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THE BILLY CARTER
by Micheal J. Brooks
Billy Carter is perhaps best known for a statement he made prior to the 1976 election. "I got a mother who went into the Peace Corps at the age of 68," he said. "I got a sister who's a holy roller preacher. I got another sister who rides motorcycles and wears helmets. I got a brother who thinks he's going to be president of the United States. I'm the only sane one in the family!"
Billy was the youngest sibling in the Carter household. His father Earl died when Billy was 14, and his brother Jimmy, 13 years older, was away in the U.S. Navy during Billy's formative years. Carter wrote in his memoir, "Keeping Faith," that Billy was five when the future president joined the Navy, and that when he returned to Plains after the death of his father, he "hardly knew" his younger brother.
After Billy's tour in the U.S. Marines, Jimmy asked him to join with him and his mother as a minority partner in the Carter Warehouse.
However, most Americans knew Billy as the owner of Billy Carter's Service Station in downtown Plains. Plains had 12 tour services at one time and the Carter Service Station was a popular stop. Carter was approachable and congenial.
I have some old Super 8 movie film we took during a stop at Carter's service station in Plains while on vacation in 1977. "Mr. Carter," I said, "can I take your picture with my wife?" Carter motioned for Donna to come closer. "Come here, darlin," he said as he put his arm around her and smiled for the camera. A year after his brother Jimmy's famous interview with Playboy Magazine - an interview which almost sank the Carter campaign - brother Billy gave Roy Blount, Jr. Access and blessings to write a major story for the November 1977 edition. This article revealed a lot about the Billy Carter mystique. Carter provided comic relief with his antics during his brother's presidency. At the height of his public career he was reportedly making $500,000 a year through appearances at events like the "Golden Ratchet Award" (presented to the finest team of auto racing mechanics), the "World Championship Belly Flop and Cannonball Contest" and the annual "Swamp Buggy Races" in Naples, Florida. Agent Tandy Rice exacted a $5,000 appearance fee for these and other events, but turned down a guest shot on "Saturday Night Live." Rice wanted Carter to go to events where he could "be natural" rather than scripted. Blount wrote that he didn't know how much of Carter's antics were calculated. Did he really intend to insult people or was it part of an act? For example, Blount wrote that on Carter's appearance on the "Mike Douglas Show," he claimed that women could do a lot of things, but writing books wasn't one of them. He received a lot of books in the mail following the program with irate notes from the female authors! To another female reporter he said, "You'd make a fine cook, ma'am, but I don't know about a reporter." Rice introduced a lawyer friend to Carter during a Nashville appearance. Carter promptly said, "Oh, I don't like women lawyers. Tandy done introduced me to thirty lawyers. Anybody knows that many lawyers can't be honest." Carter didn't back down from any question hurled his way. When asked about Coors beer, he said, "Coors is about like marijuana. If you could buy it in Georgia, you wouldn't want it." A lady asked which side he'd have fought on in the Civil War. "Tell her I'd probably hid out in the swamp," he replied. Blount noted that thought Carter had an acerbic tongue, he spoke kind words about Roy Acuff, Mel Tillis, Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer and the Israeli army.
Someone asked Carter about Idi Amin who at the time was the ruthless dictator of Uganda. "I'd send one company of the Israeli army over there and clean up the whole mess," he replied. The media seemed to enjoy prodding Carter about his brother the president. At a Texas car dealership appearance he said, "I would give him good grades, since he's my brother. If he was not my brother, I would say he has performed average. I don't know anything about national politics, but I know a lot about agriculture and they're screwing up agriculture worse than it's ever been." When asked about his brother's energy policy he noted, "I'm kind of against it. I've got seven cars!" At another appearance he said, "We get along fine as hell as long as he's in Washington and I'm in Plains."
A questioner asked if Billy intended to spend a night in the Lincoln bedroom. "Not in Lincoln's bedroom," he said. "If there was a George Wallace bedroom..."
Blount wrote, however, that Billy had a serious side. He publicly ridiculed women, but married his only childhood sweetheart and gave her veto power over any appearance request that came in.
He was also a rapid and voracious reader. Blount quoted an Atlanta newsman who said of Billy, "He was not perceived as a wit or a talent. He was no dunce, and beneath the surface he was sensitive."
And though a product of the Deep South, Carter worked in his own unique way for racial justice. He sued members of the local school board in an effort to require them to send their children to the public schools rather than the private academies. And Carter told Blount about his experience on the Plains City Council. He ran for council the first time, he said, to insure he'd get a beer license for the service station. Then he qualified for a second term, but dropped out at the last minute so no one else could qualify. Thus his African American opponent won the seat. "It was a flimflam deal," he told Blount. "I figured it was time the blacks got some representation."
Carter's fall from grace began before his brother's term was finished and after the Playboy article was published. He visited Libya in 1978 along with other Georgia businessmen and legislators, and hosted a reception in Atlanta when Libyan visitors came to America. It was at this reception that one of his remarks received wide publicity. When asked why he was associating with Libya he said, "There are a lot more Arabs than there are Jews."
President Carter wrote in his memoirs that this remark was widely interpreted as anti- Semitic, but that his characterization of Billy was terribly wrong. But the damage was done. Billy's appearances nose-dived and he was soon in financial straits.
Libyan businessmen offered to make him a partner in selling oil to America (our country was purchasing 10% of its oil from Libya at the time), and further offered to loan him money in advance of commissions he would later earn. Soon agencies of the federal government accosted Carter with all kinds of charges. The only charge that stuck was Billy's failure to register as an agent of a foreign government, but he spent a lot of time, money and effort defending himself. President Carter also had to defend himself against charges that he'd provided secret information to his brother and that he was an unnamed partner in a plot to profit from tainted oil dealings.
In the midst of these problems, Billy Carter announced he was an alcoholic. He entered a treatment center in California and gave up drinking completely.
Afterwards his brief film career produced "Flatbed Annie and Sweetpie- -Lady Truckers," starring Annie Potts and Kim Darby, which was panned by audiences across the nation.
Carter developed pancreatic cancer and died on September 25, 1988 at age 51.
Many of the political buttons from this era are pointedly anti-Carter, portraying both brothers as "rubes" from the backwoods. At least one button called Billy "the tool of Arab oil," and used the term "Billygate" to describe the Libyan episode.
Current visitors to Plains often have the opportunity to meet Carter's wife, Sybil, who remains a gracious and approachable "goodwill ambassador" for the city and an active member of the Maranatha Baptist Church where her brother-in-law teaches the adult Bible class.
1. Jimmy Carter, "Keeping Faith" (New York:
Bantam Books, 1982), 544.
2. "Keeping Faith," pp. 546-547
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