett.
Freedom newspapers, Inc. is so right wing they automatically oppose government involvement in anything, from civil rights to community bond issues. Run by the heirs of founder Raymond C. Hoiles, Freedom exerts tight editorial control over each of the 30 newspapers it owns in 11 states throughout the country. When the Lima, Ohio, paper was bought by Freedom in the late '50s, community opposition to its editorial policy was so strong the townspeople financed creation of an opposition paper run by alientated staffers. in Greenville, Freedom president Robert Segal announced that readers of Big's paper in the future would see no more of the familiar editorials prodding government to provide equal treatment for blacks. Morale among the talented staff assembled by the Carters is now said to be "pitiful."
You can't fault the Carters economically for selling to Freedom what Little Hodding once wrote was his father's "monument." For one thing, he points out, the offer of about $18 million was one third higher than any competitor's and could have established a prohibitive inheritance tax burden for the remaining shareholders. (In recent years an increasing number of small independent papers have been forced to sell, usually to chains, in order to pay these taxes, which has prompted Morris K. Udall, D-Ariz., to fire The Independent Local Newspaper Act requiring shareholder contributions to offset them.) Also, Hodding replied to a disappointed Southern editor who wrote to protest the sale: "If we had taken a lesser but more compatible offer, any one of the other owners who disagreed could easily have tied the sale up in the courts for a long, long time on the grounds that his interest was being prejudiced."
He's referring here to minority stockholder John T. Gibson, the crusty business manager of the paper for 40 years, who says he would indeed have objected . . . but not necessarily to the extent of taking the Carters to court. "Besides," Gibson says, "I don't necessarily believe that he would have agreed to sell at the lower price himself." The fact remains that the selling price, which is equal to about $1,000 per subscriber, may have set a record.
So Hodding Carter, who on or off the podium has never shrunk from ex-post-facto preemptive grandiloquence, ended his letter to the Southern editor: "I cherish every minute of the great fights in which we ere engaged, not least because we ultimately emerged victorious from so many of them. But I have to say to you that our, and my, final responsibility is not to others' image of what we should do but what each of us who were participants in those wars now feel is the best thing for us to do. I for one expect to be engaged in the enterprise of advancing basic human values for the rest of my life. That I no longer choose to do it in Greenville cannot be fairly used to call into question that commitment."
Or, as former New York Times civil rights reporter James Wooten puts it: "A lot of us got burned out, which made it easier to sell out." Wooten, a Southerner himself who's an old friend of Hodding Carter from Mississippi days, is now an ABC-TV news correspondent.
A legend either dead or alive, is never easy to live with. Philip Carter, 40, points this out from his comfortable town house in the Old Quarter of New Orleans, where he is presently trying to figure out what to do with his share of the profits. Philip looks so much like his brother they are often mistaken for each other at political functions but likes to say he has chosen exactly the opposite direction in which to move. "Look," he said to Hodding when it was clear that Greenville wasn't going to work for either of them, "you get off your ass and make a name for yourself. I'll handle the debauchery."
Actually Philip, who has inherited as much of his father's romanticism as Hodding has his mother's flinty determination, is the better writer. He's worked for The New York Herald Tribune, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and for a few years owned and ran the weekly Vieux Carre Courier in New Orleans. But unlike his brother, he has never sought to come to grips with the Greenville legend and says the three years he spent editing the paper after Hodding left for Washington were the most "miserable" of his life. "Lynn (his wife of two years) and I knew what Hodding and Peggy had gone through up there in the last few years and decided there was no way we wanted to do it ourselves. Things got be so ambiguous up there. Also, I don't want to live in a town where all the bright people get out." Right now, Philip is thinking of even getting out of journalism, buying a few thousand acres of bottomland south of Natchez and raising soy beans and cotton.
There was a third Carter brother, Tommy, five years younger than Phillip. Growing up in Greenville, Philip and Tommy (but never Hodding) would take five of the six cartridges out of their fater's revolver, point it at the ground and pull the trigger. "We were always fantasizing about violence," Phillip remembers. "Guns were an enormous part of our lives." All three sons had heard the anonymous telephone threats, had watched their father load the 12-gauge, take it out on the porch or into the bushes along the drive to wait. There was always a gun under the front seat of the car and sometimes even in Big's office at the paper. If Big happened to get in a fistfight, he'd wear the bandages proudly on his hands for days.
