'Citizen Carter' gives balanced view of ex-president


March 04, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Jimmy Carter teaching Sunday school.

That's the kind of moment that makes "Citizen Carter," which premieres at 9 tonight on cable's Discovery Channel, such an impressive piece of television biography.

Overall, the profile of former President Carter is evocative, balanced and places him in a historical and symbolic context.

But it is the moments, like the one in Sunday school, that viewers are likely to remember.

The cameras show us the present-day Carter standing stiffly in front of a classroom of adults, telling them that homelessness "bothers" him a lot. "Does it bother you?" he asks challengingly. The audience seems profoundly uncomfortable.

This is the essential Carter. It is the same man who delivered the much-debated "malaise" speech halfway through his presidency in which he told a national television audience that the energy crisis could not be resolved without improvement in the American character.

Like the members of Carter's Sunday school class, American voters were made uncomfortable by that speech.

"Citizen Carter" talks to critics of Carter, who say that one of

Carter's great failings is his sense of moral superiority, typified by that speech.

But the show also talks to supporters, such as former Carter press secretary Jody Powell who praises Carter for his honesty.

The report settles in to show us Carter today building homes for the poor, lecturing at Emory University, trying to resolve international disputes and fishing. It is a favorable assessment that tries to place Carter in a tradition of the citizen-farmer-president-statesman.

Some of that's debatable. But the profile is crafted skillfully enough to make the debate and the life of the man it's about seem important again.

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