At the President’s Side: Marc Kaplan looks back on his days in the Jimmy Carter administration

At the President’s Side: Marc Kaplan looks back on his days in the Jimmy Carter administration

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Marc J. Kaplan

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At the 1980 Democratic National Convention in New York City, Marc Kaplan was overseeing credentialing to determine who was allowed inside Madison Square Garden when he got a phone call from the White House. President Jimmy Carter was going to the convention hotel across the street and Kaplan, at 22 years old, was asked if he wanted to be the advance person, meaning that among other duties, he’d be responsible for the logistics of getting the president down to his motorcade safely.

“I had Secret Service figured out—had everybody ready to go,” Kaplan says. “We had it down to a minute, because you have to stop the traffic in New York. You’ve got to be precise.

“So, I’m at the president’s side, just making sure nothing goes wrong, not talking to him at all. He starts talking to people a lot longer than he should, and I’m just trying to nudge him to keep moving, and I’m not getting anywhere.”

It was time to move to Plan B. “I had my little microphone in my ear, and I said to Secret Service, ‘We’re going to change the route out of here to pick up a few minutes.’ And as we’re getting to the hotel kitchen, it just dawns on me, ‘Oh my god, this is how Robert F. Kennedy was shot,’” Kaplan continues.

“So I just put my hand in front of the president and stopped him, and stood in front of him as we’re walking into the kitchen, figuring, ‘Well, if anyone was going to get shot, it better not be him.’”

The rest of the short trip proceeded without incident, but the memory has stuck with Kaplan. “It was just like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe this is actually happening.’”

After working as an intern for the Democratic National Committee as a college student, one thing led to another, and Kaplan eventually joined the Carter administration as a Schedule C appointee through the Department of Agriculture in mid-1980, the last year of the Carter’s term. His title, which he had a hand in inventing, was Assistant to the Special Assistant to the President.

Although he was technically officed in the Executive Office Building, he also spent time next door in the White House proper. Workdays were long and included weekends. When he wasn’t doing advance work, his responsibilities were often related to election strategy, although they weren’t exactly set in stone.

“The best part of that job, and the thing I miss the most, is that every day I’d wake up not knowing what I was going to do that day,” Kaplan says. “Every morning, I’d read all the newspaper briefings that the president and other high-level people got. The White House Press Bureau would provide the summaries of all the TV stations, the news, the newspapers, the magazines, that kind of stuff. And based on that, I’d get my assignments on what to do: ‘This fire needs to be put out. You need to chase this down.’”

Some days he’d implement phone banks or write polls to better understand what was going on in a certain campaign; other days he’d advise interest groups on where to put their money or on which candidates were most likely to win. And sometimes he’d even go out and give a speech in place of the president via the Presidential Speakers Bureau.

“Everybody and their brother wants the President of the United States to come speak, and, of course, he can’t do most of those, and so they send surrogates,” Kaplan says. “On many occasions, I‘d be sent out to do speeches on behalf of someone on in the administration, sometimes the President. That was fun.”

Seems like a lot to shoulder for someone barely out of college, but Kaplan stayed cool. “If it’s easy for you, you don’t feel the pressure,” he says. “It felt comfortable. The pressure was after Carter lost. It’s like, ‘Well, what am I going to do now? I’m in my early twenties and I’ve peaked.’”

Kaplan had been eyeing a career in politics, and seeing how much sway lawyers had in campaign war rooms made him think about getting a law degree himself. A conversation with soon-to-be presidential nominee Walter Mondale solidified that plan.

“He was a partner at a law firm, he had suggested that if you get a law degree, at least you have a place to land if things don’t go well in politics,” says Kaplan, now of Ciancio Ciancio Brown in Denver.

And although he decided to stick with the law, he has happy memories of his time in the White House.

“I grew up always expecting to leave my mark on the world, and so it was a natural fit for me to try to do this,” Kaplan says. “I’m not sure I did leave my mark on the world in the way that I had hoped, but the fact that was part of somebody else’s effort to try was so rewarding, and always has given me the sense that I haven’t wasted my life.”

As for his thoughts on Carter himself?

“I admired him like you can’t believe. I still do. He was a wonderful man: honest, committed to doing the right thing. People think of him as a failure as a president, but a role model for ex-presidents. I think he was a role model both ways, even though he bucked the system and the system won, in many respects, because he came in as an outsider and they never accepted him, and he never played their game,” Kaplan says. “He was just a class act and an honorable man. I wish all presidents could be like him.”