NEAL CONAN, host:
And if you tuned in today in hopes of hearing an interview with Alison Weir, we regret she was unable to be with us and we're going to try to reschedule the interview for another time. Last night, while awaiting the Democratic primary returns in Oregon and Kentucky, word came of the death of one of President Jimmy Carter's top political aids. Hamilton Jordan created the strategy that launched a little known Georgia peanut farmer onto the national political stage, and eventually into the Oval Office in 1976.
He served as President Carter's chief of staff and was actively involved in the Camp David peace talks and efforts to end the Iranian hostage crisis. Hamilton Jordan was diagnosed with lymphoma 22 years ago and had later bouts with melanoma and with prostate cancer, as well. He spoke about his fight with the diseases back in 2000, and about getting more funding for cancer research in general.
Mr. HAMILTON JORDAN (White House Chief of Staff, Carter Administration): One of the problems has been is that people lobby for disease specific kind of causes. And they're all well intentioned, but they've done that at the expense of trying to get the pie bigger for all of cancers. So, it's something that a lot of people are going to work on this presidential year, because we've got - we have two men, both of whom have lost siblings to cancer. Both Vice President Gore and Governor Bush lost siblings to cancer. So, I know that they're emotionally committed, we've got to get them significantly committed.
CONAN: Hamilton Jordan speaking with Charlie Rose on PBS. He died last night at this home in Atlanta. He was 63 years old. And joining us to remember the life and legacy of Hamilton Jordan are two people who worked with him in the Carter White House. Gerald Rafshoon served as the president's chief of communications, and he's been kind enough to join us here in the Knight Studio at the Newseum. Thanks very much for coming in today.
Mr. GERALD RAFSHOON (Chief of Communications, Carter Administration): Thank you.
CONAN: And with us on the phone from Richmond in Virginia, Jody Powell, who was the White House Press Secretary. And nice of you to join us, too.
Mr. JODY POWELL (White House Press Secretary, Carter Administration): Good to be with you.
CONAN: Back in the late '70s, it seemed Jimmy Carter came out of nowhere to make his run for president and there was a strategy long in place and Hamilton Jordan - talk to us, Gerald Rafshoon, what was his hand in that?
Mr. RAFSHOON: Hamilton was the architect of the campaign. In 1972, when Jody and Hamilton and Governor Carter were in Miami, to our first Democratic convention that nominated George McGovern, we looked around and saw what the political landscape was and it got in Hamilton's mind that if these guys could do it, Jimmy could do it. President - Governor Carter. And, it was in '72 that he went to the governor's mansion to talk to Governor Carter about his future.
And I remember it well. I was with him, and I remember him saying - he knew the political landscape so well, more so than anybody I've ever seen in politics and he was in his 20 at the time. And, he laid out what the political landscape was, it was after Watergate, it was during Watergate, and it was after, during the Vietnam War. And he spotted what the need was for the next campaign. And Governor Carter, who couldn't run for reelection, Hamilton suggested that he run for president. And, you know, put your money where your mouth is, or put your mouth where you is - he was challenged to show him how. And it was Hamilton that wrote an 80-page book. He wrote it in '72, outlining how the presidency could be won by a little-known governor from Georgia.
CONAN: Jody Powell, at that moment, did you think he was off his rocker?
Mr. POWELL: Well, actually, as I recall and Gerry can correct me if I remember incorrectly. I don't think I was at that first meeting in November of '72 and I always thought I was invited because they were afraid I would tell them they were all crazy, which I probably would have. But I would have been wrong again.
Mr. RAFSHOON: That's exactly what the governors told us, don't tell Jody.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. RAFSHOON: Because, no, he said, don't run around telling anybody, but don't tell Jody, because Jody has to brief the press everyday in the state capital and I don't want him to have to make up a story. Or if he told the truth, they'd think he was crazy.
Mr. POWELL: Well, that assumes that some reporter in Atlanta would have just popped up one day and would have said, hey Powell, do you think the governor might be thinking about running for president? I think that would have probably been the most unlikely question in November or December of 1972.
What it was, that memo, I went back and read some of it just in the past hours. And it is eerily prescient in terms of the judgments about where the country was and where it was likely to be at that point four years down the road, and how closely the inherent qualities of a man like Governor Jimmy Carter match with where the country was likely to be. It really is, I think, a work of political genius. There are few like it.
CONAN: Was that genius able to translate itself into the executive abilities that you need in a White House chief of staff?
