“Hell Yes, I’ll Vote for Him”: Jimmy Carter’s First Voter

Today’s post is written by Daria Labinsky, an archivist at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library 

In this coronavirus-affected election year, let’s look back at a time when presidential candidates made the rounds in person, shook everyone’s hands, gave stump speeches, and kissed babies. 

Jimmy Carter with a young fan on the campaign trail, Carter Family Photos.

On December 12, 1974, Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter announced his candidacy for the 1976 presidential election at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Just hours before, he had won over his first presidential campaign voter—at D.C.’s Sheraton-Carlton Hotel (now the St. Regis). His name was John Shanklin, and he was the hotel’s building engineer. 

According to an account in the Atlanta Journal (now Journal-Constitution) Carter had attended a meeting with “Washington newsmen” at the hotel, and upon leaving it, “approached the first man he spotted. Smiling, he thrust out his hand and declared, ‘Hello, I’m Jimmy Carter of Georgia. I’m running for president, and I would appreciate your vote.’ ”  

Shanklin, 68, “said snappily, ‘Mr. Carter, you can count on me.’” 

Asked about it later, Shanklin said, “Hell yes, if a man running for president bothers to come over and shake my hand, hell yes, I’ll vote for him.” He went on to praise Carter’s “know-how” and personality.

The article also noted that after meeting Shanklin, Carter reached into his pocket, pulled out a little black book, and entered Shanklin’s name, saying, “Well, here’s number one.”(1)

Shanklin’s “faith in Carter remained undaunted” a year and a half later, according to an article dated July 29, 1976, from Shanklin’s hometown paper, the Anderson (S.C.) Independent (now Independent-Mail). The newspaper said Shanklin had met Carter several times since that first encounter. “I’m going to eat breakfast with him in the White House,” he stated, adding that Carter had invited him, and he wasn’t going to let him forget it. (2) 

A few months later, Margaret “Midge” Costanza, Carter’s assistant to the president for public liaison, decided it might be time for the president to make good on his offer. “Coffee and danish in the Oval Office would be a splendid ‘people’ thing to do,” she wrote.

Tim Kraft, Carter’s special assistant for appointments, agreed. In his memo, transmitted to Carter via Staff Secretary Rick Hutcherson, he wrote, “I think we really could hold this to 5 minutes: seat Shanklin, serve coffee and 2 rolls, bring in the President for a cup of coffee (and 2 minute media drill), get White House pictures, and President leaves—let’s do it.” To which Carter responded, “ok.” 

Records of the Office of the Staff Secretary, 1977-1981, Presidential Files, Container 009, Folder 7, p. 101.

So, on Friday, March 11, 1977, John Shanklin and his daughter, Nancy Stroud Shanklin, were President Carter’s guests, with Costanza sitting in. Nancy Shanklin was not seated for the breakfast—in the spirit of the “photo op,” only the “first voter” was included. Coffee and danish were on the menu, which might have disappointed Shanklin, since he told the Independent he was expecting, “hominy grits and sausage.” (3)

Nancy Stroud Shanklin, John Shanklin, and President Carter in the Oval Office, from NAID 174019.

Members of the press showed up, just as Kraft and Costanza had hoped. The New York Times ran a photo the next day titled, “A Promise Kept.” Other newspapers, including ones in Bemidji, Minnesota, and Scottsdale, Arizona, featured articles about the breakfast. The CBS Evening News had a 30-second clip on the meeting, narrated by Walter Cronkite. (4)

Photographers and reporters at President Carter’s meeting with John Shanklin, 3/11/77, from NAID 174018.

Showing up a few minutes later was Carter’s grandson, Jason Carter. According to the President’s Daily Diary for that day, parents Jack and Judy Carter were there, too, but they aren’t in the photos. 

John Shanklin meets Jason Carter, from NAID 174019.

The whole event took about 10 minutes. Unfortunately, the documents detailing it don’t answer a burning question: “What is that book that Carter and Shanklin are discussing in the photos?”   


Notes:

1: Journal Washington Bureau, “Carter’s First Try for Vote Winner,” Atlanta Journal, December 13, 1974 

2 & 3: Jerry Alexander, “Seneca Man First to Get Jimmy Carter Pitch,” Anderson Independent, July 29, 1976. The Sheraton Corporation’s in-house newsletter, at Records of the Office of the Staff Secretary, 1977-1981, Presidential Files, Container 009, Folder 7, p. 106, featured a different version of what Carter said to Shanklin: “Hi, I’m Jimmy Carter—and you’re the first to know I’m running for President.”

4: [Caption] The New York Times, https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1977/03/12/issue.html. The other articles about the event appear in an internet search but are behind paywalls. The broadcast is in the Vanderbilt University News Archives: https://tvnews.vanderbilt.edu/broadcasts/250834

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