Georgia Today: Remembering Rosalynn Carter; Last of jail escapees arrested; Warren Commission film
LISTEN: On the Monday, Nov. 20 edition of Georgia Today: We remember the life and legacy of former first lady Rosalynn Carter; authorities capture the last of the four men who escaped from Macon-Bibb county jail last month; and a new film looks at the Warren Commission's investigation into the Kennedy assassination.
Peter Biello: Welcome to the Georgia Today podcast from GPB News. Today is Monday, Nov. 20. I'm Peter Biello. On today's episode, we remember the life and legacy of former first lady Rosalynn Carter. Authorities captured the last of the four men who escaped from the Macon Bibb County Jail last month. And a new film looks at the Warren Commission's investigation into the Kennedy assassination. These stories and more are coming up. On this edition of Georgia Today.
Peter Biello: Tributes continue to pour in for former first lady Rosalynn Carter, who died yesterday at the age of 96. The Plains, Ga., native was married to former President Jimmy Carter for 77 years. Gov. Brian Kemp said she was a proud native Georgian who, quote, "had an indelible impact on our state and nation." President Joe Biden said countless people's lives are, quote, "better, fuller and brighter because of Rosalynn Carter." In Plains, Lisa Cobb of West Central Georgia's Taylor County was busy helping to clean the former Plains High School, now the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site, in advance of memorials planned for next week. Cobb says she hopes her work reflects qualities she saw in Carter:
Lisa Cobb: Decency and respect. And you should respect 'em. Respect her because she put up with a lot being the president's wife. Going to different places and raising the family. It's a lot.
Peter Biello: Rosalynn Carter was known for her advocacy for women's issues and for mental health care around the world. In Plains, her hometown, Winston Churchill is a parishioner at the Carter's church, Maranatha Baptist. He says she was no less impressive when she was at home in southwest Georgia.
Winston Churchill: Every third Saturday of the month, we give away a distribution of food to the poor. And that's when I met her. Know, I shook her hands right here. To me, she was humble. Just not political, you know? She was always one person to another.
Peter Biello: The Carter Center has announced plans for three days of tributes, including her funeral on Wednesday of next week. Public events are scheduled in Plains and Atlanta. Let's turn now to GPB's Stephen Fowler, who has this remembrance of Rosalynn Carter.
Stephen Fowler: The former first lady of Georgia, and the country, will be remembered through several events next week from Plains to Atlanta. Monday, the public is invited to pay respects along a motorcade route in Americus and at the Carter Center in Atlanta, where she will lie in repose. A tribute service at Glenn Memorial Church at Emory University will be held on Tuesday before Rosalynn Carter returns home to Plains with a funeral service Wednesday for invited family and friends at Maranatha Baptist Church with a private interment at the family home. For GPB News, I'm Stephen Fowler.
Peter Biello: We'll have more on Rosalynn Carter's life and legacy later in the podcast, when I speak to a Carter biographer.
Peter Biello: Authorities this weekend captured the last of four men who escaped from the Macon Bibb County Jail last month. The county sheriff says 53-year-old Joey Fournier was arrested on Saturday in Stockbridge, south of Atlanta. He and three others broke out of the jail through a damaged window and a cut fence on Oct. 16. Fournier was in jail on a murder charge. The three others were captured over a period of weeks. Authorities also arrested several people accused of helping the men escape or hide.
Peter Biello: 261 churches are being allowed to leave the United Methodist Church's North Georgia Conference. The conference on Saturday ratified disaffiliation requests from the churches amid a schism over LGBTQ issues. The denomination forbids the marriage or ordination of, quote, "self-avowed practicing homosexuals." Many conservatives have chosen to leave amid a growing defiance of those bans in many U.S. churches and conferences.
Peter Biello: This week marks the 60th anniversary of the assassination of President John F Kennedy. For most of that time, the circumstances surrounding his killing have been the subject of multiple conspiracy theories. Some of those theories may have their origin in the way the government's official investigation into the assassination played out. With me now is Atlanta-based filmmaker Bill VanDerKloot, whose documentary Inside the Warren Commission premieres tonight on GPB. Bill, thank you very much for speaking with me.
Bill VanDerKloot: Great to be here.
Peter Biello: So when Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, the Warren Commission was set up to examine the FBI's initial report into what happened. But there was more to it than that. Can you tell us a little bit about the Warren Commission's purpose?
Bill VanDerKloot: Yes. Well, it was really a political purpose. [Lyndon] Johnson knew he was going to run for president in '64, and the FBI had done an extensive investigation of the assassination. But he needed a commission, because there were conspiracy theories that started literally immediately after the assassination and he wanted to quell that. And also, he wanted to make sure that he was carrying the torch for President Kennedy, because, remember, he was thrust into the Oval Office. He wasn't elected and he wanted to be elected on his own. And so that — the commission, the Warren Commission, really solved his political problem. If he could give it an official stamp, a bipartisan official stamp, that this is what happened and let's move on.
