Dan Aykroyd’s Jimmy Carter Was A Counterculture Hero on ‘Saturday Night Live’
You’d think the dirty tricks that drove Dick Nixon to resign from office before he was forcibly kicked out would have made him the least popular post-war President. But a man who followed him had even lower approval ratings while in office, according to ABC News polls. That was Jimmy Carter, the Georgia peanut farmer who improbably was elected President in 1976 over Nixon’s hand-picked successor (and pardoner), Gerald Ford. A number of factors caused Americans to lose faith in Carter, including those not in his control -- inflation, the energy crisis, the hostage situation in Iran -- and self-inflicted wounds like a speech in which he lamented America’s “crisis of confidence.” Turns out, voters didn’t want to hear bad news that asked them to look in their own mirrors. Instead, they embraced Ronald Reagan’s Pepsi-style commercials and a promise of a “shining city on a hill,” more or less the 1980 version of The Lego Movie’s “Everything is Awesome.”
During his one-term tenure, nearly everyone turned on Jimmy Carter, who this weekend entered hospice care at the age of 98. But Saturday Night Live saw the Carter presidency differently than your average voter. Dan Aykroyd turned Jimmy Carter into a counterculture hero -- casual and cool about recreational drug use, brainy enough to tackle any problem, and supremely sexual. Contrast Aykroyd’s Carter with Chevy Chase’s bumbling Gerald Ford (a brutal impersonation that virtually defined Ford’s Presidency), and early SNL’s political leanings are crystal clear. Aykroyd’s Carter was our first superfly President.
Our introduction to Aykroyd’s Carter came in September 1976, mere weeks before the election. Carter is on a whistlestop tour speaking directly to voters. But rather than talking economics or foreign policy, Carter (who recently had given an interview in the decidedly unpresidential Playboy where he confessed to lustful thoughts) had other things on his mind:
“Hello everybody. I want to talk to you about a time-honored Democratic tradition: sexual performance in the White House. I'm going to personally try to be a lusty, zesty kind of president, following the lusty example of LBJ JFK, and FDR. I want you to remember for a moment about the love life of Harry Truman. My guess is his first lady was one satisfied customer.”
“I've committed adultery in my heart and God forgives me. I forgot that when I said that, in my heart, I also have worn women's clothing. I look very beautiful in it too. Not sure why I said that but in the long run, I think it will help get me elected.”
“I want you to look at our Democratic heritage. FDR, JFK, LBJ, Harry Truman. Here were lusty, zesty men, seething with vital hormonal secretions. These were men of action, doers, and Democrats. As your President, I’ll look forward to deeply satisfying each and every one of you.”
Yep, this was a candidate for the SNL generation. Rather than accidentally cutting his tie in half or falling into the Oval Office Christmas tree, Carter was trying to seduce us.
Once in office, the real President Carter reinstated a version of FDR’s fireside chats. A man of the people, Aykroyd’s Carter invited Americans to call in for advice, with the help of Walter (Bill Murray) Cronkite.
There’s no subject Counterculture Carter can’t handle. A postal worker struggling with a jammed letter-sorting machine? The President has you covered: “OK, there’s a three-digit setting where the post and armature meet. When the system was installed, the angle of the cross slide was put at the maximum setting of one. If you reset it at the three mark like it says in the assembly instructions, I think you’ll solve any clogging problems in the machine.” (One guesses this response may have come from Aykroyd’s own encyclopedic brain.)
Peter Alton, a 17-year-old from Westbrook, Oregon, calls in with another question, or rather, a crisis. He dropped some acid and is having a bad trip. Cronkite wants to cut him off, but Carter thinks he’d better talk the poor guy down. After confirming the caller’s orange-colored tabs were barrel-shaped, Carter has the solution.
“Right, you did some orange sunshine. Everything is going to be fine, you’re just very high and you’ll probably be that way for about five more hours. Try taking some Vitamin B or C complex. If you have a beer, go ahead and drink it. Jut remember, you’re a living organism on this planet, you’re safe. You’ve just taken a heavy drug. Relax, stay inside, and listen to some music. Do you have any Allman Brothers?”
This was early in President Carter’s run, before voter dismay set in and his approval rating went in the tank. But even by the final days of his tenure in 1979, Aykroyd/Carter remained both a man of the people and a do-it-all hero capable of practically anything. In one of Aykroyd’s final SNL appearances, Carter saves the world in a parody of The China Syndrome, a movie about a nuclear plant disaster.
When a soft drink spills on a nuclear plant console, sparks fly and the plant goes into meltdown mode. In other words, Pepsi Syndrome. The plant’s engineers are powerless to avert the disaster, prompting a visit from the President of the United States. “Of course, I’m familiar with nuclear facilities,” says Carter. “You know, I’m a nuclear engineer.”
“And a damn good one,” chimes in the First Lady.
Aykroyd/Carter insists on checking out the core of the water cooler reactor, but it turns out that wasn’t such a good idea. He stops the meltdown but he’s exposed to so much radiation that his cells go through an accelerated growth process. He’s becoming the Amazing Colossal President! How big is he? So big they need to bring in Rodney Dangerfield to explain: “He’s big, you know what I mean? Why, he could have an affair with the Lincoln Tunnel! I mean, he’s really high! He’s big, I’ll tell you! He’s a big guy!”
In the annals of SNL Presidents, Carter is about the biggest guy around. Phil Hartman’s Ronald Reagan was a conniving huckster, pretending to be a doddering old man while secretly conspiring to control the world. Dana Carvey’s George Bush talked in nonsense syllables, babbling about a thousand points of light while proclaiming “nah gah do it.” Hartman’s Clinton gobbled Big Macs, while Darrell Hammond’s version was a conniving womanizer who used the Presidency to meet girls. Will Ferrell’s take on the younger George Bush was a mindless dolt controlled by Dick Cheney. And of course, Alec Baldwin took up residency at 30 Rock for four years to lampoon Donald Trump. The only President who got the Carter treatment was Barack Obama, as much because SNL couldn’t get a comedic handle on him as an actual endorsement.
Aykroyd, on the other hand, clearly valued what Carter brought to Washington. He and Belushi even covered Carter’s election for Rolling Stone, a Hunter S. Thompson-esque gonzo exercise in journalistic thrillseeking. Their road trip through the Deep South was set to an Allman Brothers soundtrack, and “Belushi and Aykroyd thought these Macon sounds were so good, they sincerely hoped that Jimmy Carter would be elected.”
Carter won, of course. Did Aykroyd’s impersonation have anything to do with it? He was nervous about meeting Carter’s son, Jack. “Okay man, you can call me out and drop me for imitating your old man.” But Aykroyd need not have worried. “What do you mean?” Jack asked. “You do it pretty good.” Even so, Aykroyd assured Jack that he’d made a pledge “not to replicate your father while below the Mason-Dixon line.”
As it turns out, Aykroyd’s belief in Jimmy Carter’s bonafides -- his intelligence, his good intentions, and his empathy -- bore out. Those same Presidential polls that ranked Carter at the bottom while he served completely reversed after he left office. By the end of the 20th century, his approval numbers had doubled. While other former and current Presidents scramble to clear their golf resorts and garages of classified documents, Carter built houses for the poor, promoting human rights around the globe and helping to monitor elections to ensure our own democracy. Carter wasn’t infallible, in real life or in SNL sketches, where the President could sometimes appear helpless to fight inflation or solve other troubles. But Aykroyd’s comedy portrayed Carter as a hero nonetheless, a true counter to the culture of American politics.