Just before 10 p.m. April 26, 1964, 19-year-old Tommy, then a freshman at Tulane, went with a girl to the Carter place in the Garden District in New Orleans. He'd given a party there the night before. They were going to clean up, the girl said later. He pulled a revolver from under a couch, reflexively took out five of the six cartridges and spun the chamber. Holding the gun to his head was not too much different from pointing it at the ground. Big heard about Tommy's death in Greenville, where he has just returned from a series of eye operations to save him from progressive blindness. Crying was the worst thing he could have done.
Philip says his father was never the same after Tommy shot himself, and there might well have been a certain guilt involved. "Dad and Tommy just collided a lot . . . he had a very rocky adolescence.It was just that Dad was hard to live with sometimes, terrifically skilled at finding your most vulnerable point and goosing it." He laughs. "It was the kind of thing that makes some men want to join the Marine Corps." Indeed, both Hodding and Philip planned to.
"I chose the Marines because I wanted to prove something to myself about the capacity to do certain things . . . the physical business," Hodding says. "It was a logical extension of at least part of the substance I inherited from my father, you know, taking what was the toughest approach to doing a given thing." Hodding served, but Philip accidentally shot himself in the foot while hunting and was medically disqualified.
If the legend drove Tommy and Philip wild, Hodding reacted by tightening down and digging in his heels. "I think a lot of remarkably controlled people are that way because they have to be or they'll fly into a thousand pieces," Philip says. "Twice in Hodding's life when the pressures were there, if he'd been weaker or capable of blind rage, he could have really spun off." But honed against his father, Hodding became a good enough debater to win the state prize his senior year in high school. He became skilled in the art of subtle nuance and compromise rather than confrontation. He learned the camouflage of Southern mannerisms.
And he stubbornly kept coming home. He came home from boarding school in New Hampshire to spend his junior and senior year at Greenville high. (His own four children also attended Greenville public schools, but only Catherine, the oldest, was graduated. After their father left to join the Carter campaign in 1976, Hodding IV, the second oldest, went to prep school; Fearn, the next, went to a performing arts academy in New York; Margaret, the youngest, continued in the Greenville public school system but left with her mother last year to live in Baton Rouge.) Hodding III also came home from Princeton, after being graduated summa cum laude in international relations, to begin work at his father's paper instead of joining the Foreign Service. As Philips puts it: "In some respects Hodding started out the least Southern of anyone in the family. sBut he became the most. He's a Southerner more by will than affection . . . I don't know why . . . maybe he just didn't want to say quit."
That and the fact that the civil rights movements was just peaking at the time were the main reasons that the one year he originally allotted to the paper stretched into 17. It began to be obvious, though, that he could never compete with his father's 19-some books and thousands of editorials, so the focus of his attention changed from writing to politics: his own area where he could use his own talents. Of course there was never much real political future for a man whose uncompromising liberal father was once designated a slanderer of the state by legislative vote, and who appeared to be following in pretty much the same footsteps. But there were enough ragtag black and white liberal activists around the state by this time (including Patt Derian, who was then married to a professor of Orthopedic surgery at the University of Mississippi in Jackson) to form a splinter ground, the Mississippi Loyalist Democrats. "They were a force in the state," Jim Wooten remembers. "Not a particularly great one, but they did force the regulars to deal with them at certain times."
Those times were mainly during the national conventions when Hodding Carter could use his speaking ability, his image, to best advantage. He was looking terrific on the national stage after unseating the Mississippi segregationists in two bloody credentials fights (1968 and 1972), even though among cerain of the loyalists such as Charles Evers was a feeling that his real commitment lay elsewhere. "He used us to get where he is now," Evers says. "But we used him, too." In 1975, Hodding Carter's paper was practically the first stop for Hamilton Jordan when he came to Mississippi look for support."
Big Hodding himself was once offered a Washington job, head of the Voice of Amercia, perhaps not by coincidence directly beneath the job his son would seek and not get more than 30 years later. He turned it down. "We were all ready to go, but he came back and told us we didn't have to worry," his widow Betty says. "He said he wouldn't be able to stand Washington life. He was afraid someone would call him a Communist or something and he'd cause a scandal by punching him in the mouth." And Big wrote in his autobiography: "I would rather be a part of the togetherness of the Delta than to share in the making of any other chapter in the great story in America."
For a while, during the late '50s and early '60s, it seemed as if Little Hodding would be able to make the legend work for him too -- through sheer force of will, if nothing else. He was riding the crest of the civil rights movement: the 1964 Freedom Summer, Selma, Martin Luther King, We Shall Overcome: "The only thing that was not clear," he says, "was how far you could go. It was scary, great fun, gutwrenching, the best kind of challenge. I only hope my own kids are so lucky."
