(Photo credit unknown. This story first appeared on cowbird.com, a storytelling site that is no longer active.)
I once helped Jimmy Carter park his car. Really. It was late 1975 and the little-known governor of Georgia was making a stop in Biddeford, a mill town in southern Maine, and a quick swing over from New Hampshire. I was a reporter at the Portland Press Herald. Al, my editor, told me not to cover him. "He's coming in to meet with the editorial board tomorrow. Besides, he doesn't stand a chance. Go to the Old Orchard Beach Select Board meeting instead."
Like so many of Al's directives, I disobeyed. I figured I'd get to the meeting late and catch up. I swung by a little social club/bar where Carter was to come to speak with some ward pols. Carter was late. About 30 minutes late. I went outside. It was chilly. A car pulled up and started to parallel park. The car was kind of big. So I directed it back, to an inch of another car, and then forward. He was in. I had no idea who was driving, until he got out. Times certainly have changed. Jimmy Carter had driven himself in a rental slightly bigger than expected. He smiled, shook my hand, thanked me. I introduced myself.
He then asked: "So what am I heading into?"
I was so struck by the question, I answered it directly: "A room that's thinned out and headed to the bar that's ticked off that you're late. And a lot of them have no intention of supporting you."
"Who should I meet first?"
"The owner, a short woman with black hair who may be behind the bar."
She wasn't. She was at the door and greeted him politely and waved him into the room to the left. It was small, half-full. There was a stirring. He stepped to the front, took off his coat, and turned to the crowd.
"My name is Jimmy Carter, and I'm running for President. ..."
His speech was crisp, quick, without unneeded phrasing or words. He made eye contact. He talked about how "we" can't get through to government. How "we" are not part of the power structure. How "we" deserved something better. He was the hope. And he said that "our" voices counted. He was done in 10 minutes, 15 at the most. Then he took questions.
By then the people in the bar had drifted over. The room was packed. They were intent. They were listening. He had, without a doubt, won them over. In just those few moments, through directness, through words that resonated, through eye contact.
I headed out into the night without saying goodbye. I had to get to a Select Board meeting.