The political grudge Carl Sanders takes to his grave

Bill Shipp, then political editor of The Atlanta Constitution, performed a post-mortem of Jimmy Carter’s defeat of former Gov. Carl Sanders in 1970.

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

Bill Shipp, then political editor of The Atlanta Constitution, performed a post-mortem of Jimmy Carter’s defeat of former Gov. Carl Sanders in 1970.

Jimmy Carter had to step over Carl Sanders’ body to make it to the White House.

Oh, physically, Sanders would live for another 44 years — until this week, in fact, when he died Sunday at age 89. But after their 1970 race for governor, Sanders was politically dead and Carter was a rising star.

Sanders, who had already served as governor from 1963 to 1967, went on to become vastly rich and successful. But the campaign against Carter was one he never forgot, nor did he ever really forgive.

In 1970, Sanders was an urbane former governor and increasingly successful attorney and Carter was an ambitious former state senator and a peanut farmer.

Four years earlier, Carter had been the loser, watching segregationist Lester Maddox beat him and a passel of other hopefuls to become Georgia’s governor. The Plains Democrat, who had earlier struck many as an idealistic modern politician, learned his lesson in that beating. He swung rightward in his next campaign, ruthlessly destroying an opponent his campaign team ridiculed as “Cufflinks Carl.”

It’s been no secret through the years that Sanders carried a smoldering dislike for Carter for running what some characterized as a race-baiting campaign. It can’t have helped that Carter successfully pivoted back to the center-left just a few years later to create the persona that made him an engaging national candidate.

Last year, I interviewed Sanders about the 50th anniversary of the 1963 state Senate session, which is roundly seen as the birth of the modern political era. In that story I explored how the county-unit system that gave rural Georgia unfair advantage was broken up, allowing the election of the first black legislator in modern times, as well as "reformers" like Carter and Sanders as governor.

When I brought up the subject of getting Sanders together with Carter and other 1963 alums for a portrait, Sanders stared at me like I was asking him to get tased. The photo never happened.

Months later, I met again with Sanders in his corner-office perch at the international law firm that he built — Troutman Sanders. I came to interview him about JFK’s assassination for a story exploring his ties to the Kennedys and how they viewed him as star of the New South — and possibly a future vice presidential candidate.

Sanders liked my previous story and seemed to talk more this time about his legacy, looking back, a bit wistfully, over his storied career, including the office that Carter achieved and he did not.

“It’s a nice thing to have on your obituary, to be the most powerful person in the world,” he said.

But, he added, “I wasn’t fanatically obsessed to be president of the United States.”

In fact, Sanders wasn’t fanatically obsessed enough to become governor of Georgia a second time.

Georgia governors were unable to run in consecutive terms, so in 1970 Sanders was ready to run again and finish what he had to leave four years earlier.

“Then Jimmy Carter jumps in,” Sanders told me. “Carter, believe it or not, ran a segregated race, one that he was connected with George Wallace of Alabama.”

Coming into the 1970 election, Carter got research showing that Sanders was vulnerable to suggestions that he was too eager to achieve racial equality. According to a story written then by Atlanta Constitution political editor Bill Shipp, Carter’s pollster wrote a memo: “Carter’s present supporters feel more concerned about high taxes, integration coming too fast, changing the present welfare system than do voters in general. These are issues of Nixon’s forgotten man.”

Shipp noted that before entering the race, Carter scribbled notes on a legal pad concerning ways to attack Sanders: “Atlanta oriented … pretty boy … excluded George Wallace from state … referred to as Julian Bond’s candidate.” Bond was a black civil rights activist turned controversial legislator.

Shipp noted that Carter himself never alluded to race, “but mysteriously, thousands of leaflets cropped up all over the state in parsonage mailboxes, barber shops and beauty salons linking Sanders socially with Negroes.”

The real zinger was a photo of Sanders, then part owner of the Atlanta Hawks, a team he helped bring to the city, getting a champagne shampoo from a black player during a celebration.

“Carter had that reproduced and had that sent all over the state (with the underlying message,) ‘Here’s Carl Sanders making love with the blacks,’” Sanders said. “He hoodwinked enough people to make them believe he would (work to undermine integration).”

Sanders also noted that he attended Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral, but that “Jimmy Carter didn’t show up.”

When I called Carter’s office this week, I was given the same one paragraph statement they released a day earlier: “Carl Sanders was an outstanding governor of Georgia, a champion of education, and a courageous proponent of ending racial segregation in our state. I was proud of his service when I was in the state senate, and continued to pursue many of his notable policies when I became governor.”

Back in 1970, Carter complained that the Atlanta newspapers had “projected me as an ultra conservative racist, which I am not. I am basically conservative in my attitude toward government.” The next day he went to a segregated private school to reassure south Georgians he supported private education.

Robert Coram, Sanders’ campaign press secretary in 1970, said his boss had the same research as Carter but refused to use it. Sanders had worked to improve the image of Georgia’s race relations and did not want to do anything to undo it, he said.

“How he refused to listen to that research during the 1970 campaign was a great point in his career,” Coram told me this week. “He told us, ‘I’m not going to do it. I’m going to take the high road.’ That one decision was a high point of his life.”

But politically devastating.

When I asked about his truncated political career, Sanders paused and finally said: “Everyone I know of at some point in their life takes a stand in what they have done. What I did, what I didn’t do, I’m happy and satisfied.”