A “Playboy” Interview Almost Ended Jimmy Carter’s 1976 Presidential Campaign

A surreal moment in campaign history

Jimmy Carter
Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Warren K. Leffler/Creative Commons

The United States has certainly had its share of controversial presidents over the years. Some have been impeached; others presided over periods of intense partisan conflict. One former president whose name does not come to mind as remotely controversial is Jimmy Carter. Nearly 40 years after leaving office, Carter remains a well-liked and respected figure. That Carter is the kind of person who has worked building houses well into his 90s with Habitat for Humanity speaks volumes.

But Carter’s first campaign for the White House in 1976 very nearly proved to be his political undoing. How so? Well, it involved a contentious interview with Playboy. Writing at Smithsonian Magazine, Rick Perlstein describes the way Carter’s candor very nearly ended his campaign. As Perlstein recounts, Carter spoke openly about his life to a host of publications. In theory, that’s a laudable decision. In practice, it hit a few snags:

The reason, [Carter] said, was his Christian faith—which led to a long and searching theological discussion that culminated in an observation, in explaining the Christian concept of sin and redemption, that God had forgiven him even though he had committed “lust in his heart.” And because it appeared in the November issue of the soft-core pornography publication Playboy, Carter’s reference to sex became all anyone could talk about.

Carter, a devout Christian, faced the difficult task of bringing together a coalition that included evangelical voters. Unsurprisingly, these voters were not terribly impressed with Carter’s candid confession, and it very nearly cost him the election. And, as political scandals go, one can see its influence still being felt today.

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