Peter Biello: And it was called the Warren Commission because it was chaired by Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren. He wanted to just approve the FBI's report with minimal effort. But other commissioners felt it needed more investigation, correct?
Bill VanDerKloot: Correct. Immediately. In fact, you can see in the extemporaneous notes that Sen. Russell made during that the first commission meeting — which was on Dec. 5, just a little over a week after the assassination — he says something strange is happening. It looks like Oswald is the only one being considered. And he said, "This is no good. We need to bring on a chief counsel and do our own investigation."
Peter Biello: You're referring to Georgia Democratic Sen. Richard Russell. President Lyndon Johnson appointed him to the Warren Commission. And he actually announced that he'd put Russell on the committee before he told Russell. He did this through a press release. The two had a phone call about that which you put in your film.
Lyndon Johnson: That has already been announced, and you can serve it anybody for the good of America. And you're my man on that commission and you're going to do it. And don't tell me what you can do and what you can't because — I can't arrest you and I'm not going to put the FBI on you. But you're g**damn sure going to serve. I'll tell you that.
Richard Russell: I can't do it. I haven't got the time.
Lyndon Johnson: There's not going to be any time to begin with. All you're going to do is evaluate a Hoover report he's already made. You're going to lend your name to — to this thing because you're the head of the CIA committee in the Senate.
Peter Biello: So Russell, as you said, wanted his own investigation. Actually, when the Warren Commission report comes out, he issues a dissent. But in the clip we just heard, he says he doesn't have time to even serve on the commission. So how did he go from "I don't have time for this" to "This needs more than just a rubber stamp. It needs its own investigation."
Bill VanDerKloot: Well, he took his job very seriously on the commission and so did a lot of the other people. They were people who weren't used to being told what to do.
Peter Biello: What lessons from the Warren Commission could be applied to later commissions like the one that wrote the 9/11 report?
Bill VanDerKloot: I think there's a lot of lessons here, but one of them is: you need to be as open and transparent as possible and lay out the facts. Don't assume that the audience is dumb and can't follow the line of evidence. I think they can. I think they need to go in clearheaded and know that many times a government agency, if there was a connection there, might want to cover up some of the things because it might be an embarrassment. Certainly in this case, the FBI and the CIA both knowingly withheld evidence from the Warren Commission.
Peter Biello: There's been a lot written about the Warren Commission over the decades. In your film, Inside the Warren Commission, was there something in particular that you really wanted to convey, something new or something maybe you think that's been under-emphasized?
Bill VanDerKloot: If you look at the data, trust in government stayed pretty level up until the Warren report came out and then suddenly it declined and it continues to do so today. And whether or not the Warren Commission was the starting point of that, it certainly probably had some kind of input in there. It really defined the way people look at the way government operates. And it's a lot more complex than just: "Did he fire three shots?" Because there's so much involved in that commission. The politics, the personalities and ultimately the results of the investigation and what they decided not to investigate. All those things come together that make a fascinating story.
Peter Biello: Endlessly fascinating. Bill VanDerKloot is the director of the documentary Inside the Warren Commission, which premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on GPB-TV. Bill, thank you very much.
Bill VanDerKloot: Oh, thank you.
Peter Biello: An Atlanta-based environmental group is renewing its campaign against gasoline-powered lawn equipment. The Environment Georgia Research and Policy Center has released a study showing that gas-powered leaf blowers, lawnmowers and other garden equipment generate large amounts of air pollution and noise. Efforts to rein in such tools led Republicans in the state Senate to pass a bill earlier this year prohibiting cities and counties from regulating them. The House passed a different version of the bill, and so the issue remains alive for the General Assembly that begins in January.
Peter Biello: Former U.S. congressman Doug Collins will head the new Georgia chapter of a national think tank closely aligned with former President Donald Trump. The America First Policy Institute announced the new role today for the Gainesville Republican, once one of Trump's staunchest defenders in the U.S. House. He left the House after an unsuccessful run for U.S. Senate in 2020. The organization advocates for a wide range of conservative causes, including those touching on business and the economy.
Peter Biello: Let's continue now with our look back at the life of former first lady Rosalynn Carter. Stanly Godbold is the author of two biographies of the Carters. And we spoke first about Rosalynn Carter's early life.
Stanly Godbold: Rosalynn Carter. She was originally Rosalynn Smith. Her father was a mechanic who died when she was 14 years old. Her mother was trained as a schoolteacher, but never really taught school. And when her husband died, she became the primary breadwinner for the family. She worked at the post office. And she and Rosalynn was the oldest of four children. Rosalynn was very pretty as a child and later as a woman. She was petite. She was precise, but she was a very hard worker. She was really interested in learning. She was interested in traveling. She read maps when she was at at the plane school. And her mother wrote her to be a dedicated Methodist style Christian and hard and a very, very hard worker. So she was ideally prepared in her youth to be the perfect partner for for Jimmy Carter.
