- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 9, 2002

Jimmy Carter, a peanut farmer with an irrepressible grin, who started from gritty roots in an eccentric family headed by matriarch Lillian and rose to become president, is the focus of PBS' latest installment of the "American Experience" series.

The two-part "Jimmy Carter," airing at 9 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, takes an unflinching look at a presidency marred by a twin crisis the era's energy crunch and the Iranian hostage saga when some 52 Americans were detained inside the embassy in Tehran for 444 days.

The erstwhile farmer's story is told without his voice he was not interviewed for the program, although many of his speeches and past comments fill that void. Instead, we hear from a host of historians and contemporaries, including Press Secretary Jody Powell and Vice President Walter Mondale. Longtime wife Rosalynn provides heartfelt glimpses into the couple's marriage, such as her anger when he left the Navy to take over his father's peanut farm after the elder Carter's death. Her candor does as much to reinforce the image of their strong bond as it does to flesh out the ex-president's inner thoughts.

Liberals may come away from "Jimmy Carter" admiring a man who couldn't corral his benevolent impulses, such as his work with the house-building group Habitat for Humanity, into a firm leadership hand. Those on the political right could greet the replay of the Iranian hostage situation, which ended only after Mr. Carter left office, with a knowing nod.

Neither portrait fully captures Mr. Carter, who earned the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian efforts across the globe. The special strives mightily for a neutral tone and, for the most part, manages that deft balancing act.

The program's final moments, reflecting Mr. Carter's post-presidential life, leave the average viewer with too fizzy an aftertaste, as if good intentions could obscure the high inflation and low morale his presidency fostered.

Narrated by actress Linda Hunt, "Jimmy Carter" opens in 1980 with the soft-spoken leader leaving the White House for good.

"He was better about it than I was," Mrs. Carter says about her husband losing the election and the presidency. "I was so depressed about it that he was always trying to prop me up."

Mr. Carter had assumed office four years earlier hoping to heal a nation torn by the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War. He had lost some political momentum among spiritual voters following the infamous Playboy interview, in which Mr. Carter admitted having "lust" in his heart for women other than his doting wife. That interview, however, could not prevent him from assuming the highest office in the land a job he relinquished following his crushing defeat to former California Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1980.

"Feel is very important in politics, especially in a president, and Carter just didn't have very much of it," says journalist Elizabeth Drew about his grasp of politics.

Dubbed "a good and decent man in over his head," Mr. Carter's journey to the White House began in the suffocating heat of Plains, Ga.

Growing up in the Jim Crow South, Mr. Carter spent his days working and playing alongside black farm workers. Those bonds would later forge his views on racial politics and his appeal to fairness for all.

He learned early in his career that idealism would only take him so far in politics. While he opposed segregation, he courted the segregationist vote en route to winning the governorship of Georgia. That kind of political chicanery proved atypical for Mr. Carter, although it illustrated the duality of his nature, a clash between his humble religious bent and his hubris.

His transition from little known Southern governor to the Democratic Party's presidential candidate succeeded in part due to a campaign fuzzy on policy details. He told the voters he would never lie to them, and a weary public, beleaguered by scandals, accepted his wholesome image at face value.

"It was the right message at the right time, and it wasn't by accident," biographer Douglas Brinkley said about Mr. Carter's moral message of truth and candor with voters in 1976.

"Carter created that message knowing that's what would win the day," Mr. Brinkley said.

Once in office, the uber-practical Mr. Carter ran a frugal executive office. Mr. Mondale recalls sweltering White House days in which the air conditioner remained idle.

"It was so hot in the White House people would come in there and it would be above 100," Mr. Mondale says.

The presidential limousine remained in the garage and the chief executive's yacht hit the auction block.

Those penny-pinching maneuvers soon took a back seat to the bigger picture, including his peace-brokering efforts between Israel and Egypt and the looming hostage crisis.

Writer-producer Adriana Bosch uses the standard grainy image pans to capture Mr. Carter's early years, but indulges the audience with Carter home movies later to flesh out the narrative. The program's access to personal Carter memorabilia gives it a rigorous authenticity.

Miss Bosch's style is as plain-spoken as her subject matter, but the program's myriad interviews pull out the kind of details that make Mr. Carter's life a flesh-and-blood affair.

Mrs. Carter, we learn, was the kind of young woman who could wear a white dress all day and never leave a stain upon it.

A young Mr. Carter would roll his bare feet over Coke bottles, fearing his flat feet might keep him out of the Navy.

Mr. Carter's political resurrection began with working with Habitat for Humanity and carried through with peace efforts in Haiti and Cuba. He further salvaged his image through the Atlanta-based Carter Center, which works toward conflict resolution worldwide.

The documentary is not as tough on its subject matter as some would like, particularly those who recall those unending lines at the gas pump in the late 1970s caused by oil shortages.

The program, taken in total, reveals that Mr. Carter's heart remains as oversized as the crisis with which his presidency grappled.


***

WHAT: "Jimmy Carter"

WHEN: 9 p.m. Monday, Tuesday

WHERE: WETA (Channel 26)

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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