‘Carterland’ Offers a Positive Perspective on a Controversial Presidency

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In today’s political landscape, characterized by increased polarization and reduced productivity, the documentary “Carterland” provides a fresh perspective on the often criticized one-term presidency of Jimmy Carter. It portrays his time in office as a comprehensive and largely successful endeavor in addressing challenges.

The documentary sets the stage with the measured words of the late Walter Mondale, Carter’s running mate in 1976, who challenges the common narrative about President Carter. He asserts, “The usual narrative about President Carter is, ‘He’s a nice guy and a good person, a great ex-president, but he’s a failed president who couldn’t rise to the challenges of his time.’ That’s the story we’ve been told, but it’s all wrong.”

The film aims to correct this prevailing narrative by highlighting Carter’s accomplishments while providing context for his less successful moments. For instance, it delves into how Carter led by example in energy conservation, opting to wear sweaters instead of cranking up the heat. He even ventured into cutting-edge territory by installing solar panels on the White House roof in 1979, a concept that sounded like science fiction at the time.

The documentary raises questions about what could have transpired if the nation had continued investing in clean energy. Conservation activist and former Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario reflects on this missed opportunity.

Additionally, the film sheds light on other Carter administration achievements:

– The Camp David Accord, where President Carter personally shuttled proposals between Israeli and Egyptian presidents who refused direct communication.
– The Ethics in Government legislation, a response to Watergate, which established the independent counsel mechanism to investigate allegations of presidential misconduct.
– Carter’s efforts to diversify the federal judiciary by appointing 40 female judges, a significant departure from its history of just eight female judges.

“Carterland” omits certain infamous aspects of Carter’s presidency, such as his controversial “lust in my heart” remark in a Playboy interview, which nearly derailed his election campaign. It also touches only briefly on the long gas lines and provides a somewhat nuanced portrayal of the Iran hostage crisis.

The filmmakers, the Pattiz Brothers, are unabashed partisans, but they skillfully weave a compelling narrative of Carter’s political capital expenditure. They highlight his renegotiation of the Panama Canal treaty, the appointment of Federal Reserve chief Paul Volcker, and his defiance of the oil industry by designating vast areas of Alaska as National Parkland, effectively preventing drilling for a generation.

The documentary paints Carter as an honorable leader who consistently pursued what he believed was right. His legacy is exemplified by his post-presidential work, including receiving a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in human rights, fair elections, and Habitat for Humanity, among other causes.

While “Carterland” does not delve into Carter’s post-presidential years, it captures the essence of his presidency. As Andrew Young, Carter’s ambassador to the United Nations, aptly puts it, “We may not fully appreciate Jimmy Carter’s greatness as a president until he has moved on to the next life.” This film offers a compelling argument for reconsidering Carter’s legacy.

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