But 1964 was also the year that Tommy killed himself. Three Ears later Big had a stroke while teaching in a Tulane classroom and the old challenging vitality left him, exactly as it was beginning to leave the entire movement. The drinking and partying that earlier had been the spoils of war became an end in themselves and Greenville gossip, which had always been an art form, began to resculpt the outlines of the legend. The parties at Feliciana got louder and later and wilder. "It was a very peculiar scene," remembers a guest at one of the larger dinners. "There seemed to be a very civilized and purposeful attention to getting falling-down drunk, like after a war when the officers don't know what to do with themselves." Hodding and his pretty athletic wife Peggy, by far the flashiest couple and the best jitterbuggers in Greenville, began to drift apart, and not amiably. "It got to where the town wasn't big enough for both of them," a friend remembers. "There were certain elements of very aggressive competition." In 1978, after Hodding had gone to Washington, Peggy filed for divorce charging adultery, desertion and habitual cruel and inhuman treatment (he admitted the first two, and she eventually dropped the third). The settlement -- $50,000 plus permanent alimony of $3,300 a month for five years and $3,000 a month thereafter, child support, health benefits, life insurance, a house, a car, and college tuition for her -- is said to be the largest in the history of Greenville.
The cost of Hodding Carter's departure seems to be mainly counted by those he left behind. His friends all say he's well out of it. "He always had an acute ambivalence about being in Greenville," Philip says. "There was a lack of focus. Now he emerges much more whole, more soundly put together." Even as a Washington bachelor, his new life included very few of the old late nights, empty bottles, endless songs and stories. He was too busy, for one thing. For another, he was too much in love with Patt Derian.
Patt Derian is so unlike Peggy, so unlike anybody that Hodding Carter, the latter-day boulevardier of Greenville might get involved with, that their marriage in December 1978 flummoxed even the town gossips. Nobody back in Mississippi can figure it out: Derian is 50, six years older than her husband, with three children of her own.She is tall, stern, imposing, not pretty, vivacious or particularly athletic. Her career -- which started out by helping her black cook in Jackson on an unjust loan foreclosure and grew by apparently no particular planning from local to state civil rights efforts and finally to the point where she "steam-rollered" Hodding Carter himself on her way to being elected Democratic National Committeewoman -- shows she's a natural. Her present job, assistant secretary of state for human rights, is a substantive policy position right on the cutting edge of the Carter administration, and her performance caused right-wing columnists Evans and Novak to gripe in 1978:
"One problem has been Derian's passionate conviction that the U.S. must use its economic power as a lever to pry concessions out of states guilty of human rights violations . . . Until now her zeal has carried the day within the bureaucracy. She has unquestionably caused some improvements, but at heavy cost." This is compared to Carter's role as a "conveyor belt" for policy that's already formed.
You might almost say that marrying a woman of convictions allowed Hodding Carter to more easily submerge his own, and by submerging them to forget his ghosts. Which is more than either will admit to. They talk of themselves as "intermeshed" and "a team." "Anything that either of us does in the future of course will include the other," Hodding says. "Norm Brokaw has talked to Patt, too. We could go on the lecture circuit together." Their house is a way station for whichever of the seven kids happen to be passing through. Occasional small dinners with friends are all the social life they have time for. Patt said: "We were thinking that we'd like to spend a year writing and teaching together after we leave State, but now I'm not so sure we're going to get that time. Hodding has gotten to be so well-known . . . there are all kinds of things that people think he would be useful for."
None of those things appears to include returning to Greenville."I have no idea where we'll go as long as there is plenty of humidity," Patt says firmly, "but I don't think it would be fair for us to go back to Mississippi and become dominant figures."
Betty Carter was never one to leave or give up easily. She still drives her canary yellow Cadillac to the Greenville Episcopal church if she happens to be there on a Sunday, and she still maintains her son Hodding will come back. "I think he could run for office here with that television thing," she says. "He and Phillip still own a few acres of Feliciana, to the middle of the tennis court. I wouldn't be at all surprised if he built there."
Not long ago she offered to the new young editor of the paper the "Betty Crocker Tour of Greenville," since he was from California and knew nothing about the town. He has yet to accept, which is his loss because the Betty Crocker Tour of Greenville lasts for several hours and includes every geographical, social and historical perspective there is.
On one particular Sunday, the tour ended at the paper itself, but the locks had been changed on Big's old office and it took a while for her to be let in. She approved of that, she said firmly. The old lock never worked properly. She pointed out proudly various pieces of new equipment provided by the new owners and got back in her car. She didn't leave right away. "Maybe I shouldn't have let it happen," she said finally. "I could have done some hiring and firing and run it myself. I accept the onus. But I just didn't feel like going down there and holding it when I didn't know who I was