Monday, December 22nd, 2014

Tempest over a presidential text?

Text echange between Jason Carter and Jimmy Carter
Text echange between Jason Carter and Jimmy Carter

When an 89-year-old tries texting for the first time, it’s impressive.

But when the 89-year-old is former President Jimmy Carter, it’s news. And in Georgia, it became a Democratic fund-raising tool for Carter’s grandson, state Sen. Jason Carter, who is running for governor.  

So it’s only natural that controversy would follow.

Some Republicans now contend the media and the public were duped by a too-cute-to-be-true story that Jimmy Carter had sent his inaugural text to grandson Jason in March. They say the elder Carter had actually texted months earlier.

PolitiFact Georgia decided to check it out. Because it quickly turned into a he-said-she-said, we aren’t able to put Jimmy Carter’s claim to the Truth-O-Meter. But because this could one day be a tiny footnote in some chronicle of the former president’s life and because it might provide some insight into modern campaigning, we proceed.

It began like this. President Carter appeared on political satirist Stephen Colbert’s show on March 25th to promote his latest book. Carter texted grandson Jason afterward, asking if he’d caught the interview.

"No, I missed it," Jason Carter texted back. "But we recorded it. And I can’t wait to see it."

The former president then disclosed to Jason that this was his first foray into texting.

"Cool," responded the younger Carter, who grabbed a screenshot of the text from "Pappa" and tweeted it for all -- including potential campaign contributors -- to see. It was, after all, a historic moment of sorts.

The moment went viral, and news stories, blurbs and blogs about it appeared all across the globe (producing 2 million-plus search results on Google). "Jimmy Carter’s evolution: "From ex-president to text-president," read one headline. (It likely got even more play because the elder Carter had only days earlier said he suspected the National Security Agency might be monitoring his email, so he preferred pen, paper and snail mail when writing world leaders.)

"Who says you can't teach an old president new tricks?" Jason Carter said in his tweet. The next day, he included that "first text" from his grandfather in a fundraising email.

Republicans, to say the least, were skeptical.

Jason Carter "knowingly told a falsehood to crassly raise money for his political aspirations," Jennifer Talaber, spokeswoman for the Nathan Deal re-election campaign said in an interview. "That’s a character issue."

Her proof: a screenshot of a Twitter exchange between Jason Carter and a reporter last August that is public at Carter’s Senate account. In it, Jason Carter says his grandfather isn’t on Twitter, but he does text.

Bryan Thomas, spokesman for the Jason Carter campaign, said his candidate got it wrong last August.

"In the interest of your enduring mission of ensuring a truthful debate, I can confirm for you that President Carter's first text message was to Jason in March. Jason had earlier tweeted to a reporter at the AJC that President Carter doesn't tweet, but he did text," Thomas said. "Jason was mistaken."

We decided to check in with the Carter Center, where among other things, staff documents the life of the 39th president.

Deanna Congileo, director of public information at the Carter Center and press secretary to Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, responded via email. "President Carter said in the text message itself that it was his first text message," she said.

Jimmy  Carter isn’t the first former president to tackle the new technology and attract some attention doing so. Former President Bill Clinton disclosed during a 2013 appearance on Colbert that he was hesitant to try tweeting. Colbert set him up a Twitter account, and Clinton dictated his first tweet on the spot.

We circled back to Talaber. Had the Deal camp found any evidence of past text messages sent by President Carter? No, she said.

She said she’d reached out to a Jason Carter’s staffer, asking him to set the record straight on when President Carter texted for the first time. She shared his response, which was to refer her to Wikipedia’s explanation of the French term, L'esprit de l'escalier. (It’s the "predicament of thinking of the perfect retort too late.")

"If only I knew the French phrase for ‘caught telling a whopper,’ I could look as clever and out-of-touch as the Carter campaign," Talaber told us.

.So to be clear as the mud being slung, we’ll recap. The Deal camp has questioned whether Jason Carter used a text from his grandfather, former President Jimmy Carter, to drum up support for his gubernatorial campaign. That claim is based, to date, solely on a tweet exchange last August, in which Jason Carter says his grandfather texts. Since then, Jason Carter, through a spokesman, said that he was incorrect last August and that his grandfather sent his first text in March.

It’s election season.