Sunday, August 19, 2012

Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains

I remember well the 4 years of the administration of Jimmy Carter, the 39th President of the United States. From the derogatory remarks of my punk classmate ("Jimmy should've stayed on the peanut farm") to the nightly drama of watching the Iran hostage crisis, it was an eventful time during which my political awareness (such as it was) began to come into its own. Also, the very devisive nature of politics, of how much as a society we're fond of "us against them". My impressionable mind was saturated by the largely conservative bent of people at church. They could not believe a man who so openly spoke of his Christianity could be a Democrat. Clearly he was a "carnal Christian".

Carter's policies and defense responses were endlessly denigrated among the adult figures in my world. Even today, my father-in-law still curses the former President for the Mariel boatlift, which in 1980 brought well over one-hundred thousand Cuban refugees (some from prisons) into Miami. When Ronald Reagan won the election that same year, promising the "new hope" associated with every regime change, there were cheers all around my church.

Since then, Carter is often described as having a legacy of a failed presidency, but few would argue he has revealed himself to be a great humanitarian. His efforts with Habitat For Humanity in India, New Orleans, and elsewhere are well known. This is not a man who rests on his laurels. He is one of the few ex-Presidents who has contributed to society rather than disappearing into some unknown good night. He refuses to be paid for speaking engagements.

Director Jonathan Demme captured Carter and his handlers for the 2007 documentary JIMMY CARTER MAN FROM PLAINS, the title referring to the Carter's hometown of Plains, GA, where the end credits inform us he and his wife Rosalyn still live amongst the other 630 or so residents. The film opens at a barbeque at home, where he easily mingles with young and old and unashamedly shares his faith. Later, he describes that even when he's away from home, nearly every night he and Rosalyn read verses of the Bible together.

MAN FROM PLAINS follows Carter across the U.S. as he promotes his highly controversial book Palestine, Peace Not Apartheid. The title alone enrages the Jewish community, and famously drew the ire of attorney Alan Dershowitz. Crowds of protestors gather in front of bookstores in every city. In one especially charged segment, an angry pro-Israel demonstrator shouts back to the Palestinian group that they are "worthless". You might call this selective editing, though despite the filmmaker's liberal bent I didn't find this film biased towards Carter's views, necessarily.

I have not read the book but am intrigued enough to do so. Thus, I won't try to take sides or pick holes in Carter's thesis, as MAN FROM PLAINS only highlights his position. But I am disgusted and saddened by atrocities and terrorism at the hands of both sides and have always been alarmed and puzzled at the willing demonization of all Palestinians. This is most certainly a minority view, as Carter is reminded over and over. Folks don't take to any efforts to step back and actually examine and think about the state of affairs, the history that lead up to it. Most are content to adopt the mantras of their political party or their religion and to denounce any alternate point of view as wrong.

During his tour, Carter is shown comfortably fielding tough questions from students at Brandeis, talking business with his editor, and, in the only dark cloud moment I can recall, calling an unidentified journalist "obnoxious" after a contentious phone interview. The film also documents a visit with one of the former hostages and discusses the historic 1978 "Camp David Accord" during which Carter witnessed the signing of a peace treaty between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

Demme has made several documentaries throughout his diverse career. He has captured the concerts of Talking Heads and Neil Young and the monologues of the late Spalding Gray. There also was THE AGRONOMIST, about Jean Leopold Dominique, who managed an independent radio station in Haiti over several years, and COUSIN BOBBY, which followed the director's cousin, an Episcopalian minister in Harlem. Both have long been on my "to see" list. If they are anything like MAN FROM PLAINS, they will feature men whose actions back up every last utterance. Demme is attracted to individuals with integrity. Regardless of your feelings about Carter's views, you can't deny him that.

No comments: