Communists for Carter

Reed students staged a surreal media hoax in 1976 Oregon Democratic primary.

By Randy Baker ’79 | April 5, 2018

During the spring of 1976, Georgia’s governor, Jimmy Carter, was seeking the Democratic party’s nomination for president. He was strongly backed by the corporate wing of the Democratic party. His principal rival for the nomination was Arizona congressman Morris Udall. Udall’s backing came from labor, and what remained of the various progressive movements of the 60’s, women’s groups, environmentalists, and peace activists.

I was a sophomore at Reed and followed the race closely—particularly its depiction in the major news outlets. They represented Carter as virtually having already won the nomination, even though he actually had been nearly neck and neck with Udall in polls and primary contests until that point. In so doing, the news media were greatly advantaging Carter, since press coverage framing a candidate as the likely winner typically inclines swayable voters to support that candidate.

With the Oregon primary imminent, some fellow Reed radicals (including comrade Beth Sanders ’80) and I formed a potential counterweight to the press slant—“Communists for Carter.” Our logic ran like this: Oregon voters were highly suspicious of communism. So the suggestion that communists liked Carter would alienate his supporters and cost him votes.

We created our mascot, a six-foot paper-mâché peanut, in the living room of our Reed house. [Carter had been a peanut farmer before going into politics]. An artist in the group painted a fabulous banner, perhaps 100 feet long, proclaiming “Communists for Carter,” complete with hammer and sickle.

Then on Saturday evening, April 24, about 30 of us seized and barricaded Eliot Hall, wheeling the giant peanut into the entrance. Our banner was unfurled from the balcony of the fourth floor of Eliot, symbolizing our seizure of power and creating a dramatic backdrop from which we would address the multitudes who would undoubtedly assemble below on the great lawn.

Having secured the building, we proceeded to telephone our demands to the press. President Gerald Ford was to resign immediately and be replaced by Comrade Carter. One of our number, a comrade from Mississippi, brilliantly explained to a reporter that we communists supported Carter because he was a farmer, close to the earth like dirt, and therefore close to the people.

Notwithstanding our diligent efforts, by morning no journalists had come and our numbers had diminished to a dozen. Prof. Marvin Levich (who was then Provost) stormed our position by placing a chair along the outside wall and climbing through an open window. Having entered Eliot, he asked one of our cadre how long we intended to keep this up, to which the cadre responded, “a few more hours.” Apparently satisfied, Prof. Levich then retired to his office upstairs.

By noon, we had given up hope, and relinquished control of Eliot Hall. No journalists had come, and Ford remained President. Yet, we had left a bit too soon. We learned later that television reporters came with cameras to do the story shortly after we had left.

Still, the Oregonian— at the time the only newspaper to publish in Oregon on Sunday—ran a front page [originally above the fold] story titled “Reed Reds for Carter Come Out of Shell.” I can’t recall whether they had a photo of our giant peanut, but they did include the quote about Carter and dirt and the people. My recollection is that the article suggested that we were not entirely serious, but it was a bit unclear on that question.

That was precisely what we, or at least I, had hoped. The Oregon primary was held a few days later and Carter lost to Senator Frank Church of Idaho. After all, a guy who is supported by communists, much less Reed College communists, was not exactly what Oregon voters wanted. [Editor’s Note: The top vote-getters in the Oregon Democratic primary that year were Frank Church (34%), Jimmy Carter (27%), Jerry Brown (25%), and Mo Udall (3%).]

After the primary, Beth and another housemate went down to Carter headquarters in Portland posing as volunteers. The Carter folks were quite angry and maintained that Communists for Carter had lost them the primary. I have no way of knowing, but I hope we did.

Randy Baker majored in history and philosophy at Reed and is now an attorney in Seattle. He is married to comrade Beth Sanders ’80; their daughter Claire Baker ’18 is a history major at Reed.