In 1976, Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign agreed to have the candidate sit down with journalist Robert Scheer for a Playboy Interview.
The interview, which ran in the November 1976 issue shortly before Carter’s election, was conducted over three months along the campaign trail. Playboy was likely granted this unprecedented and unconventional access to the presidential hopeful by Carter’s young press secretary and campaign manager, Jody Powell and Hamilton Jordan, as they attempted to dispel fears among the young and liberal around Carter’s Southern Baptist religious beliefs.
The interview offered readers an intimate and nuanced glimpse of Jimmy Carter as he worked aloud through contradictions between his religious beliefs and the party platform on issues such as abortion and gay rights—much more so than they were likely to see from interviews conducted on a more traditional presidential press junket. Scheer is bold and comfortable as he pushes back on Carter, challenging him to explain his stances as a pro-life man within a pro-choice platform and speak to the number of women in positions of power within his campaign and potential cabinet.
Carter, eager to contest what he perceived to be the nation’s anxieties around Southerners and Evangelicals, is candid and contemplative. The moment that would come to define this interview in historical memory came as Scheer and his editor, running overtime, were leaving Carter’s campaign headquarters. Asked if he believed this interview would indeed reassure those uneasy about an Evangelical president, Carter responded with a lengthy rumination about the nature of judgment and lust, infamously saying: “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times. This is something that God recognizes I will do and God forgives me for it.”
The quote was explosive—inviting commentary from religious leaders (many of whom endorsed Carter’s exegesis of sin as sound) and political pundits alike. It is tempting to make a comparison between the accidentally-captured nature of Carter’s final words and more recent caught-on-tape revelations made by this year’s presidential hopeful, Donald Trump. However, it is perhaps most telling to examine the nature of the backlash faced by both—notably among women and evangelicals.
Carter himself has claimed that his Playboy Interview cost him upwards of 15 points in national polls before the 1976 election. The interview as a whole would also function as a foreshadowing of many of the contradictions that the first Evangelical president would grapple with during his first term—upsetting a growing conservative right, symbolized by the likes of the Moral Majority and Anita Bryant, as he protected and defended Roe v. Wade and (due to the advocacy of gay rights groups and liberal members of his cabinet like the prolific and influential Midge Costanza) supported the reversal of immigration provisions barring gays and lesbians from entering the country.
Carter’s Playboy Interview was notably deployed by Jerry Falwell and the newly formed Moral Majority as they campaigned against Carter in 1980—spending upwards of $10 million dollars running campaign ads for Ronald Reagan.
Speaking to Penthouse in 1980, Falwell makes clear that his issue was not with Carter’s words on lust, but his choice of where to speak them, saying that “Giving an interview to Playboy magazine was lending the credence and dignity of the highest office in the land to a salacious, vulgar magazine, that did not even deserve the time of day…I feel that he was pitching, he was campaigning to an audience that doesn’t read the Baptist Sunday school’s quarterlies.”
The New Right’s outrage and wonder around Carter’s comments seem then to be about the increasingly personal nature of presidential politics—and the limitations of the self-avowed Baptist President’s willingness to adopt an evangelical platform. Though Falwell himself is a staunch Trump supporter, the evangelical voting block he created and mobilized to defeat Carter seems to be faltering behind him, as evidenced by the open rebellion of younger Baptists, female Evangelicals, and students at Liberty University who wrote letters of protest to Falwell. Donald Trump’s comments, meanwhile, elicited considerably different outcry–mobilizing feminists, Evangelical women, sexual assault advocates, and Republicans alike against him.
As this (almost unbearably long) election finally draws to a close, perhaps it is most clear how Donald Trump’s comments will feature into the history of this election not in newspaper articles or online think pieces—but in the hundreds of posts made in the secret “Pantsuit Nation” Facebook group. The group, created as a safe haven for Hillary Clinton supporters traumatized by the vitriol of their own newsfeeds, now boasts over a million members. One story is common: that of women, from baby boomers to the newly-of-age, across religious backgrounds and political parties, sharing stories of their experiences with sexual assault.
Donald Trump’s comments, which did not muster the ire of Jerry Falwell or the Evangelical Church, have united a broad-base coalition of women along a singular issue: the sanctity of their bodies, violated time and time again. It is this story that has mobilized hundreds of “life long Republicans” and “dots of blue” in Red States.
Salonee Bhaman is a PhD student at Yale University studying 20th century American history. You can find her @saloneee.