In a 2018 interview that opens the recently released documentary, “Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President,” the now 96-year-old ex-POTUS places a vinyl record on a small turntable at his home in Plains, Georgia. The sight of a record, with the familiar red (“Columbia”) inner circle that tells you the album information, comes as almost a shock, a sudden time-warpy escort into a warm bath of nostalgia for people of a certain age.
And then Carter, with that trademark grin of a genuinely good and happy man, true Christian to his bones, settles into a chair and nods his head in approval as he remarks, “All right! Sounds familiar.”
The sounds we hear with him are the opening guitar strums of Bob Dylan before he begins, “Heyyyy, Mr. Tambourine Man…”
A hilarious anecdote in this grin-inducing documentary involves bad boy gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson’s visit to the White House, a kind of refresher on Jesus’s proclamation in the Book of Mark: ‘I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’
Dylan is but one of the rock legends whose music not only appears in Mary Wharton’s gentle, music-focused documentary of the 39th president, but who also granted her interviews to reflect on their friendships with Carter and share anecdotes of the time they spent playing for him at campaign fundraisers and later, at the White House.
(No, the more overtly hip Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were not the first presidents who grooved to rock & roll and jazz, nor to host star-studded evenings with the likes of Aretha Franklin.)
The fact that the genteel, seemingly square Carter, a kind of spiritual kin to Mr. Rogers, counted the Allman Brothers, Charlie Daniels, and others of somewhat dubious repute as good friends should perhaps not surprise us as much as it does, given Carter’s deep immersion in a Southern Baptist tradition of gospel music and forgiveness in the eyes of the Lord. (The Southern Baptist Convention has always been dominated by those with less than expansive theological and political beliefs; Carter is not that kind of Southern Baptist.)
The churches of Carter’s upbringing that were integrated could be bastions of soulfulness, where praise music was a whole body experience that made one far more inclined to shake a booty and tap feet than lapse into meditative bliss.
As “Mr. Tambourine Man” continues under Carter’s beaming gaze, the opening credits roll, with the camera switching to scenes from Plains.
These include the “Welcome to Plains” water tower in the center of town, a 50s-era Philips 66 station, a banner on what looks like an old-fashioned general store proclaiming, “Plains, Georgia…Home of JIMMY CARTER…Our 39th President,” and a classic white church with steeple. As the camera comes inside, it slowly pans empty pews and stained glass, all bathed in warm light as it finally comes to rest on a hymnal open to “Amazing Grace.”
It’s an apt introduction.
The grace with which Carter has always comported himself is amply revealed in the 90+ minutes that follow. We hear the most from an engaged and still buoyant Carter but also plenty from his ever-devoted Rosalynn, Clinton-era Secretary of State Madeline Albright, and music icons Gregg Allman, Willie Nelson, Bono, June Carter (who claims to be a cousin), Jimmy Buffett, Paul Simon, Garth Brooks and others.
Music and anecdotes about its appearance and meaning in Carter’s life and presidency flow freely throughout this feel-good tribute that skips lightly over but doesn’t ignore the difficulties Carter faced as president. These included leftover social strife from the ‘60s, rampant inflation, and the crushing Iranian hostage crisis that consumed the latter part of his term.
With that crisis squeezing Carter in a vise that seemed to paralyze the entire nation, his bid for reelection in 1980 failed in a landslide defeat to Ronald Reagan. Even so, his last official act involved feverish arrangements that led to the release of the 52 hostages who headed home, in an almost cruel twist, on Reagan’s January 20th Inauguration Day.
Carter did, however, fly to West Germany the next day to greet those he had held so close to his heart through the tormenting 444-day ordeal.
If anything, Carter’s unflagging devotion to doing the right and decent thing was perhaps too decent by half for the rough-and-tumble world of politics and the highly compromised decisions it sometimes visits upon its practitioners.
That decency has held him in good stead in the 40 years since, with Carter returning to Plains, his peanut farm, his Sunday school teaching, and truly noteworthy ventures as the most visible face and representative of the homebuilding organization Habitat for Humanity and as founder of the Carter Center, a highly visible nonprofit dedicated to peacemaking, health projects, and diplomacy around the world.
A hilarious anecdote in this grin-inducing documentary involves bad boy gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson’s visit to the White House, a kind of refresher on Jesus’s proclamation in the Book of Mark: “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Carter has never worried much about other’s sins, leaving it to his God to make such determinations while he has busied himself with doing good works such as inviting musicians of every color, stripe and genre under the big generous tent of his heart. That heart continues overflowing today, clear testament to a life well lived, its value there for all who have eyes to see, and ears to hear its melodious, welcoming sounds.
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Carter photos from the film