Middle East Queries for Jody Powell Are Few

Gazette Senior Writer

Joseph (Jody) Powell Jr., who served as press secretary to President Jimmy Carter, can understand that some restrictions on gun ownership are reasonable.

And Mr. Powell can see why some Americans, especially Americans of African descent, would not necessarily be fond of the Confederate flag.

But Mr. Powell also has watched the Republican party in recent years use guns and Confederate flags as potent symbols to effectively dismember the Democratic party's longtime bulwark of strength in the southern United States.

The implications, Mr. Powell said Wednesday evening in a talk at the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center in Vineyard Haven, stretch far beyond one political party's failing fortunes in one region of the nation.

The conversion of Congressional seats, governorships and state legislatures in the South from Democratic to Republican control not only has solidified the nation's trend away from liberalism to conservatism, Mr. Powell said. The diminution of the Southern Democrats also has helped deprive the nation of a moderating voice in a national political climate that has become increasingly polarized, hard-edged and bitter.

"There's not been an information explosion, there's been an opinion explosion," he said. "And not a well-informed explosion, either."


These days, Mr. Powell, 63, is little known or remarked on outside of Washington, D.C., where he is chairman and chief executive officer of a public relations firm, Powell Tate. You may have heard his voice reading the letters of Confederate soldiers in The Civil War documentary by Ken Burns, or speaking the words of Ty Cobb in Mr. Burns's Baseball documentary.

But in the late 1970s, Mr. Powell was one of the best known aides in the Carter administration, part of the so-called Georgia Mafia that the president brought with him to staff his administration. President Carter has said that with the exception of his wife, no one has known him better.

Mr. Powell spoke about 30 minutes and answered audience questions for another half hour in an easy-going, thoughtful and sometimes self-deprecating style. The talk, sponsored by the center's Summer Institute, drew more than 200 people.

Surprisingly little attention was paid by either Mr. Powell or his questioners to the Middle East, the region where President Carter engineered a lasting peace between Israel and Egypt, and which has flared up again into open war between Israel and Muslim forces. Though when a questioner wondered what effect the increased conflict in the Middle East would have on U.S. elections, Mr. Powell did take the opportunity to address the implications of that warfare.

"Morally and legally, Israel has the right to do what it's done in responding to the attacks," he said. "The consequences of that, I don't know, and I think they don't either."

But Mr. Powell then placed the current fighting in the context of a peace process that he said has been going downhill since the departure of the Carter administration in 1981. He said the Israelis, the Palestinians, the Arab states and the United States all share in the blame.

"I remember when things looked better," he said.

As for the United States, Mr. Powell said that making the peace process work requires a commitment all the way to the presidency - and even then the process is long and arduous.

The United States, he said, also has been hampered by the political gutting of its foreign service, whose professional members ably served administrations whether they were Democratic or Republican. That change, he said, began with the advent of the Reagan administration in 1981, and is another example of the ideological battles that have gripped the nation.

Asked in an interview after his talk how President Carter would have handled the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he surmised that Mr. Carter would have had a very firm response.

"I think there would have been a war in Afghanistan, but not in Iraq," he said.

The war in Iraq also drew little attention from Mr. Powell or his questioners Wednesday night. At one point, he drew laughter when he described the war in passing as "carefully planned, flawlessly executed and quickly concluded."

Guns, flags and the fate of the Southern Democrats, however, were especially on his mind .

The irony of the guns and flags, Mr. Powell said, is that well-meaning Democrats essentially handed these symbols to the Republicans to be used against them.

Take the Georgia state flag, which was designed based on the Confederate battle flag, the well-known emblem with white stars on a blue St. Andrew's cross on a red background. A group of black legislators in Georgia, most of whom were Mr. Powell's friends, decided that the flag was inappropriate for the state, given that the Confederacy seceded from the Union to defend slavery. They moved to change what they saw as a racist flag.

But in doing so, they pushed the wrong button for white Georgians, many of whose ancestors fought and died for the Confederacy in the Civil War. Mr. Powell himself counts a dozen ancestors in his immediate family who fought for the South, half of whom were killed or wounded in that war.

Mr. Powell remembers returning to Georgia after the controversy over the state flag had broken out. He had never seen so many Confederate battle flags in so many places where he hadn't seen them before.

A compromise of sorts eventually was reached, with the state adopting a flag akin to another Confederate flag, the Stars and Bars. But the initiative effectively backfired on the African-American legislators, costing them political power at the ballot box, and limiting their ability to influence issues that matter in the lives of their black constituents.

To complete the irony, Mr. Powell said, polls showed that the appearance of the state flag was far down the list of issues that black Georgians cared about.

Mr. Powell himself is of mixed mind on the Confederate flag - understanding why some Americans find it objectionable, yet seeing the emblem as a connection to the lives of his ancestors, some of whom lived in the house where he grew up.

Or take guns. Mr. Powell owns guns and hunts with them.

One of his dreams is to cobble together a group of hunters and political allies who support some restrictions on gun ownership while defending the general right of private individuals to own guns. But when he and a number of fellow hunters bought a table at a gun control event to support partial restrictions, they were received only politely - and hardly with open arms. Not much time passes in the company of gun-control advocates, Mr. Powell said, before an individual realizes that the main agenda is not so much to control guns as to outlaw them.

Gun control, it turns out, is another wrong button to push in the South, where hunting is a popular form of recreation.

Mr. Powell said the Republicans have skillfully used the issue to oust moderate backers of gun control such as Max Cleland, a Democratic U.S. senator and a decorated veteran who lost both legs and an arm in the Vietnam War. He said polarization of the issue also has allowed them to take an incident where Vice President Richard Cheney shot another hunter in the face and steer it to their political advantage.

Mr. Powell said he can understand how city dwellers concerned over urban violence would support gun control. But he said the laws such as those in place in Washington, D.C., place ridiculous restrictions on legitimate gun owners while being totally ineffectual on controlling illegal weapons.

"Their streets are awash in guns, while they harass the law-abiding," he said.

So what is the nation to do about gun ownership, Confederate flags, the breakdown in civilized political discourse?

Mr. Powell, a Southern Baptist, said political leaders who believe that God dictates their position papers will not see much merit in compromise. Nor will leaders who pretend that they believe that God dictates their position papers, but whose constituents really believe it and who won't let those leaders compromise.

A starting point, Mr. Powell said, would be a general return to humility, "that when we are most absolutely dead sure that we are right, we might be wrong."