Carter recalls intense rivalry and eventual friendship with Callaway

tadams@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 15, 2014 

Howard "Bo" Callaway and Jimmy Carter.

Theirs was a relationship built on a red-hot bitter rivalry early in their lives and political careers. But as the years unfolded, those feelings would thaw into the warmth of friendship at a ski resort in the cold Colorado winters.

"Bo and I were competitors at a young age. I went to Annapolis, he to West Point. He wanted the first southwest Georgia four-year college in Columbus, I wanted it in Americus," Carter said via email of his relationship with Callaway, a nemesis who helped push the Republican Party to the forefront in Georgia's political arena starting with his 1964 victory in the state's 3rd Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Callaway died Saturday at age 86, nearly two years after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. He rebounded somewhat, residing at Spring Harbor in Columbus, until his death.

The early rivalry between the two Georgians was a precursor for a long, competitive relationship between Callaway and Carter, who would cross paths several times through the years. Both began their adulthood as officers in the military, with Carter graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and Callaway from the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.

After departing the Army, Callaway, while serving on the Georgia Board of Regents, championed making Columbus the site of the first four-year college in southwest Georgia. Carter won that one, with Georgia Southwestern College in Americus, Ga., receiving four-year status in 1964, followed by Columbus College in 1965. The competition only gained momentum from there, with Carter building a political career and agriculture business from a farming community in Plains, Ga., and Callaway taking aim for higher office from Troup and Harris counties, where his family operated the Callaway Gardens resort.

It was obvious that Carter, who first held office as a state senator, bristled at Callaway turning his back on his Southern upbringing as a Democrat. It quickly became a political chess game between them.

"He defected from the Democratic Party, I remained loyal," Carter said in the email shortly after Callaway's 2012 cerebral hemorrhage. "We ran against each other for Congress in 1966. He withdrew from the race to run for governor, leaving me with no opposition, and I resigned from the race to run against him for governor."

Carter desperately did not want to see a Republican in the Georgia governor's mansion. His entry into the 1966 gubernatorial campaign would rattle the situation enough that Callaway -- who was viewed by many as a conservative with a good chance of winning -- would taste an upset in the General Election.

Callaway lost to segregationist Lester Maddox after failing to grab a majority of votes. Under state law at the time, the Democratic-controlled Georgia General Assembly got to choose the governor in such a scenario. And Maddox was their pick.

But Callaway would go on to become chairman of the Republican Party in Georgia and later in Colorado after moving there to operate the Crested Butte ski resort bought by the family in 1970. An illustrious career as Secretary of the Army was followed by a defeat in a U.S. Senate race in Colorado.

The man synonymous with Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Ga., would remain heavily involved in politics most of his life. After resigning as Gerald Ford's campaign re-election manager in 1976, he was sought out by reporters for his thoughts on Carter's chances of winning the presidency. His conclusion: Carter was "vulnerable."

"His strength is that he's appealed to such differing parts of America by making them all feel he takes the same position as they do," Callaway said at the time. "If a good effective campaign is waged, the proponents of one or the other position will be disillusioned."

Callaway's tenacious approach would gain the respect of many.

"He was instrumental in the transformation of our state's political loyalty to Republicanism," said Carter, who called Callaway a "superb political organizer and tactician" in the GOP ranks, as well as a "very successful business leader" for his management of the gardens, a major tourist draw just north of Columbus.

Through the years, however, the hard edge between the one-time political foes began to dull. And Carter's accomplishments -- becoming the 76th governor of Georgia in 1971 and the 39th President of the United States in 1977 -- easily trumped those of his longtime rival.

Any hard feelings they had once harbored began to melt away.

"We became better acquainted when my family began skiing at Crested Butte in Colorado, which Bo's family owned, and after that a friendship evolved between us," said Carter. "I called immediately when I heard of his illness, and visited him when he was a patient at Emory U. hospital."

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