KEEPING UP WITH JIMMY CARTER ON THE BOOK TOUR

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October 1, 2015 · Posted in Commentary 

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Bob Vickrey and President Jimmy Carter at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, March 1985

 

By Bob Vickrey

 While watching former President Jimmy Carter describe the details of his recent cancer diagnosis during a televised news conference, it occurred to me that anyone who had ever met him in person was not surprised by the gracious manner in which he was now confronting his own mortality. That congenial style has long been his trademark.

His tireless energy has been on display since he left the White House 35 years ago—even now at the age of ninety. His commitment to international humanitarian work has been well documented, particularly for his beloved project, Habitat for Humanity

The familiar smile he flashed often during the press conference took me back to a time in March of 1985, when I stood on the steps of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel anxiously awaiting his arrival. I was to escort him during his Southern California stop on his national book tour.

The publishing house for which I worked had just released his most recent book, “The Blood of Abraham,” a history of the ongoing Middle East conflict in which he had become deeply involved during his presidency. Our company’s publicity department had planned a national tour for the book, including major media appearances, as well as bookstore events, which is where I came into the picture.

As the local company rep, my job was to select bookstores which would host events and to accompany authors while they were in town on their promotional tours. This particular occasion seemed to have taken on an even greater significance and created quite a buzz for those in the bookselling community. Hosting a former president was considered quite an honor for most booksellers, no matter what their political persuasion happened to be.

When the President’s limo arrived in the Beverly Wilshire driveway under the breezeway awning, I was almost certain that I heard the faint sound of my knees knocking, but remained adamant that I could conceal my imploding anxiety. Sure enough, when he stepped out of the car flashing that famous grin, he said, “You must be Bob. Are you ready to have a little fun tomorrow?” I quickly relaxed and regained steady footing as we retreated to make our plans for the following day.

What I immediately observed about the man with the well known laid-back image, was the noticeable urgency in his walk, as well as his spirited manner—not exactly the passive, sweater-wearing figure we’d seen portrayed in his fireside chats during the energy crisis in the late 1970s. I tried to keep up with his pace as we approached his room in the Presidential Suite, but I couldn’t help but wonder why he had been unsuccessful in conveying this contagious energy to the nation while he was in office.

Despite the criticism he has received regarding his perceived shortcomings during his one-term presidential administration, I’ve noticed that even his harshest critics are usually quick to acknowledge his charitable work at home and abroad after he left office, a concession ex-presidents rarely receive from their adversaries.

I sat across from him in the luxurious living room of the hotel suite and he asked, “So, what’s on the docket for tomorrow, and what do you need me to do?” I explained the morning format I’d planned with an informal breakfast for several local booksellers that I’d invited to the downstairs drawing room. Carter revealed his admiration for those who work in bookstores. He got quite a chuckle when I told him of author Pat Conroy’s opening line when once addressing a breakfast gathering of booksellers, “Good morning to all of you in the book business who have taken the sacred vow of poverty.”

As we convened for our breakfast meeting the following morning, he leaned toward me and asked if I had brought my camera along. He whispered, “People love to have their picture taken with the President.” By the time I returned with the camera, he had already met every bookseller in the room and was busily engaging each with stories that would likely last a lifetime for most of them. After breakfast, I took a snapshot of each bookseller—every one of them in virtually the same pose—with the President’s arm draped around their shoulder. When I took the last picture, he winked and said, “I told you so.”

Before we adjourned, the President said, “I think we need one more. I’d like one taken of me with our host.”

Not surprisingly, that particular picture still prominently resides on my bookshelf to this very day. And I can almost hear him say, “I told you so.”

 

Bob Vickrey is a writer whose columns appear in several Southwestern newspapers including the Houston Chronicle. He is a member of the Board of Contributors for the Waco Tribune-Herald and a regular contributor to the Boryana Books website. He lives in Pacific Palisades, California.

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