Hugh Carter Jr., ‘Cousin Cheap’ as Carter White House cost hawk, dies at 80

Hugh Carter Jr., a relative of President Jimmy Carter who became known as “Cousin Cheap” during his stint as a White House aide, trimming costs and slashing perks with such gusto that even yellow legal pads were in short supply, died July 23 at his home in Tampa. He was 80.

His death was announced by the Carter Center, a foundation started by the former president and his wife, Rosalynn. No cause was given.

Mr. Carter, widely known as “Sonny,” belonged to the cadre of family and friends who rallied behind the 1976 presidential campaign of former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter, a onetime peanut farmer.

Members of the “Peanut Brigade,” as the group was called, at times attracted headlines of their own during Carter’s one term in office. Notably, the president’s brother, Billy, was investigated but not ultimately charged in connection with payments he received from Libya. He also inspired a short-lived Billy Beer brand.

Hugh Carter Jr., however, was seen as the ultimate technocrat. He was tasked with enforcing the frugal philosophy of the president, who once appeared on national television wearing a sweater to encourage Americans to turn down their heating and conserve energy. As a “special assistant” to the president, Mr. Carter took the belt-tightening orders to heart.

Mr. Carter swung his budget ax in many directions. Gone were chauffeured rides to and from the White House for nearly all senior staff. The presidential yacht, the Sequoia, was sold. About 250 televisions and 175 radios were pulled from West Wing offices.

For a time, he suspended orders for yellow legal pads. Subscriptions for newspapers and magazines, with a cost that totaled about $50,000 a year, were canceled. Staff had to share out-of-town papers, cutting out articles before passing them along. In short order, the editions looked like Swiss cheese.

“I am a frill cutter … ‘Cousin Cheap’ is just a name,” Mr. Carter said in a 1977 interview. “I don’t take it too seriously.”

West Wing staff did, though. A story by Cox News Service described an aide who stuck pins in a doll resembling Mr. Carter. Another staff member was asked by the Associated Press in 1978 about Mr. Carter’s decision to forgo the normal August holidays and remain at the White House. “No wonder I couldn’t find any paper clips when I got back,” the staffer quipped.

For all the Scrooge-type jokes, Mr. Carter earned respect for staying true to the president’s goal of bringing a common touch to the White House. “Depomping,” the administration called it. Mr. Carter took pride in setting a thrifty example, telling a reporter that he ordered his suits wholesale from a textile maker in Georgia.

“We just want to keep folks from getting too doggone exclusive,” Mr. Carter told The Washington Post in 1977.

Mr. Carter was an executive at an Atlanta-based firm that printed bank checks when Jimmy Carter announced his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. The campaign was considered a long shot by many pollsters. But Mr. Carter was part of an early inner circle of supporters.

On the campaign plane, Peanut One, the team traveled to key primary-season states such as Iowa and New Hampshire. Jimmy Carter topped his rivals in the Iowa caucuses, beating Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.) by a more than 2-to-1 margin. (The greatest number of ballots went to “uncommitted.”) Still, the showing gave the Carter campaign momentum that continued to build. In November 1976, Carter beat incumbent Gerald Ford for the presidency.

Like much of the Georgia contingent that came to the White House, Mr. Carter had grown up with the president. Jimmy Carter was his Sunday school teacher and leader in the Boy Scouts. Mr. Carter, like many others in his Georgia cohort, never seemed to tire of dishing out folksy stories of life back home.

He had a tale ready when he was asked about his fiscal discipline. When he was a teenager, he recounted to journalists, he “impulsively” ate a dozen apples in one sitting. The apples cost 38 cents, but money was tight in those days.

“Dad chided me that I had put the family budget out of kilter,” Mr. Carter said in a 1977 interview with syndicated columnist Marian Christy. “I grew up appreciating the value of a dollar.”

Hugh Alton Carter Jr. was born Sept. 29, 1942, in Americus, Ga., near Jimmy Carter’s home base of Plains, Ga. His father, Hugh Carter Sr., the former president’s first cousin, served in the Georgia Senate from 1967 to 1981 and helped with the presidential campaign. His mother was a homemaker.

Mr. Carter received a degree in industrial engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1964 and then served as an officer in the Army. He received a master’s degree in business administration in 1968 from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Before joining the White House staff, he rose to vice president with John H. Harland Co. printing company. After Jimmy Carter’s loss to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election, Mr. Carter returned to Atlanta to start a book manufacturing and publishing company, Darby Printing. He sold the company and retired in 2013.

During the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, he served on the U.S. Virgin Islands Olympic Committee.

His marriage to Joan Samuelson ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 44 years, Glenna Garrett Carter; three daughters from his second marriage; two sisters; and three grandchildren.

The accounts of penny-pinching in the Jimmy Carter White House were so plentiful that it was at times hard to separate truth from embellishment. But nearly all the stories portrayed Mr. Carter as the watchful eye.

A 1978 United Press International story reported that a congressional group was invited to breakfast at the White House — and later received a bill for the meal.

Even Mr. Carter conceded that move went too far, the report said. He noted that future guests at the White House would eat free.

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