On February 20th, 1991, our special on Jimmy Carter aired on Discovery. I wasn’t a fan of Carter when he was in office, but it was a pleasure to spend time with him as an ex-president: Thanksgiving dinner with the family in Plains, where Carter showed me around the woods and fields where he’d grown up; Nicaragua, where he helped monitor the election of 1990. It was Carter’s lengthy conversations with Daniel Ortega that convinced him to accept the results of the election, in which Violetta Chamoro defeated him for the presidency.
We built homes with Carter and Rosalynn in Tijuana, Mexico. We went fishing on the Rogue River in Oregon, where Rosalynn caught a few trout but Jimmy, to his consternation, not a one. We traveled to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which Carter had created in one of his last acts as president, but had never visited. I wanted to ask Carter to reflect on his presidency in a high mountain setting, a wise man seeking truth in the wilderness. (A visual cliché I hoped).
It was extremely difficult to find a spot high in the Brooks Range with a snow-capped summit behind him, sufficiently protected from the wind. We found a site that would work, with frequent interruptions when the wind shifted. About half way through our conversation, I asked Carter how he answered people who said his had been a failed presidency. Before Carter could answer, I heard the hum of the 16mm camera stop and my director of photograph, ignoring me entirely and speaking directly to Carter, said. “I have to stop this interview. Like many other Americans, I respected your administration, and I don’t know why Chris is asking you all these typically negative Washington questions.”
He was superb cameraman, with decades of experience, but he had a Swedish arrogance about the United States and its citizens. I looked at him for a moment and turned back to Carter. Jimmy looked at the cameraman and said, “Bob, would you roll the camera?” There is rarely a question that you can throw at an intelligent, thoughtful person that they have not already considered.
Discovery had given the Carters the right to review the final script. I was in the edit room adding the last titles to the show when the phone rang. It was Rosalynn. She was furious. “We took you into our lives, we trusted you and you’ve completely trashed Jimmy,” she began. I listened through a tirade of specifics (you can see the show on my website if you’re interested https://chriskochmedia.com/citizen-carter/). I was completely shocked. “Rosalynn, if this had been any more pro-Jimmy people would have laughed at it.”
Citizen Carter aired a week later. I was at home when the phone rang shortly after the show was over. A voice with a southern accent said, “I liked the show.” I thought it was my friend and former business partner Hodding Carter, but the accent wasn’t quite right. The voice went on, “and my wife liked it too.” And he chuckled. Jimmy Carter is a class act.
The LA Times called Citizen Carter an “unabashedly adoring film portrait.” The Baltimore Sun said it was “an impressive piece of television biography. … evocative, balanced and places him in a historical and symbolic context.” Citizen Carter, won a 1991 Gold Cine Award.