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'Carterland' puts a positive spin on an oft-disparaged presidency

<em>Carterland </em>is a reappraisal of Jimmy Carter's presidency. He's pictured above at Grand Teton National Park.
Carterland Movie LLC
Carterland is a reappraisal of Jimmy Carter's presidency. He's pictured above at Grand Teton National Park.

We're told that politics is different than in decades past — more ideological, less productive. Offering fresh evidence for that notion is the documentary Carterland, which depicts the often disparaged one-term presidency of Jimmy Carter as an expansive and largely successful exercise in problem-solving.

The measured tones of the late Walter Mondale, Carter's running mate in 1976, lay out Carterland's operating premise right at the start.

"The story usually goes about President Carter," says his former Vice President, " 'Well, he's a nice guy and a good person, a great ex-president, but he's a failed president, who was never really able to rise to the challenges of his time.' That's the story we've been told, but it's all wrong."

An unabashed corrective to the common narrative is what follows. Carter's successes are highlighted and his less successful moments are explained.

Solar panels on the White House roof in 1979

Filmmakers Will and Jim Pattiz detail how he led by example on energy conservation, putting on sweaters rather than cranking up the heat, and doing something newscaster Walter Cronkite had to explain to viewers in 1979 because it sounded like science fiction – capturing solar energy by putting solar panels on the roof of the White House.

President Carter unveils solar panels on the White House roof on June 20, 1979, in what proved a short-lived experiment in energy efficiency. They were removed a few years later by the Reagan administration.
/ Jimmy Carter Presidential Library
Jimmy Carter Presidential Library
President Carter unveils solar panels on the White House roof on June 20, 1979, in what proved a short-lived experiment in energy efficiency. They were removed a few years later by the Reagan administration.

"In the year 2000," Carter predicted as he showed off the panels, "the solar water heater behind me ... will still be here, supplying cheap, efficient energy."

It was not. The heater and the solar panels were all removed by President Ronald Reagan a few years later.

"What would life have been like if we had continued to invest in a clean energy economy?" wonders conservation activist and former Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario in the film.

And others make similar points about other Carter administration initiatives:

  • A Camp David Accord that found the President of the United States personally carrying proposals back and forth between the cabins of Israeli and Egyptian presidents who refused to talk to each other.
  • Ethics in Government legislation passed in reaction to Watergate that established the mechanism of an independent counsel to look at allegations of Presidential malfeasance.
  • Diversifying a federal judiciary with only eight female judges in its history. Carter appointed 40.

Nothing about 'lust in my heart'

You won't hear in Carterland about Carter's much-mocked "lust in my heart" phrasing in a Playboy interview, which nearly capsized his election effort. Nor more than glancing references to blocks-long gas lines. And there's a bit of artful fudging around the Iran hostage crisis that dragged down the final year of his presidency.

The Pattiz Brothers are unapologetic partisans. But the filmmakers know how to tell a good story about the political capital Carter expended, pushing a renegotiated Panama Canal treaty through Congress. Or appointing Federal Reserve chief Paul Volcker, who Carter knew would tame inflation by raising interest rates and almost certainly dooming his reelection efforts.

Or defying the oil industry by turning vast swaths of Alaska into National Parkland, which prevented drilling for a generation and made him arguably the most conservation-minded president since Teddy Roosevelt.

An honorable man doing what he thought was right

The filmmakers portray Carter as an honorable man doing what he thought was right — a legacy borne out by a post-presidency the film does not cover: a Nobel Peace Prize he got decades later for work on human rights, fair elections, and Habitat for Humanity, among many other causes.

Instead of going into that, they let Andrew Young, Carter's ambassador to the United Nations, summarize the Carter presidency.

"I don't think we began to appreciate Martin Luther King Jr.," muses the former civil rights leader, "until he passed away. I think the same thing will be true of Jimmy Carter. He will have to move on to the next life before we stop long enough to appreciate how great a president he truly was."

Still a bit longer, then.

(Carterland screened in Atlanta on October 1, James Earl Carter Jr.'s 99th birthday, with the former President in hospice care at his home in Plains, Georgia. The film opens an exclusive run in Atlanta this weekend.)

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: October 2, 2023 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that President Jimmy Carter appointed Ben Bernanke to head the Federal Reserve. In fact, he appointed Paul Volcker.
Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.

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