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'Plains' gentleman

There was an awful book of verse published a few years back by American poet-nauseate James Kavanaugh titled "There are Men Too Gentle To Walk Among Wolves."

I couldn't help recalling that overheated statement as I watched the new documentary "Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains." The documentary reinforced the feeling many who lived through his administration always suspected: Carter is a deeply concerned humanitarian, honest and driven, but as a president and "politician," he's a somewhat naive peanut-farmer swimming with the sharks.

Nearly 30 years after leaving office, Carter has become a dedicated human-rights activist, traveling the world to champion the downtrodden and root out abuse wherever he finds it. Not content to rest on his laurels, he oversees the humanitarian Carter Center, which he founded, and finds time to drive nails as a prominent figure with Habitat for Humanity. His ironclad morals are admirable yet have made him a target of critics who charge that he can't see the forest for the trees.

His tendency to denigrate current U.S. policy while speaking in foreign lands has made him the Dixie Chick of ex-presidents. Reviled by conservative pundits and dismissed by the current administration as any sort of diplomat, he is viewed as the nearsighted black sheep of history.

"Man From Plains" mainly focuses on a few months in the life of the Georgia homeboy as he faces what may well be his most controversial move yet. On a cross-country author tour to promote his latest book, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid," he unleashes a can of political worms that has him labeled at best an idiot, and at worst an anti-Semite. Aside from what some consider the questionable facts of the content, by using the emotionally charged term "apartheid" in the title he has heaped aggravation upon agitation.

The book, ostensibly a history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, zeros in on the security wall Israel erected around the Palestinian territories. Israel claims it was strictly for safety, but others, including Carter, think the wall -- which doesn't just skirt the perimeter but blatantly encroaches deep into Palestinian land -- is a purposeful toss of gasoline on an already volatile open flame. Carter thinks it's a further degradation of rights inflicted on a long-suffering people who often turn to shocking acts of violence to vent their frustration. He likens it to someone taking away his beloved peanut patch.

It's this somewhat black-and-white view of the situation that has many screaming foul. They think Carter is blaming Israel for the lack of peace and stubbornly ignoring the shades of gray in the problem.

Throughout the documentary Carter sticks to his guns, defending his position and insisting that many critics have not only not read the book, but totally misunderstand its intent. Plowing through the talk-show circuit, and even meeting with a group of angry rabbis, Carter handles the rhetoric with a Zen-like calm.

Love him or hate him, what emerges from this trip is a portrait of a man who is deeply devout and is genuinely moved by suffering. When tears come from either Carter or his devoted wife Rosalynn, and they come often, it's not a publicity ploy but a heartfelt outpouring of emotion.

Directed by Jonathan Demme with a languid intensity mirroring its subject, "Man From Plains" is at its best when focusing on Carter's soft-spoken convictions. Equally comfortable with saint or tyrant, Carter always tried to see the humanity in everyone. When touching on the Sadat-Begin peace talks we truly feel the agony and frustration Carter endured in those days that finally resulted in the historical agreement that will become his true legacy as a president.

Perhaps the most telling moment in "Man From Plains" however comes when Carter is asked about his handling of the infamous Iranian hostage crisis. He flatly states that he could have destroyed Iran, but believed that killing 20 thousand or 30 thousand Iranians with the result being dead hostages would accomplish nothing.

In an age where saber rattling and gunboat diplomacy seemingly rule the day, it's refreshing and somewhat disheartening to revisit a time when there was still room for reason and hope in an elusive little technique called "talk."

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