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INSIGHTS | Hickenlooper fits the mold of Jimmy Carter

Author: Joey Bunch - July 3, 2018 - Updated: July 7, 2018

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Jimmy CarterPresident Jimmy Carter announces new sanctions against Iran in retaliation for taking U.S. hostages on April 7, 1980. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

John Hickenlooper says he hasn’t made up his mind about what he’s going to do next with his life, when he’s no longer Colorado’s governor next January.

I believe him. I’ve been covering Hickenlooper since he was a candidate for mayor 15 years ago. I read him like a novel. He’s not a liar, and I doubt he would be a good poker player. Most recently he said in Aspen he’ll think it over this summer.

But, man oh man, does he act like a candidate. He was spotted on a plane back from D.C. recently. I pressed the journalism pedal to the metal and queued up an email to his people with a joke about measuring the White House for drapes. My wiser, less excitable colleague Ernest Luning checked Hickenlooper’s official schedule; he went to the SelectUSA Investment Summit in National Harbor, Maryland.

> RELATED: Hickenlooper plans to ‘sort through’ presidential decision this summer

According to the governor’s itinerary, “This event is dedicated to promoting foreign direct investment (FDI) in the United States. This signature event provides an unparalleled opportunity to bring together companies from all over the world, economic development organizations from every corner of the nation, and other parties working to facilitate business investment in the United States. Featuring senior government officials, C-Suite business executives, and other thought leaders, each summit focuses on a timely theme related to the U.S. investment environment, industry trends and new opportunities.”

Earlier in June, Hickenlooper went international at the Bilderberg Group conference in Italy, on his own dime, as well. He might not be a presidential candidate, but every time he rubs elbows with kingmakers, he looks more like a king.

I’ve known this kind of presidential candidate in my lifetime: A peanut farmer from Georgia named Jimmy Carter.

Some differences are obvious, even though Colorado was largely founded by gold miners from Georgia. Carter was 52 years old when he became president. Hickenlooper would be a couple of weeks shy of his 69th birthday on inauguration day 2021. That puts him closer to Ronald Reagan in age. Reagan took office a few days before he turned 70. That made him the oldest serving president, until Donald Trump, who was 236 days older when he took office.

In 1976, the summer I turned 13, found my first girlfriend and worked at a ring-toss game at a local carnival, the country was looking for something new after the tainted Nixon years. Carter was the right the guy at the right time. Hickenlooper could hope to be the same.

Here’s how Carter got to the White House (a template for Hickenlooper): Carter saw his party move to the left after the 1960s. In 1972, liberal George McGovern was crushed by Richard Nixon, the last Republican to win Pueblo County before Trump did it two years ago. In primary voting, McGovern had beaten Alabama’s George Wallace by less than 2 percent, but clinched the nomination easily at the convention thanks to the party establishment.

If the Democrats surge farther into the liberal abyss of Bernie Sanders, Hickenlooper might be the choice of cooler-minded party leaders at the convention.

Carter was one of 10 Democrats hankering to take on Gerald Ford, the vice president who succeeded the tainted Nixon. This was a time when the lines of politics and celebrity first crossed, it was the years after Nixon said “sock it to me” on “Laugh-In” in 1968. A reality TV star, Trump today is the celebrity-in-chief.

Middle Americans who didn’t burn their bras or had gotten over wearing flowers in the hair were drawn to Carter. “I’ll never tell a lie,” Jimmy promised. “I’ll never avoid a controversial issue.”

Carter had been a fiscally moderate governor, after other Southern Democrats courted Americans’ worst instincts and married infamy.

He and Hickenlooper studied engineering in college — Hickenlooper geology, Carter electronics — and engineers have an innate way of seeing how pieces fight together. As governors,  both men focused on cutting bureaucracy. Carter consolidated 200 state agencies into 20 and instituted tougher budgeting standards to reduce the size and cost of state government. Hickenlooper has championed similar initiatives.

Carter was a centrist on high-profile issues, just as Hickenlooper is in on oil and gas, the death penalty and marijuana.

In a new book, “First in Line: Presidents, Vice Presidents, and the Pursuit of Power,” author Kate Andersen Brower  spoke to Walter Mondale, who said how Carter assigned real responsibility to his second-in-command more than any president before him. Hickenlooper made his first lieutenant governor, Joe Garcia, head of higher education. His second, Donna Lynne, is the state’s first chief operating officer.

Carter humanized himself by saying in a Playboy interview he had committed adultery (in his heart “many, many times”). Hickenlooper admitted taking his mom to porno movie in his book.

“Our commitment to human rights must be absolute,” Carter said in his inaugural address, words that resonate now against footage of small children being taken from their parents at the border and housed in human kennels.

Carter’s one term crumbled under an energy crisis, an Islamic revolution and a stagnant economy. His diplomatic victories — the Camp David Accords, a strategic arms deal with the Soviets, the Panama Canal Treaty — were eclipsed by the times and a media that labeled him a rube and a weakling as 53 Americans were held hostage in Iran.

His tenacity for what he thought to be right was mistaken for political stubbornness, a trait Hickenlooper shares.

Carter’s undoing was that he did not make decisions that would help him politically as president. He was insistent his staff didn’t do that, either. When our governor is pressed about whether he’s running for president, whether his actions speak louder than his words, Hickenlooper says he nor his staff are thinking politically, either.

Carter ultimately was hit by a freight train full of political strategy in Washington, a risk Hick takes, as well.

But if there’s a template for Hickenlooper to follow as a politician and a man,  Carter’s wide-eyed decency is as good a one as our governor will find.

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.