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1976 Ford vs. Carter

The 1976 Presidential election was very interesting for a multitude of reasons. For one, the two candidates were unlike any other in the history of the country. The incumbent, Gerald Ford, was often dubbed as the “Accidental President” because of how he actually attained the office. Not being elected by the people to serve as Vice-President, or President, Ford ascended to the presidency as a result of the illegal practices employed by his predecessors, Spiro Agnew, and Richard Nixon. On the other side of the ticket, was Jimmy Carter. Carter, a slow talking southerner from Georgia, was little known outside of Georgia where he was Governor, but the peanut farmer had a charm about him that won over the voters, who propelled him to a victory on election day in 1976. The 1976 election season, is also considered by some to be the first pop-culture election. With shows like Saturday Night Live (SNL) making their debut around this time, the landscape of the interaction between campaigns and popular culture would be forever changed. 

When it comes to where the campaign of Jimmy Carter in 1976 made its impact on popular culture, much of it had to do with the image Carter that put forward. Having been a peanut farmer for much of his life prior to entering the arena of politics, Carter already embodied much of the image of the simple man that he was trying to project in his campaign. Ditching the traditional red, white, and blue colors that accompany most campaigns, Carter decided to go with green as his color of choice which played even more to the idea of the simple, hardworking, farmer that Carter was attempting to portray. One very popular person that was a part of the Carter campaign, was his own mother. Mrs. Carter, who would come to be known as “Miss Lillian” by the country, was part of a group called the “Peanut Brigade” who went out across the country spreading the word about Jimmy Carter, while receiving a lot of media attention. Carter would also receive assistance from the Allman Brothers, and the Marshall Tucker Band who both held concerts for Carter. With southern rock being close to the height of its popularity at the time, the Allman Brothers and the Marshall Tucker Band would help propel the Carter campaign.

The biggest and most memorable pop culture moment from the 1976 campaign of Jimmy Carter came from an interview that he did with the popular Playboy magazine. Throughout his campaign, Carter often mentioned his religious faith, and he was considered an evangelical. With this being his stance on religion, it was odd to some that Carter would do an interview with the provocative Playboy magazine. In the interview, carter was explaining his religious view and specifically, how he viewed sin. Carter did not believe that any sin was worse than another, and that any married man who has wanted a woman other than his wife has committed essentially the same sin as adultery. Carter went on to admit that he had “looked on a lot of women with lust” so he felt as though he was guilty of adultery. This story would dominate the headline, leading some to believe that it would be the downfall of the campaign. 

While the 1976 election was prior to the era of cable television, and certainly internet, there were nonetheless events from the election that would grab enough headlines to make their way into popular culture. The most obvious example of this came in the form of the very popular show Saturday Night Live. Today, we are well aware of the role that SNL plays in the political discourse of our country. However, the 1976 election was the first election to be covered and satirized by the popular variety show. President Ford would take the brunt of this satirical coverage, as a young Chevy Chase would insistently mock the President. The main focus of jokes, surrounded the perceived clumsiness of President Ford. Although Ford played football at the University of Michigan, he was prone to have moments where his athleticism failed him. The moment that the public was aware of and most likely a major inspiration to the character that Chase would play, came in 1975 when on a trip to Austria, President Ford would slip and fall on a ramp while exiting a plane.

While the SNL jokes made about President Ford were the pop-culture highlights of his 1976 campaign, there were other notable events that would becoming major talking points throughout the country. Once such event was a part of what the was known as the “Rose Garden” strategy, which was meant to show that Ford was a tested leader. In October of 1976, President Ford invited Queen Elizabeth to come and celebrate America’s bicentennial with him at the White House. This visit received a large amount of media coverage, and was a popular topic of discussion. President Ford would also tap into the sports area of popular culture, by taking part in a series of television interviews with former baseball player Joe Garagiola, that would be dubbed by some the “Joe and Jerry Show”. In attempt to connect with the audience of perhaps the most popular television show at the time, Happy Days, the Ford campaign team would create a poster titled “Fordzie: Happy Days are Here Again” in which President Ford wore a leather jacket and held out Fonzie’s signature thumbs up. 

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