The Rehabilitation of Jimmy Carter 'American Experience' Sticks to the Conventional Wisdom on a Man 'Too Decent' to Be a Politician

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Byline: Ted Cox Daily Herald TV/Radio Columnist

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend," says a character in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance."

It might be sound advice for a John Ford Western, but a viewer has come to expect something more from PBS' "American Experience."

The documentary series has a generally excellent track record of digging beneath the surface to get to the real story behind various U.S. events and historical figures. But Adriana Bosch's two-part, three-hour profile of Jimmy Carter, airing at 9 p.m. Monday and Tuesday on WTTW Channel 11, subscribes to the pat line that Carter was a good, moral man "too decent" to be president.

What bunkum, to borrow a word H.L. Mencken might have applied to Woodrow Wilson. Carter was a politician like any another, just a little more inept than most.

There are times when "Jimmy Carter" hints at the politician behind the person. It recalls how Carter, running against an opponent with strong ties to the black community, sought the support of segregationists in his race for Georgia governor in 1970. He immediately turned on them in his inaugural address, but it shows how this "moral" man wasn't above a little political back- stabbing.

The documentary also takes an unflinching look at his inability to compromise, both as Georgia governor and later as president. For someone who would become a skilled mediator, he was never able to make himself come around to the necessity of giving something away to get something back.

Yet otherwise the documentary seems willing to let Carter skate as a flawed but noble politician who kept his promise never to lie to the American people.

Carter's vice president, Walter Mondale, says Carter "wanted to know what's right" and rejected decisions made for political expediency. He seems to have forgotten that the ill-fated Iranian "rescue" mission was timed to give Carter a public-relations boost when he needed it most, on the morning of the Wisconsin primary in his 1980 struggle with Ted Kennedy for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The documentary likewise neglects to mention that Carter ran on a platform to cut defense spending, yet raised it every year, that his "moral" judgment and self-righteousness, combined with his foreign-policy bungling, prompted him to revive draft registration and that, bamboozled by the Soviet Union, he reacted in vindictive fashion by strong-arming a U.S. boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.

"Jimmy Carter" seems to suggest he meant well, so everything is to be forgiven. On that note, is it ameliorating or aggravating to hear Mondale say that Carter openly pondered the possibility that the U.S. Embassy in Iran might be stormed and the diplomatic workers taken hostage before allowing it to happen? …