Jody Powell: Trusted press secretary who accompanied Jimmy Carter from Georgia to the White House

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The Independent Online

Jody Powell's association with the man he would serve as President began like a B-movie cliché, in a shopping centre in southern Georgia in 1966. "Hi," said the beaming figure with the toothy grin, thrusting a hand in his direction, "I'm Jimmy Carter and I'm running for governor." The young student was quickly smitten, the voters of Georgia unfortunately less so. Carter was defeated that year. But he won the governorship in 1970, and with Powell at his side went on to complete one of the most extraordinary political ascents in modern US history.

Jody Powell, son of a peanut farmer and born in the small farming community of Vienna (pronounced Vy-anna), some 25 miles from Carter's hometown, Plains, was, along with Hamilton Jordan, a founder member of the "Georgia Mafia" that plotted Carter's improbable journey from hardly known former southern governor to the White House.

There the pair would be the 39th President's most intimate advisers, Jordan as Carter's chief of staff and Powell as his press secretary. In reality, he was all that and far more. No White House spokesman has been closer to his boss. "He probably knows me better than anyone except my wife," Carter once said of Powell.

The job of press secretary to the President is famously one of the toughest in Washington, and one in which access to the boss is crucial. Powell's access to Carter, combined with his directness and quick southern humour, made him one of the most effective and respected of the breed, if not always universally loved.

Jack Nelson, who as Los Angeles Times Washington bureau chief sparred often with Powell and later became a close friend, put it this way to the New York Times: "If he wasn't going to tell you something, he'd tell you, but if he told you something, you could take it to the bank." And what he did say could be hilarious. Responding to attacks on Carter by the former segregationist Georgia governor Lester Maddox, Powell once noted that "being called a liar by Lester Maddox is like being called ugly by a frog."

Powell, unusually, lasted the full four years of an administration – an especially turbulent period in which highs like the Camp David Peace Accords between Israel and Egypt were outnumbered by lows, among them inflation, a major oil crisis, the 1979-80 Iran hostage crisis, and Carter's crushing 1980 defeat by Ronald Reagan.

Until that defeat Powell liked to project himself as the classic Washington outsider. As a political science student in the 1960s he had studied populist movements – of which Carter's 1976 come-from-nowhere victory, exploiting the country's sour post-Watergate mood, was a perfect example. He and Hamilton made a point of attending decorous Washington functions tieless and in blue jeans.

But in his post-White House existence Powell fed happily from the hand he used to bite. He became a columnist and TV commentator, before entering public relations and in 1991 joining with Sheila Tate, once press secretary to first lady Nancy Reagan, to found the lobbying firm Powell Tate.

The slow southern drawl which appealed to PR business clients like airlines and tobacco companies also earned him spots on two celebrated public television documentaries, on baseball and the Civil War. In the latter he was the voice of the great Confederate general Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. Indeed, in his spare time Powell was a keen student of the war, claiming that nine of his ancestors had served in Southern ranks.

Rupert Cornwell

Joseph Lester "Jody" Powell, US government official, public relations executive: born Cordele, Georgia 30 September 1943; married 1966 Nan Jared (one daughter); died Cambridge, Maryland 14 September 2009.