Monday, April 7, 2008

James Earl Carter: part 1

This weekend, I watched Jonathan Demme's movie Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains twice, the second time with the commentary track by Demme and his producer Neda Armian. Demme, born on Long Island, makes feature films, concert films and documentaries, a career path he shares with fellow New York directors Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese. This film followed Carter around the country on the book tour for his 2006 book Palestine: Peace not Apartheid. I found the film fascinating and will be spending the next several days discussing it on this blog.

The death of Charlton Heston reminds me of a quote of his, that the historical character he played that he most admired was not Moses but Andrew Jackson. Jackson's legacy as president is definitely a mixed bag, but it is without question that he is the first "man of the people" to become President of the United States. This is not to say that the patrician presidents were better or worse than those who rose from humble beginnings. Of the four on Mount Rushmore, only Lincoln started out poor. Since the end of World War II, the sons of rich men who became president are Kennedy and both Bushes. The sons of working families are Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Clinton. I can't imagine anyone who would say that split separates the good presidents from the bad by any means of measurement.

I do want to compare Carter's life to that of the current president, because in so many ways they could not be more different. If you wonder how two men could turn out so differently, the simplest place to start is to look at their mothers. Lillian Carter was a nurse when Jimmy was growing up, sometimes working as a live-in nurse, away from home for 20 hours a day. Jimmy remembers Rachel Clark, the wife of a sharecropper on the Carter farm, as spending more time with him than his mother did during his formative years, and he recalls vividly the lessons that Rachel taught him about respect for the land and reverence for God's creation. Later in life, Lillian joined the Peace Corps and worked in India. The movie begins with a clip of Lillian Carter on The Tonight Show back during the Carter administration. It is a far cry from the public persona Barbara Bush presents on shows like Larry King Live.

Unlike the current president, Carter believed in hard work and pride in accomplishment his entire life. He was a good student. His military record has not been mysteriously lost, nor need it be. He studied nuclear engineering in college, joined the Navy after World War II and worked on a nuclear submarine. When his father died, he resigned his commission and went back to run the family farm. Throughout his adult life, including his stint in the Navy, he has taught Sunday school. Not to diminish Bush's faith, because Christians love the story of the prodigal son, a man turning away from a life of sin to walk in the path of righteousness. But even if we accept the devoutness of both men, it's hard to find two people who have taken the message of Christ onto two more divergent paths. The movie has a scene of Carter in front of church group giving a sermon. He mentions the discovery of astrophysics that the universe is currently expanding in every direction, the things farther away from us moving faster away from us than things nearby. This only serves to increase Carter's wonder awe in the power of the Creator.

Carter's story is one of service and success. Bush spent most of his adult life drinking and drifting, and even when sober his record as a businessman still is marked with disasters that he gets bailed out of by people only a son of privilege can count among his benefactors. Given his age and health and the longevity of his family, Bush, like Carter today, may well live for decades after his presidency ends. It will take yet another miracle for his time out of office to be spent as well as Carter has spent his.

More tomorrow.


CDP said...

Nice post, I look forward to part 2.

Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

Carter has always gotten a bum rap. He's actually been one of our best leaders, mostly die to the fact that he didn't sugar coat stuff while in office.

Jess Wundrun said...

Digby was talking about how W is viewed by historians and wondered whether, like Reagan, he'll get the revised hagiography treatment.

The discussion is pretty interesting and many commenters note that it will depend on what democrats do after his term. F'rinstance if we turn the page like we did with Nixon, we may see the dregs of this administration rise up to do us more harm in 20-30 years.

I am a proud defender of Jimmy Carter and am used to being laughed at for it. Most people just take it as a fact that he was a bad president. When you ask why you are often told inflation (but that was under Ford), the gas crisis (Nixon) and the Volcker shock (which was painful but actually worked).

Carter, like LBJ with similarly bad results, was more concerned with the long range success of our nation than for his own personal aggrandizement. If we'd have left his CAFE standards in place and worn our cardigan sweaters, we wouldn't be dependent on foreign oil today. And if we weren't dependent on foreign oil, foreign terr'ists probably wouldn't have attacked us. And on it goes.

I hope to see this doc. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

Matty Boy said...

I think Carter and LBJ are nearly polar opposites in terms of personality. LBJ liked fucking with people and Carter loves the Lord. LBJ's failure, in the eyes of the public at the time and the eyes of history, is the too great and poorly considered use of force. Carter's failure was using too little, at least in the eyes of the public. I sometimes think if he had treated the embassy as sovereign U.S. territory and had a machine gun massacre at the gate, world opinion would have forgiven him and the crisis would have been averted. But more and more, partly because of watching the movie and partly due to a conversation with my brother, I am not certain the long term outcome would be any better.

Distributorcap said...

carter may not have been the best president - but he was among the best men -- and he actually cared about the country and its people. he has proven that time and time again -- so maybe that actually makes him a great president who just made a few bad decisions. unlike the current one who is a bad person, a bad leader and a bad president who has NEVER made a good decision in his life. well a decision that was good for anyone other than his own ego.

history will judge carter much better -- history will judge the current 'thing' extremely harshly

Jess Wundrun said...

matty, what I was specifically referring to for LBJ was that in spite of the personal negatives, he signed civil rights into law.

Carter believes that the greatest success of his administration was that the Iranian hostages were, every one, returned home unharmed.