You’ll forget me,” Jimmy Carter’s personal secretary, Susan Clough, told him as he left the Georgia statehouse in 1975 to begin his campaign for the Presidency. For 18 months, while she worked for Carter’s successor, it seemed as if she was right—despite a close, consoling friendship that had helped her through two personal tragedies. Then one afternoon, a few weeks after the Democratic Convention, her telephone rang. “It was that quiet voice saying, ‘Susan?’ ” she recalls. “I didn’t know who it was, even for a few seconds after he said, ‘This is Jimmy.’ Then he asked me to come back.”
Back, of course, meant a return to the Carter fold, eventually to become personal assistant and secretary to the President. (“There are only two people who decide who my secretary is,” Carter told Susan. “That’s Rosalynn and myself.”) Working out of a cubicle next to the Oval Office (the one, legend has it, in which Nixon napped and LBJ Exercycled), Clough, 32, programs Carter’s subliminal, dawn-to-dusk music (his favorites are Beethoven and Rachmaninoff) and drafts much of his correspondence. In fact, Clough (rhymes with plow), in her $30,000-plus job, handles the secretarial chores that occupied two people in both the Nixon and Ford administrations. Such responsibility may account for her 13-hour workdays—and for her selection as Secretary of the Year by Manpower, Inc., the temporary help firm.
Yet only a dozen years ago Clough was job-hunting, while trying to raise two young children, Doug and Carol, and steady her life after a divorce from the man she married at 16. She had no marketable skills after spending one year at Fresno City College, and she received just $200 a month from her ex. “There were months,” she recalls, “when there was only $20 for food for me and Doug and Carol. I can remember chopping up a lettuce leaf for my dinner.”
Clough had always been bright and ambitious—a pianist, classical guitar devotee, clothes maker, avid nonfiction reader and competitive game player, with a membership in MENSA, a club for those with high IQs. She proved herself tenacious as well. After a month in a secretarial course she got a job at Fort Bragg, N.C., where her former husband had been stationed (her father is a retired Army colonel). Soon she quit that job—in part “because all my bosses were propositioning me.” She became a legal secretary in Atlanta.
In 1971 she joined Carter’s staff, became press chief Jody Powell’s assistant, and then worked for the governor. Her job included drafting speeches and doing research—and before long Carter was as much a friend as boss. In 1973, she remembers, “he helped put my head back on my shoulders. My fiancé and I had even selected our house when he decided he didn’t want to get married. Carter called me in, asked what was wrong, and I just sobbed in his office for 30 or 40 minutes. He helped me to see it was really for the best.” Not long after that Susan’s younger brother was gunned down during a rash of random murders around Atlanta. The governor’s staff kept the tragedy from her until Carter and Powell could telephone her father, who broke the news. “I feel like I’m a member of the Carter family,” she says. “That’s how they’ve treated me.”
Her own family is split up for now; her son Doug, 15, lives with her in her three-bedroom Chevy Chase, Md. house, but Carol, 14, has remained in Atlanta with friends to complete the school year. In Doug’s interest, Susan limits her dating to two nights a week; her most frequent escorts are Indiana Rep. John Brademas and Texas Rep. Robert Krueger. Both are Democrats, but Carter has not always agreed with them on key issues. “I’ve decided there’s a plot against me and my Washington social relationships,” Susan wrote the President in a lighthearted memo not long ago. “Are you telling me I should settle down and look for a good ole boy from the Georgia mountains?” More seriously, she says, “I don’t know if I’ll ever remarry. I know from watching Jimmy and Rosalynn that you can have a good marriage, that both can grow as they have grown. I would be much more cynical about marriage if it weren’t for them.”