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‘Jimmy Carter’ on PBS: It’s hail to the ex-chief

How fitting that “Jimmy Carter,” a two-part documentary about our now-celebrated 39th president, arrives on PBS so soon after midterm elections that cheered George W. Bush and determined the futures of other current politicians.

Just as Democrats, including Carter’s vice president, Walter Mondale, crashed Tuesday, the 1980 presidential election appeared to halt the former Georgia governor’s public life, driving him from office at age 56 and sweeping in the era of Ronald Reagan.

The same aw-shucks Reagan who had shrewdly rebutted him in a widely watched televised debate by deploying that now-famous line: “There you go again.”

Experts cite as Carter’s centerpiece achievement his 13 days of personal diplomacy that resulted in the Camp David accords, which appeared then to establish a framework for peace in the Middle East.

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He had mostly a hard time of it in office, though, making as many enemies as his Plains, Ga., hometown had mosquitoes and alienating even congressional Democrats while reaffirming that more than high intelligence, tenacity and moral conviction are needed to assure success as president. A little luck helps, as does a readiness to achieve one’s goals through compromise.

Carter was famous for not returning the calls of leading senators, for example. “He never understood how the system worked,” the late House Speaker Tip O’Neill would say later. “And although this was out of character,” notes narrator Linda Hunt about the intellectually keen president, “he didn’t want to learn about it either.”

Jimmy Carters past and present, and the places where they intersect, are captured vividly in this fine Adriana Bosch film presented by “American Experience,” a series that integrates sound scholarship and entertainment values in ways that produce some of the best, most watchable history lessons on television.

This one begins with Jimmy as a high-achieving youth on his family’s farm outside of Plains and traces the “born-again” conversion, naval career and amazingly swift political ascent of this peanut mogul, Sunday-school teacher, scoutmaster and Lions Club vice president. A mere decade before seeking the Democratic nomination for president, we’re told, he was a door-to-door Bible thumper.

Carter isn’t interviewed, his surrogate here being his wife, RosalynnCarter, whose pointed comments affirm that she was no passive observer as first lady.

Although her husband is the film’s singular focus, the current president also comes to mind, even though his presidency is incomplete. Connecting those dots: Both men are deeply Christian. Both barely made it into the White House. Both were pummeled by depressed economies. Both entered office as callow babes in foreign affairs. And both were challenged by cataclysmic actions against Americans originating from abroad, events that were pivotal for them and the nation.

On this, though, their paths diverge.

Bush’s response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, notably the U.S.-led offensive against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, emboldened him and gave him stature in the view of most Americans. In contrast, the detention of 50 Americans in Tehran for 440 days by newly installed Iranian fundamentalists projected weakness and whooshed the remaining air from Carter’s already deflated administration.

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Ahead, though, was not oblivion, for Carter’s post-presidency has soared, yielding vastly more praise and respect than his unpopular presidency, his work on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised resonating with Americans and his role as a globe-traveling elder statesman and champion of human rights leading this year to a Nobel Peace Prize.

As this meticulously balanced film notes, Carter has written his own banner headline since leaving office. While Gerald Ford has hit the links, Reagan has atrophied because of Alzheimer’s disease, George Bush the elder has kept low and Bill Clinton has weighed a TV talk show for big bucks, our other living former president has endeared himself widely by doing good deeds.

That included handling a hammer for Habitat for Humanity. A “Carpenter Named Carter,” the New York Times titled him. “He could make lumber sing,” his son Chip says in the documentary.

Carter beloved? Who would have thought it? When he left the White House -- flushed from power by a formidable opponent and epic problems headed by economic woes and the crippling Iran hostage crisis -- most of his countrymen would have given him only the booby prize.

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Hardly beneficial either, as the film points out, was the dark legal cloud that settled over his budget director, Bert Lance, and dirtied Carter’s squeaky-clean image. Damaging, too, was Carter telling Playboy: “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” As well as the image of rigid piety he projected while attacking “self-indulgence and consumption” in a sermonizing TV address that appeared to blame the public for the nation’s ills.

Of course, if Richard Nixon could come back after Watergate drove a stake through his heart, then anyone can. Even the disgraced Nixon, though, did not rebound as far as Carter.

This dichotomy in Carter’s life is as striking as the one tonight’s observers say gave him a dual personality as a public figure. “Politics was the ego in him and Jesus the humbleness,” says one historian.

The latter personality is especially visible now, the stubbornness and moral certitude that many found so irritating in Carter becoming his greatest assets in the service of others.

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As there he goes again.

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Howard Rosenberg’s column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be contacted at howard.rosenberg@latimes.com

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‘Jimmy Carter’

“American Experience: Jimmy Carter” will be shown at 9 p.m. today and Tuesday on KCET.


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