Peter Biello: Was she at all interested in politics at an early age?
Stanly Godbold: She was. But mostly through her reading and her interest in travel.
Peter Biello: As first lady of Georgia and then as first lady of the United States, she was very interested in mental health care. Why did she take such a particular interest in mental health care?
Stanly Godbold: Well, during the campaign for governor, which she was very involved in, people would come up to her and ask her, "What would your husband do about mental health care once he's elected?" And she didn't know what the answer was. So she asked Jimmy. And of course, the answer was that they would try to provide the best mental health care possible for Georgia citizens. And so from that beginning, she became absolutely passionate about it. She promoted it in Georgia. But when she became first lady of the United States, she was a very atypical first lady. After the inauguration, she went to work. Carter appointed a mental health commission. She couldn't be chairman of it since she was first lady, but she was honorary chair and ... she pretty much ran it. Mental illness is a huge challenge because the first problem is just defining it. What is it? And then after that, how do you treat it? How do you get rid of the stigma associated with it? And how do you get insurance companies to provide insurance coverage for people who are mentally ill? Rosalynn accomplished all of those things. The insurance companies, getting the insurance companies to provide insurance [...] happened only when Obama was president. She worked at it lifelong and made a lot of progress with it and leaves behind an institution that will continue her work.
Peter Biello: You mentioned that she was an atypical first lady. One of the ways it seems like she was atypical was that she sat in on meetings with her husband while he was president to keep apprised of things that were going on. She wanted to be knowledgeable when the press asked her questions about what was going on in the country, in the world. How unusual was that for a first lady to be involved in that way?
Stanly Godbold: It apparently was very unusual. Rosalynn Carter established the office of the first lady in the East Wing of the White House. She had a staff of 22. She had a press secretary. The sitting in on meetings is atypical as well. She sat in on a few cabinet-level meetings and got a lot of criticism for that. But she was just there to learn what was going on. She did not participate in the discussion. She had a regular lunch meeting with the president, usually in the Oval Office, where they discussed matters of state, not family issues. I think you could say she was really his primary adviser on political as well as social issues. She would go out into the country, interview people and make speeches. She would come back and tell Jimmy what people were thinking, what they wanted. Carter said she was his equal partner. She was truly his equal partner. Some people would even argue she was a better politician than he was, and I think he would probably agree with that.
Peter Biello: In what sense? In what sense was she better than he was?
Stanly Godbold: Well, she was good at planning strategy and understanding what people wanted and what a politician should say. But also she had the personal touch. If she would make a speech in Iowa, Mississippi or Massachusetts or someplace, but it would be more than just a political speech. She would ask about people's families, about their kids, about their health issues, anything to make it personal. And that tended to be very effective.
Peter Biello: She and President Carter had a long post-presidency and they were very active in their work across the world in a variety of areas. I'm wondering if you could tell us about a few of those areas that you think, based on your research, meant the most to Rosalynn Carter?
Stanly Godbold: She, of course, was interested in every aspect of it, the peacemaking aspect of it. They would go to a foreign country where there was a civil war, some sort of dispute, meet with the disputants and tried to get a cease-fire or actually a peace treaty. Rosalynn always went. She always went. And she always met the wives of the politicians who were involved. And when she was interviewed, she wanted to talk about politics. She wanted to talk about peace. She did not want to talk about fashions and recipes. One of the things that the Carter Center did very well is that they promoted free democratic elections in many countries around the world. Rosalynn was always there counting the ballots, helping work out the rules. She was personally involved in all of it. Rosalynn, probably as first lady and post-first lady, accomplished more to make the world a more caring place, as she said she wanted to do, than any others. And I'm hoping that she will start getting more and more credit for it. I think that's happening.
Peter Biello: Well, Stanly, thank you so much for taking some time to remember Rosalynn Carter with me. I really appreciate it.
Stanly Godbold: Thank you. I enjoyed doing it.
Peter Biello: And that is it for this edition of Georgia Today. If you want to learn more about any of these stories, visit gpb.org/news. And for the latest on our continuing coverage of the life and legacy of Rosalynn Carter, go to gpb.org/rosalynn. If you haven't yet subscribed to this podcast, take a moment. Do it now. It'll keep us current in your podcast feed. And if you've got feedback or a story idea, we would love to hear from you. Email us. The address is GeorgiaToday@GPB.org. I'm Peter Biello. Thanks again for listening. We'll see you tomorrow.
For more on these stories and more, go to GPB.org/news