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Jimmy Carter

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Monday and Tuesday at 9 p.m. on PBS, American Experience presents Jimmy Carter, the latest in their series on the presidents.

Your opinion of the two 90 minute programs, “Jimmy Who?” and “Hostage” will probably be shaped in part by your opinion of Carter. But even critics of Carter may learn something. And many of the same issues Carter confronted – energy, the economy, terrorism, the Middle East – are still with us today.

I was only in fourth grade when Cater was elected in 1976, so I remember that I voted for him in our mock election (and campaigned for John Anderson in 1980), but not too much else.

Adriana Bosch (who also made their documentary on Reagan) interviews Carter’s family and friends, those who worked with him (Mondale comes off well, so it is too bad this didn’t air before the election), and journalists and historians. Although narrator Linda Hunt reads from interviews with Carter and his writings, it would have been a stronger program if Carter himself were interviewed (Gwen Ifill will interview the Carters on programs which will air on some PBS stations).

The first program which traces his journey to becoming president is more engaging. We learn that his father supported segregation, but Carter refused to join the White Citizen Council (though he did appeal to racists when he ran for Governor, but turned around and denounced descrimination in his acceptance speech). He defied the local machine to run for the State Senate and was able to get a judge to make the right decision and overturn a fraudulant election.

Carter seemed to come out of nowhere to get the Democratic nomination in 1976, but he traveled extensively around the country focusing on Iowa (which wasn’t considered important up to that time) and New Hampshire. He led Ford at first, plunged in the polls over his controversial Playboy interview, and finally won by a small margin. The first part ends with the early problems in Carter’s administration after enjoying strong popularity.

But they are nothing compared to the problems covered in the second part. While Carter had achievements in foreign policy including the Camp David accords, his presidency will always be overshadowed by the Iran hostage crisis. Even before that, Carter delivered what became known as his malaise speech.

Carter’s transformation from a failed president to the best modern former president began in 1984 when he first worked with Habitat for Humanity (he still builds homes for a week every year). Rosalynn says that Carter wasn’t too ethusiastic about building a presidential library until he came up with the idea for the Carter Center. And it is his work with the Center along with his emphasis on human rights and the Camp David accords which earned Carter the Nobel Peace Prize this year.

The website has far more detail on Carter than can be fit in the documentary.

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