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.