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Morality and Politics in the Rhetoric of Jimmy Carter

February 1, 1999

Judith Zwolak

When former President Jimmy Carter speaks, John Patton listens. What the associate professor of communication hears is the words of a man with a pronounced moral dimension who feels strongly about the importance of citizenship.

"Citizenship is a central theme throughout Carter's political career," Patton says. "I think it's the concept that he articulates most clearly and effectively."

Patton, a specialist in presidential rhetoric, will speak on "Jimmy Carter and citizenship: The communication of humane values" during a Feb. 20-2 conference marking the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Jimmy Carter Library and Presidential Center in Atlanta. Patton's presentation builds on a paper he gave last year at the Texas A&M Center for Presidential Studies that focused on speech writing in the Carter administration.

"I've always been particularly fascinated with the Carter administration and Carter's rise to the presidency," Patton says. Perhaps Patton's interest springs in part from his proximity to Carter during a pivotal point in the former president's public life. One of Patton's first teaching positions was at the University of Georgia in the mid-1970s when Carter was making the transition from being governor of Georgia to running for the presidency.

"There is a very famous speech called the 'Law Day' speech, which Carter gave at the dedication of the new law school building at the University of Georgia," he says. "Sen. Edward Kennedy was the keynote speaker and everybody thought that this would be the launching of his campaign for the presidency. But Carter, in his introductory remarks, ends up making the speech of the day. The speech is about Southern justice, more exactly, about Southern injustice. After he spoke, no one remembered Kennedy's speech."

The presentation helped launch Carter's campaign and impressed upon Patton that "Carter was very good at certain strategic, highly ceremonial situations in which there was a kind of moral theme. The blending of morality and politics was a very real approach for him."

Public sentiment did not always match Patton's enthusiasm for Carter's rhetoric, however. The former president seemed distrustful of language and the process of speech writing, Patton learned through his research at the Carter library and through interviewing some of Carter's speech writers.

"Carter tended to think that if you simply stated information, people would be able to understand it and interpret in a straightforward manner," he says. "His energy speeches, for example, are classic instances of Carter essentially listing things that needed to be done and arguing that the responsibility lies with the public as well as with other entities."

In his speeches on energy conservation, Carter called on Americans to consume fewer natural resources by doing such things as turning down their thermostats and driving their automobiles less. As a means of persuasion, he listed statistical savings and practical reasons behind his requests. This call to sacrifice ultimately didn't play well with the public, Patton says.

"Being willing to consume less energy as a matter of civic responsibility was a very real thing for Carter," he says. "But it was very difficult to persuade the public to do so by simply listing things and providing statistical background."

Carter was best as a communicator when he saw a clear link between his own convictions and the issue that was being addressed, Patton says. During his presidency, Carter spoke at the dedication of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston as well as the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital in Los Angeles.

In both speeches, he spoke movingly about civil rights and the contributions these two men made toward the advancement of African Americans in this country. Patton says Carter's strong spiritual and moral dimension was particularly evident in these speeches. Today, Carter continues his public service at home and abroad through the Carter Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting democracy and fighting disease, poverty and oppression.

In recent years, says Patton, Carter has become more comfortable with language and in 1995 even published Always a Reckoning, a book of poetry.

"Carter has continued to grow and develop in his own thinking about the way in which language and performance are part of a public responsibility," Patton says. "The Carter we knew in the first two years of the administration would not have written a book of poetry. The Carter of today would have communicated differently about the environment and energy. He would have done it more poetically and therefore more persuasively."

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