I’m for Chicken one hundred and fifty percent,” says Billy Carter. “I think Hugh’s a moneygrubber and a crook. Mother’s not actively supporting Chicken, but she hasn’t spoken to Hugh in years.” The President’s brother and Miz Lillian aren’t pushing poultry, just taking sides in a down-home political donnybrook. It seems that Georgia State Sen. Hugh Carter, their least favorite cousin, is being challenged by farmer James Malcolm “Chicken” Wishard, one of Billy’s gas station cronies. The battle seems less a duel over issues and ambitions than a flare-up of a Carter family feud, and the speculation around Plains is that Billy put Chicken up to it.
Cousin Hugh, 57, the foremost angleworm farmer in the world, has been in bad odor with Lillian since Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign. She accused him of selling Carter souvenirs in his Plains antique shop and pocketing the profits instead of giving them to the campaign fund. “Hugh, you’re getting rich off Jimmy,” she said, and vowed never to speak to him again. Her silence became deafening with the publication of Hugh’s book, Cousin Beedie and Cousin Hot, in which the author (“Cousin Beedie”) empties the Carter closet of some embarrassing skeletons. Among them: word that Lillian “went through the ceiling” when Jimmy (“Cousin Hot”) married Rosalynn, whom the mother considered “from the wrong side of the tracks.”
Chicken (so nicknamed because he was the first in his grade school class to get chicken pox) turned up in Atlanta to file for the election just before the deadline. His wheelman on the eleventh-hour race through Georgia was none other than Randy Coleman, Billy’s local factotum. Coleman, Billy and Leon Johnson, who runs the filling station and is Wishard’s campaign manager, all solemnly deny that it was a put-up job, and so does the candidate: “When I plunk down $400 of my hard-earned money to qualify, it ain’t no joke.” Chicken, 43, admits that he is a political innocent. “I’ve got zero experience,” he says, “but Hugh Carter didn’t have any experience when he started either.” Meanwhile he is out “shaking the bushes,” as he puts it, under the slogan HELP THE CHICKEN TAKE THE WORM. The 1,500-acre farm comes first, though, and mornings are spent irrigating his peanut, corn and soybean fields (“Last year was so dry it put a hurting on me”). Wife Georgians son Mac, 19, and daughter Lisa Samantha, 13, tend the farm afternoons, while Wishard is off pressing the flesh.
Cousin Hugh, who’s won six terms (mostly unopposed), is running scared this time, but is favored in the Aug. 8 Democratic primary, where victory will be tantamount to election. “I’m not sure if Billy is behind this,” he says edgily. “But I know Aunt Lillian is mad at me, and I want to make up. I told Jimmy I wish he’d help me with her, but he said I could do as much with her as anybody could. Anyhow,” Hugh adds somewhat defensively, “everybody around here knows all those things I said in my book are true. I had a note from Rosalynn and she told me she and Jimmy were reading the book and enjoying it. I just can’t understand why it isn’t on the best-seller list and Richard Nixon’s is.” For now, however, mum is the word from Lillian, and Cousin Hot is keeping his distance. Not so the outspoken Billy, who may still be smarting from his own mayoral defeat and is now clearly enjoying every turn of the Worm. “Hugh may have embarrassed Mother and Jimmy,” Billy says, “but you know I can’t be embarrassed.”