A couple of well-known senior citizens have been in the news a lot lately. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been battling cancer in addition to other ailments, when she isn’t lifting weights at the age of 86.
Former President Jimmy Carter, when he isn’t building houses, has dealt with his own cancer issues, in addition to some recent falls, one of which resulted in a black eye. The next day, he was at a Habitat for Humanity event. The emcee surveyed Carter’s shiner, and said, “He just came here from a bar fight — and you should see the other guy.”
Energetic golden-agers like Ginsburg and Carter inspire me, as I type this from the comfort of my recliner. Allow me to share my favorite personal Jimmy Carter story.
It was Friday, Aug. 23, 1991. I was in the newsroom waiting for something to happen. Suddenly, the phone rang. It was just my old radio buddy Bill “Dex” Poindexter, who was managing the Gardens restaurant at the Chattanooga Choo Choo. “Dave, you’ll never guess who’s having lunch here. It’s President Jimmy Carter, with his wife Rosalynn and their grandkids.”
He capped it off with, “And you’re the only person I’m telling.” I yelled to my photographer Glen Wagner, “Let’s go, we’ve got a president at the Choo Choo!” Glen grabbed the camera, and we took off.
When we got to the Choo Choo, there was nothing out of the ordinary. There was no limo, and no beefy Secret Service agents staring us down. We headed to the restaurant area. We didn’t want to barge in, so we took a quick look through the window. There they were. The First Family, 10 years removed from the White House, enjoying a quiet lunch with the grandkids. “Glen!” I said. “Go ahead and set up your camera, this may be all we get.” He dutifully aimed through the glass, and Mrs. Carter spotted us. Mr. Carter then turned around, looked through the window, and looked me right in the eye.
He quickly turned back to his wife with that “busted” look on his face. Sensing his disappointment, I said, “I’ll tell you what, Glen. Let’s give ’em time to eat, and do their sightseeing, and then I’ll ask him to do an interview.” A couple of Secret Service guys then politely requested we give the president “a little space.” Fearing a headline of “Alleged news guy ruins presidential vacation,” I gladly consented.
About a half-hour after finishing their meal, the Carter family had apparently wrapped up their tour of the complex. The grandchildren had hopped on and off every box car in sight, so I said to Glen, “Here’s our chance.” I walked up to Mr. Carter, shook his hand, and introduced myself. “Mr. President,” I said, “I really hate to bother folks when they’re on vacation … ” He stopped me in mid-sentence, flashed that famous grin, and said, “It must not bother you too much.” I laughed awkwardly. (Was he kidding? Or did I just play Fail to the Chief?), I plodded on. “If you can spare a minute for a quick interview … ” He stopped me again. “As long as it’s quick, we’re ready to go.” I can take a subtle hint. Fortunately, Glen works fast, and we were ready to roll.
After that rough start, he couldn’t have been any nicer. I had my questions ready. Could there be a female presidential candidate in 1992? Absolutely, he said. There were several qualified women. Did he expect a big-name politician to win the ’92 Democratic nomination (Al Gore, Jerry Brown and Mario Cuomo were front-runners), or would it be a relative unknown, as he had been in 1976? He said the election was still 15 months away, and there was plenty of time for a lesser-known candidate to emerge. (It turned out to be an obscure Southern governor named Bill Clinton. Whatever happened to him?)
He also commented on his knowledge of downtown Chattanooga, the railroads and even the quality of his lunch. He didn’t seem too annoyed as we parted company, and I had my exclusive interview for the 6 o’clock news.
Mr. Carter returned to the area in 2014, to campaign for his grandson, Jason, who was running for governor of Georgia. When I heard he was coming, I called my friend Dex. “I just wanted to thank you again for tipping me off when Jimmy Carter came to the Choo Choo,” I said. He replied, “Yeah, I’ll never forget that day. I told the staff to take good care of him and his family, and after a while, I went to the bathroom. There was somebody in the next stall, and I later realized it was him. That was the first time I met a sitting president.”