Former President Carter with Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter last month. AP photo
CHATTANOOGA, TN (WRCB) -
With the announcement of former President Jimmy Carter’s cancer diagnosis, let’s pause to remember him in our thoughts and prayers, and to look back on a lighter moment. Here’s my recollection, with video, of the day I interrupted his Chattanooga vacation:
It was Friday, August 23, 1991. I was in the Channel 3 newsroom waiting for something to happen. Suddenly, the phone rang. Was it a heavenly voice on the other end, granting my wish for a little nugget of news? No. It was just my old radio buddy Dex.
At the time, he was managing the Gardens restaurant at the Chattanooga Choo Choo. “Dave, you’ll never guess who’s eating a cheeseburger about twenty feet away from me,” Dex said. “You’re right,” I said. “Who is it?”
“It’s President Jimmy Carter, with his wife Rosalynn, and their grandkids. They’re having lunch, and then they’re gonna get on the box cars,” Dex said. 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. As we got in the car, I told him about Dex’s confidential tip. “Does President Carter know we’re coming?” he asked. “I don’t think so,” I said. “I guess we’ll surprise him.”
When we got to the Choo Choo, there was nothing out of the ordinary. “Gee, I hope we didn’t miss him,” Glen said. There was no limo, no beefy Secret Service agents staring us down. A few scattered tourists were roaming the grounds. 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, ten 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. I’m not a lip-reader, but she said something to her husband, like, “How nice! A couple of delightful local news people found out we’re here on vacation! What a pleasant surprise!” Or maybe that’s not exactly what she said. Anyway, Mr. Carter 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.” It turns out there were a couple of Secret Service guys who politely requested we give the President “a little space.” Fearing a headline of “Alleged news guy ruins Presidential vacation,” I gladly consented.
Glen and I waited, and our persistence was rewarded. About a half-hour after finishing their meal, the Carter family had apparently wrapped up their tour of the complex. The cute 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 worked 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?)
As you’ll see in the video, 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 6:00 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 Dex. “I just wanted to thank you again for tipping me off when Jimmy Carter came to the Choo Choo,” I said. “Yeah, I’ll never forget that day,” Dex said. “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.”