WASHINGTON — Jody Powell, who was White House press secretary and among the closest and most trusted advisers to President Jimmy Carter, died Monday of a heart attack. He was 65.
Powell, a member of the so-called Georgia Mafia that descended on Washington after Carter was elected president, was stricken at his home near Cambridge on Maryland's eastern shore, said Jack Nelson, a retired reporter and close friend of Powell.
Nelson said Powell had been working with firewood with a helper who briefly stepped away. Powell was discovered a short time later on the ground. Powell was said to have had a previous heart attack, but that it was some time ago in the early or mid-1990s.
Powell, who first worked with Carter during his campaign for governor in Georgia the 1960s, joined Carter's presidential campaign in 1976 and served as chief White House spokesman from 1977 to 1981.
Carter in a statement called Powell's death "a great personal loss" and said, "I will miss him dearly."
"Jody was beside me in every decision I made as a candidate, governor and president and I could always depend on his advice and counsel being candid and direct," Carter said. He added: "No one worked more closely with me than Jody."
After leaving the White House, Powell became one of the founders of the Powell Tate public relations firm in Washington.
A Georgia native known for his deep Southern drawl, Powell – along with fellow Georgian Hamilton Jordan – was among Carter's closest advisers and confidants. A June 1977 issue of Time magazine had caricatures of both Powell and Jordan on its cover, declaring them "the president's boys." Jordan died last year after a lengthy battle with cancer.
At one point during his presidency, Carter said "Jody Powell knows me better than anyone else except my wife."
"He was much more than a press secretary," said Stuart Eizenstat, Carter's domestic policy adviser. " There were no secrets between the president and those in the administration and Jody." He said Powell was intimately involved in the decision-making behind closed doors at the White House.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday he was "deeply saddened" to hear of Powell's death.
"Jody served his country during a difficult time, and he always did the job with grace and good humor," Gibbs said. He added that he had sought out Powell's advice when he became press secretary and that Powell "was always generous with his time and wise in his counsel."
Born on a cotton and peanut farm, Powell grew up in Vienna, Ga., and had aspirations to become an Air Force pilot. But he was expelled from the U.S. Air Force Academy during his senior year for cheating and went on to attend Georgia State University and later Emory University where he received a masters degree in political science.
He joined Carter's gubernatorial campaign as a driver and all-around handyman and stayed with him through his presidency.
A man who at times could display his temper, Powell remained a staunch defender of the Carter presidency. When Republican Sen. John McCain frequently cited Carter in negative terms during last year's presidential campaign, Powell was quick to cite Carter's early warnings about the country's oil dependence and his early calls for clean energy development.
Powell and the other Georgians who came with Carter did not always follow tradition when they arrived in Washington in 1977. They were fond of country music concerts and frequently were seen wearing blue jeans and T-shirts as they made the social scene.
But after leaving the White House, Powell remained and prospered as part of the same Washington establishment. He headed the Washington public relations firm of Ogilvy & Mather, building it from about a dozen people to nearly 100 before leaving to found Powell Tate with Sheila Tate, former press secretary to first lady Nancy Reagan.
Tate called Powell a great communicators and "one of the best human beings I have ever known."
"Those of us who worked with Jody over the years know what an inspiration he has been and what a professional he was," said Harris Diamond, chief executive of Weber Shandwick, the parent company of Powell Tate.
Powell lent his voice to two documentaries – one on baseball and the other on the Civil War. In 1985, he published his memoirs, "The Other Side of the Story," which included reflections on his days in White House and the Carter presidency. He also wrote a column for the Los Angeles Times and was an ABC News commentator.
"He was a brilliant man," said Paul Costello, who served with Powell in the White House and later worked with him in public relations.
Costello called him "An amazing strategist in his later years as public relations counsel to a wide range of clients. I was always in awe of his strategic mind."
He is survived by his wife Nan, daughter Emily Boddy, mother June Powell, sister Susan Glenn and brother-in-law Kirk Glenn, son-in-law Mark Boddy and his three grandchildren, Sara, Rachel and David Boddy. Funeral details were not immediately released.
Dale Leibach, a longtime friend and business associate since their days in the Carter White House, said the ex-president went to a nursing home where Powell's mother lives to tell her of her son's death before she heard it on the news.
Associated Press writer Greg Bluestein in Atlanta, contributed to this report.