The eyes of the nation are fixed on Georgia, with two U.S. Senate seats up for grabs. In a timely twist, the man who helped reshape the South’s political landscape is the subject of a new feel-good documentary just right for lockdown family viewing.
“Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President” is a relevant history lesson during our current, painful presidential transition. Carter, 96, remains a powerful spokesman for the value of political decency. His Carter Center, which promotes human rights globally and typically monitors elections abroad, this past week observed the hand recount of the 2020 presidential race in Carter’s home state of Georgia — a first in the U.S.
“Rock & Roll President” might seem like a misnomer given Carter’s mild-mannered persona. But it turns out he has eclectic musical tastes and was a fan of blues revivalists the Allman Brothers Band, whose label, Capricorn Records, was based in Macon, Georgia. Carter reached out to the Allmans and other bands to stage fundraisers for his longshot 1976 presidential campaign. It’s a hoot to see a clean-cut Carter, wearing a suit, tell a cheering crowd, “I want to introduce to you the great Allman Brothers!” The clip cuts to long-haired Gregg Allman hunched over his Hammond B-3 organ singing the rollicking “One Way Out.”
The film opens with Carter smiling broadly as he listens to Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” at home in 2018. Carter sweetly recalls how a love of Dylan helped him connect with his sons and muses on the unifying power of music. Dylan shares his admiration for his friend and fellow Nobel Laureate.
There’s terrific footage, including Aretha Franklin singing “God Bless America” at the inaugural gala; Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock and Dexter Gordon performing on the White House lawn; and pal Willie Nelson singing “Georgia on My Mind” at Carter’s Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.
Nelson factors into life at the White House during the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel. We get a lesson in soft diplomacy involving the Chinese ambassador, Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. Gregg Allman shares funny anecdotes about visits to the governor’s mansion in Atlanta and the White House (with then-wife Cher). Trisha Yearwood remembers the pride she felt as a sixth grader that a fellow Georgian was becoming president. Yearwood’s husband, Garth Brooks, talks admiringly about their work on Habitat for Humanity with the tireless Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter.
The loving tribute highlights Carter’s lived faith and integrity. Allman Brothers and Rolling Stones pianist Chuck Leavell marvels that Carter didn’t distance himself after Gregg Allman’s notorious federal drug trial just months before the 1976 election.
For Carter, recounts a former administration staffer, there was no contest between political expediency and doing the right thing. Confronted by KKK marchers at a Georgia campaign rally for his failed bid at a second term, Carter gives a dressing down to the haters in white sheets. After his landslide loss to Ronald Reagan, back in his hometown of Plains, Carter’s expression of relief and gratitude at the release of American hostages in Iran is a lovely moment of grace.
Rosanne Cash sums it up best: Carter simply follows the commandment to love one another. We need as many reminders to do that as we can get in 2020 and beyond.