‘Argo’ takes UNC professor back to his days in the Jimmy Carter administration

jshaffer@newsobserver.comFebruary 22, 2013 

  • The Oscars

    The 85th Academy Awards will be presented live from Hollywood on Sunday night. The ceremony, hosted by Seth MacFarlane, will air at 8:30 p.m. on ABC. In addition to “Argo,” the other eight best picture nominees are: “Amour,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Django Unchained,” “Les Misérables,” “Life of Pi,” “Lincoln,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Zero Dark Thirty.”

  • Hodding Carter III

    Hodding Carter III is the son of the progressive newspaper publisher Hodding Carter II, who editorialized against social and economic injustice in the South and won a Pulitzer Prize. Hodding III worked as a reporter, editor and publisher before working on presidential campaigns for Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter. President Carter then appointed him assistant secretary of state for public affairs and State Department spokesman, a post he held until 1980. He is now a professor of leadership and public policy at UNC-Chapel Hill.

— In the Oscar-nominated movie “Argo,” Hodding Carter III gets only the briefest mention: a secretary shouting his name as a parade of frenzied White House staffers rush down a hallway.

But anyone who lived through the Iran hostage crisis will remember Carter as the public face of the yearlong emergency. As spokesman for the State Department, he fed news to a ravenous pack of Washington journalists, fielding questions so persistent that he once threw a rubber chicken at an irksome reporter.

Carter, now a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, finds himself fielding questions from “Argo” fans who hadn’t been born when militants seized 52 Americans in Tehran, hadn’t heard of the Shah and can’t remember when yellow ribbons hung from every tree. “It’s a terrific movie – reasonable right up to the end,” Carter said, praising “Argo” as mostly accurate. “It actually makes alive, for a moment, something which is ancient history. Some of the students are just surprised by the drama of it all.”

Starring and directed by Ben Affleck, “Argo” follows the improbable CIA mission to rescue six other Americans (not part of the 52), who holed up in the Canadian Embassy. They got out of Iran by posing as the film crew for a fake science-fiction movie being shot in Tehran.

The movie – considered a favorite to win best picture at the Academy Awards on Sunday night – re-creates 1980 in all its chain-smoking, moustache-sporting excess. It portrays the Washington bureaucrats who pulled off the rescue as tough-talking and profane. Nostalgia practically rises from the screen. Ted Koppel has brown hair. Tom Brokaw looks a bit shaggy. At one point, a character watching a 1980 newscast comments, “John Wayne is in the ground six months, and this is what is left of America?”

From his office at UNC, where he teaches public policy, Carter says he knew nothing about the secret operation dubbed “The Movie Option.”

“Hell no,” he said. “I didn’t have any idea. I didn’t even know they were in the Canadian embassy.”

He first heard about the plan from an NBC News correspondent, who came into Carter’s office to talk about his scoop. “He said, ‘Hodding, I’m not going to go with this story because I’m a patriot, and I’m not going to endanger anyone,’ ” Carter recalled. “‘But I want 15 minutes of lead time before the story comes out.’”

The reporter kept mum. But Carter didn’t feed him a tip before the rescue became huge news. “It wasn’t because I didn’t want to,” he said.

A frustrating time

The film shows American outrage and frustration boiling over into an identity crisis. Shouldn’t we, characters in “Argo” ask, simply invade Iran? Would the Soviets sit still for this?

Carter recalled the crisis as a frustrating standstill. The hostages stayed put. Posturing continued on both sides.

When America did act with force, the rescue mission was aborted after a helicopter crash killed eight U.S. servicemen. Carter heard this news, he said, on a flight home from Hawaii when a flight attendant offered condolences.

President Carter – no relation to the press spokesman and award-winning journalist – believed fallout for the botched mission led to his crushing defeat to Ronald Reagan later in 1980.

It took more than 30 years to make a movie about the hostage crisis, Hodding Carter said, because the subject matter remains so difficult to bear.

“We didn’t immediately make movies about Vietnam,” he said. “We were the last great nation that never lost a war. We are still not exactly sure how we’re going to deal with it. Iran was a humiliation to follow a humiliation. Most people – well, some do – don’t make movies to make people feel bad about their country.”

There is some levity to recalling that era. Carter was well-regarded by the press at the time.

He recalled being at a 40th birthday party, late, when he first got the call about the situation in Iran.

He appeared somewhat haggard at a briefing the next morning. A journalist told him it was good to see a press spokesman looking roughened up by bad news. It showed he had heart.

Carter recalled replying, “I’m hung over as a goat.”

But he also has memories of “walking around tired all the time,” and of being stalked and threatened after an interview he gave to People magazine.

The ending to “Argo” has taken some hits for exaggerated drama, particularly a scene with Jeeps chasing after a plane carrying the hostages out of Iran.

A former aide to President Carter, Gerald Rafshoon, also recently told The New York Times that a pivotal scene in the movie, in which the CIA reaches White House Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan by impersonating the head of his son’s school, was completely untrue. Jordan had no children at the time.

But Hodding Carter called the movie a deserving Oscar candidate.

“I personally would be more likely to go with ‘Lincoln,’” he said. “But I would be perfectly happy.”

Shaffer: 919-829-4818

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