JIMMY CARTER is sitting in the Alaskan wilderness, wearing a Lincolnesque look of semi-tragic reflection. ``The biggest failure we had was a political failure,'' he says, ``I never was able to convince the American people that I was a forceful and strong leader.'' The statement is typical of the directness found in the best moments of Citizen Carter, a comprehensive documentary about the former president's life after office, airing on the Discovery Cable channel March 4, (9-10 p.m. - check local listings for repeats). One glimpse of a scene like this and you know how the whole show should have approached its appealing and too often overlooked subject.
That it doesn't - despite a sometimes rewarding try - is especially frustrating in light of the promising material. The trouble lies in the protective layer of euphemism and compliment placed between Carter and the viewer. The producers' challenge was to depoliticize the Carter persona so his intelligence, compassion, and indefatigable social conscience could be captured without appearing partisan. The result is an informative, well-ordered production that largely avoids political advocacy, although it does offer a rather rosy retrospective of Carter's political career.
We see Carter in energetic pursuit of his public-spirited goals. The crew spent about a year with him, an effort that has yielded scenes of Carter supervising the Nicaraguan elections, building homes for the poor in Mexico, teaching Sunday school, camping, and boosting conservation.
It is a pleasure to catch up with the man and his family - to hear them reminisce about living in the White House as if describing life in a small town. Powerful family values are caught in stories like one about Carter's mother being asked ``Aren't you proud of your son?'' and her answering, ``Which one?''
The program is sprinkled with enough of these tantalizing insights to make you suspect you're missing a lot. We find out from Rosalynn Carter that ``He was bitter'' on returning home - and from Jimmy that ``I readjusted easier than she.'' We learn that they discovered themselves in debt. We see a beaming, shirt-sleeved Carter - obviously in his element - building homes with Habitat for Humanity. We learn from Carter and others about the central place of his Baptist faith in all he does and feels. Throu gh it all you can see the honesty and value of the material itself: Christian service, family loyalty, love of neighbor, the continuity of small-town values, the depth of personal relations typified by the Carters' own frank and obviously loving marriage.
But the program often seems afraid to let these impressive elements speak for themselves and instead seems to be trying to manage your perceptions. Even the ``criticism'' you hear - from people like journalist Hedrick Smith - tends to be a blessing in disguise that imputes Carter's political ineffectiveness to uncompromising standards and his inability to ``schmooze'' with Congress. The undiscriminating admiration palls. We should be free to do our own admiring and not be constantly urged on by a beatif ic narration. Carter deserves a somewhat tougher look - I think he would have come off even better.