Mr. POWELL: I think one of the areas that - where Hamilton has gotten much less credit than he deserves is the significant role he played in the successes that President Carter enjoyed in those four years. And I must say those successes, looking back now from the perspective of history, seem even more important than they did at the time. I mean, on energy policy, frankly if it had remained in place, instead of being substantially rolled back and eviscerated by succeeding presidents, would have left us in so much better of a position now than we're in. It makes you weep when you think of what was lost. What was done, and then what was lost.
The last real progress toward peace in the Middle East that any American administration has ever brought about, you just run down the list of those things and Hamilton, in terms of the behind the scenes, the political organizing, as well as the, just the quality of the advice that he gave the president on the whole array of subjects. He and I sometimes disagreed and when we did, we argued, we'd argue it out. I usually lost.
I mean I remember that when President Carter first raised the idea of inviting the Israelis and the Egyptians to Camp David to try to put back together the peace process and reach an agreement, I was against it. I thought it was way too great a risk, that if it failed it would likely destroy the presidency. Hamilton was for it and I think Gerry was for it, too, and fortunately President Carter agreed with them and he was right, and they were right.
CONAN: We're talking with Jody Powell and Gerald Rafshoon, former members of the Jimmy Carter administration, about the White House chief of staff in those days, Hamilton Jordan, who died last night of cancer. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And Gerry Rafshoon, tell us a bit more about Ham Jordan's role in Camp David.
Mr. RAFSHOON: Well, Hamilton had the uncanny ability, an ability that I've never seen, and I've seen a lot of people in politics and also in executive positions, to bring in a diverse bunch of people, people who are competitors or are looking to protect their turf. And his, not only his affability, but his insightfulness in understanding their problems and where they were coming from, that he could bring them together to work together on a particular issue.
And the Camp David accords was, and working on that peace treaty, was Hamilton at his best. He was, he used to joke that one of the things that the American people should be grateful for is that he has nothing to do with economic policy or foreign policy. He didn't give himself the credit, that he had enough, he had so much to do with policy and the president always knew that when he gave some advice, or when he gave an opinion it was not self serving. He was not taking - he was not trying to protect his turf. We didn't have turf fights in our White House.
He wasn't trying to protect his turf, or he wasn't looking to the future where he might be going out in Washington in business with some of the people that could profit from these things. But, what he did was, he could give honest advice and then he could take the president's wishes and interpret it to the people in the government.
CONAN: After leaving the White House, Ham Jordan ran for Senate in Georgia.
Mr. RAFSHOON: He did.
CONAN: And did not win that race. And then got involved in a lot of third party politics. He was with Ross Perot back in 1992 and that effort didn't work out as well as he'd hoped either and though he continued to try to think about third party efforts even as recently as this year. But, I wonder, Jody Powell, how much of his time and his life was tied up with his fight against cancer, in all of its ramifications, personally and well, trying to raise money for research?
Mr. POWELL: Well, Gerry can speak to this perhaps even better than I, but what in addition to his own courage and unfailing good cheer and determination through all of that - and by the way if there are people out there who haven't read his book about that "No Such Thing as a Bad Day," they ought to do it. If it doesn't mean something to them now, sooner or later I guarantee you it will.
The time that he spent working with other people and their families who were going through this, counseling them on the ins and outs of the best treatment and the emotional ups and downs, not just friends of his or friends of friends, but in many cases, total strangers that he helped talk through in conversations about this. That was totally above and beyond the call, and I know of several who say they are alive today because of the access they had to that sort of help and counseling. And I'm sure there are many more out there.
Mr. RAFSHOON: No matter what he was involved in, in his business or political life, if you told him about a person that you knew who had cancer and needed his help, that went to the front of his attention. He would put things aside, he would make trips, he would make calls, to help that person find a way to cope with cancer and in many cases, make the right decision that would save their lives.
Mr. POWELL: And I think the thing that really touched his heart was that he realized from his experience that the difficulty of sorting through these things and finding for yourself the best available treatment is daunting. And that he was fortunate enough to be able to do that, frankly most Americans aren't. And they end you with not the best that is available. And that was one of the ways that he set out to try to change that. Of course, as you said earlier in this broadcast, and as Hamilton was quoted as saying, it is a crying tragedy, the extent of which cancer has become...
CONAN: I'm afraid we're out of time. Jody Powell, thank you very much, and Gerry Rafshoon, remembering their friend and colleague Ham Jordan who died last night of cancer. I'm Neal Conan and this is NPR News.