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The Aimless Career of James Carter IV

This was how James Carter IV’s Tuesday unfolded after the press discovered that he, the grandson of President Jimmy Carter, had discovered the now-notorious secret video of Mitt Romney: First, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution interview, an NPR interview, and an AP interview. Then back-to-back tapings with NBC local and NBC nightly news. Next, two interviews taped on the front lawn of his suburban home. A Hardball appearance, then a Fox appearance, which was filmed outside the NBC studio before a car, sent by CNN, whisked him away. Then Current TV (Carter’s weariness by then apparent). At last, bed.

“I’ve finally found my medium,” Carter told me the next day, having completed the gauntlet. Carter’s “medium,” however, isn’t television—as is obvious to anyone who watched his deeply uneasy, monotone interviews. And he’s not out for revenge, even though many of the headlines that came out of his press blitz—“Jimmy Carter kin: Video was ‘poetic justice,’” “For Carters, it was personal,” and several iterations of “Jimmy Carter’s Revenge”—promised a juicy tale of what-goes-around-comes-around, pitting Jimmy Carter’s plucky progeny against Jimmy Carter’s biggest hater. No, for Carter, the Romney video confirms his place among those stars of the 2012 election—like Andrew Kaczynski at Buzzfeed—who dig up tantalizing videos of pols at their most off-message or ideologically whack. And for the 35-year-old political scion, who has been drifting from job to job for the better part of his adult life, that’s a pretty big deal.

“I never really found the perfect fit for what I wanted to do until just recently, when I started doing this,” he said. “I've just been floating around at the edges of this for a while.”

By “this,” he means politics. Growing up, Carter always knew he wanted to be in politics, but was never quite sure of how to go about doing that. He had his grandfather’s shadow to ward off, and that of his father, a successful political consultant in his own right who was “into politics even more so than my grandpa, if you can believe it.” But painfully shy by his own admission, Carter was not one for back-slapping. And that didn’t leave him with a whole lot of options in politics.

In fact, “knew” might be too strong a word for Carter’s chosen field. Asked, how did you know you wanted to be in politics, Carter waffled. “Just being exposed to politics at that level for my whole life, I don’t know. It’s what I do. I’ve never known anything else. … I just really want to help Democrats.” He tried to escape it once in high school, forcing himself to obsess over basketball and claim to want nothing to do with politics. But that was to no avail. He recalled that he was just “faking rebellion.” “The politics,” he said, “it still seeped in.”

College, though, did not unfold a clear path for him into the family trade. Carter wafted from Centre College in Kentucky, to Georgia Southern, to Georgia State, shifting majors and working in snatches along the way. (“I didn't know what I wanted to do and I wasn't super motivated.”) He worked on various political campaigns, but favored their tech departments. He struggled to make sure he cut a strong intellectual figure before disclosing who, exactly, Grandpa Carter was. He grew anxious trying to avoid banking on the family name. After finally graduating, the bulk of his professional career was made up of public policy research for his cousin, a Georgia state senator and fellow Carter more suited to public speaking. Today, Carter has half-earned a master’s degree. His Twitter bio reads in part, “Currently looking for work... Seriously, give me a project.”

And then, spelunking in the depths of the Internet, Carter strayed upon a clip of a Romney speech that would become the 68-minute bugbear of a video that bowled over the Romney campaign. Now he’s in talks with the DNC, and ThinkProgress and the Huffington Post have both offered him jobs. Grandpa congratulated him in an email, writing, “James: This is extraordinary. Congratulations! Papa.” On Current TV, Carter recounted, “I don’t think he’s ever emailed me the word ‘extraordinary’ before.”

All this makes it hard to believe that his career as an oppo researcher had its genesis in a ho-hum segment on the Rachel Maddow Show that aired last December. Maddow, her usual, irrepressible self, highlighted a strange poll that was testing a Barack Obama-Jeb Bush matchup, well after Bush could plausibly enter the Republican primaries. Its sponsors’ identities unknown, the poll offered a mundane mystery, and viewers watching Maddow the next day were surely less interested in who was behind the poll—some bipartisan polling firm—than in who was behind finding them, Carter. The bored graduate student had tracked the origin of the poll using Twitter. Maddow closed the segment in which she reported this with a photo of James as a yawning moppet seated on President Carter’s lap. “As a kiddo,” Maddow beamed, “he was the yawner of this epic yawn.”

Carter was soon sending more partisan tips—like a video of Next Gingrich calling Spanish “the language of living in the ghetto”—to Rachel Maddow’s bloggers, to BuzzFeed’s Kaczynski (Carter calls the 22-year-old “a role model”), and of course, Mother Jones' David Corn, the eventual recipient of the secret Romney video. It felt, Carter confesses, like finding a calling, one that meshed his knack for data-diving with his affinity for the Democratic cause. And he was good at it—for the first time in his life, he was better at something than most others. His turn on Maddow is not the most raucous creation myth. But for Carter, it was an awakening. His whole professional life before then had been, after all, something of an aimless, epic yawn.

Follow me on Twitter at @mtredden