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Jody Powell, 65; was press secretary and a close adviser to President Carter

Press secretary Jody Powell, meeting with President Carter in the president’s private study. Press secretary Jody Powell, meeting with President Carter in the president’s private study. (White House/File 1977)
By H. Josef Hebert
Associated Press / September 15, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Jody Powell, who was White House press secretary and among the closest advisers to President Carter, died yesterday of a heart attack. He was 65.

Mr. Powell, a member of a group dubbed the Georgia Mafia that descended on Washington after Carter was elected president, was stricken at his home near Cambridge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, said Jack Nelson, a retired reporter and a close friend of Mr. Powell’s.

Nelson said Mr. Powell had been working with firewood with a helper when he collapsed. He said Mr. Powell had had another heart attack in recent years.

Mr. Powell, who first worked with Carter during his campaign for governor in Georgia the 1960s, joined the presidential campaign in 1976 and served as chief White House spokesman from 1977 to 1981.

Carter in a statement called Mr. Powell’s death “a great personal loss.’’

“Jody was beside me in every decision I made as a candidate, governor, and president, and I could always depend on his advice and counsel being candid and direct,’’ Carter said, adding, “No one worked more closely with me than Jody.’’

After leaving the White House, Mr. Powell cofounded the Powell Tate public relations firm in Washington.

A Georgia native known for his deep Southern drawl, Mr. Powell and fellow Georgian Hamilton Jordan were among Carter’s closest confidants. A June 1977 issue of Time magazine had caricatures of Mr. Powell and Jordan on its cover, declaring them “the president’s boys.’’ Jordan died last year after a lengthy battle with cancer.

At one point during his presidency, Carter said “Jody Powell knows me better than anyone else, except my wife.’’

“Jody served his country during a difficult time, and he always did the job with grace and good humor,’’ said Robert Gibbs, the current White House press secretary. He added that he had sought out Mr. Powell’s advice when he became press secretary and that Mr. Powell “was always generous with his time and wise in his counsel.’’

Born on a cotton and peanut farm, Mr. Powell grew up in Vienna, Ga., and had aspirations of becoming an Air Force pilot. But he was expelled from the US Air Force Academy during his senior year for cheating and went on to attend Georgia State University and later Emory University, where he received a master’s degree in political science.

He joined Carter’s gubernatorial campaign as a driver and all-around handyman and stayed with him through his presidency.

A man who at times could display his temper, Mr. Powell remained a staunch defender of the Carter presidency. When Senator John McCain, the Republican nomineee for president, frequently cited Carter in negative terms during last year’s campaign, Mr. Powell was quick to cite Carter’s early warnings about the country’s oil dependence and his early calls for clean energy development.

Mr. Powell and the other Georgians who came with Carter did not always follow tradition when they arrived in Washington in 1977. They were fond of country music concerts and frequently were seen wearing blue jeans and T-shirts.

But after leaving the White House, Mr. Powell remained and prospered as part of the same Washington establishment. He headed the Washington public relations firm of Ogilvy & Mather, building it from about a dozen people to nearly 100 before leaving to found Powell Tate with Sheila Tate, former press secretary to Nancy Reagan.

Mr. Powell lent his voice to two documentaries, one on baseball and the other on the Civil War. In 1985, he published his memoirs, “The Other Side of the Story,’’ which included reflections on his days in White House and the Carter presidency. He also wrote a column for the Los Angeles Times and was an ABC News commentator.

“He was a brilliant man,’’ said Paul Costello, who worked with him in the White House and in public relations. Costello called him “an amazing strategist in his later years as public relations counsel to a wide range of clients,’’ adding, I was always in awe of his strategic mind.’’

Mr. Powell leaves his wife, Nan; a daughter, Emily; a sister, Susan; his mother, June; and three grandchildren.

Dale Leibach, a longtime friend, said the former president went to a nursing home to tell Mr. Powell’s mother of her son’s death before she heard it on the news.