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Jimmy Carter Was the Strongest of ’Em All

The Iran hostage crisis and the doomed rescue mission Operation Eagle Claw were the nadir of Carter’s presidency. But in her new documentary ‘Desert One,’ Oscar-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple argues that he was a tougher leader than history books suggest.

“My life had been mostly one of successes.” 

It’s striking to hear Jimmy Carter, now deep into his 90s, say that near the start of Desert One, a documentary that is most certainly not about one of those successes. In November 1979, Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, capturing 52 hostages consisting of American diplomats and civilians. It was but the latest escalation in tensions between the two countries after the Iranian Revolution sent Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi into exile and installed Ayatollah Khomeini as the country’s leader. The Shah, a longtime friend of the U.S., was granted safe harbor in the States as he received medical treatment, and Carter refused to extradite him. When the students overran the U.S. embassy, they demanded the Shah be handed over to stand trial.

For the next several months, the hostages waited as Carter tried diplomatic channels to secure their release. Refusing military intervention — he was concerned about the potential loss of life — Carter sought peaceful negotiations but, eventually, he relented and agreed to Operation Eagle Claw, a risky mission overseen by Delta Force that would go into Iran and rescue the hostages. In April 1980, just a few months before voters would go to the polls to determine if Carter should get a second team, the operation was launched. Not only didn’t it succeed, it was a catastrophe: After some mechanical problems, the American forces were forced to cancel the mission, but during the withdrawal, a helicopter struck an aircraft, resulting in the death of eight soldiers.

Demoralized and anguished, Carter went on television to inform the American people about the operation and to apologize for its tragic failure. “It was my decision to attempt the rescue operation. It was my decision to cancel it. … The responsibility is fully my own,” he said solemnly into the camera. It was effectively the end of his presidency. 

Ever since Carter’s drubbing at the hands of Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election, his time in the White House has been generally considered a disappointment by historians. (The fact that the hostages were freed mere moments after Reagan was sworn in only punctuated Carter’s humiliation.) The Carter presidency is thought of as a time when America was perceived as weak in the eyes of other world powers, while Reagan’s more swaggering style restored the country’s international might. 

Barbara Kopple doesn’t see things that way. The two-time Oscar-winning documentarian approached her new film Desert One as a way to commemorate the heroism of those who took part in Operation Eagle Claw, as well as the hostages who spent a total of 444 days in captivity. But she also views her movie as a correction to the conventional wisdom that Carter wasn’t a strong leader. On several occasions during our Zoom conversation, she reiterates this point. “I think he’s very strong,” she tells me emphatically, “and I admire him greatly.”

As a result, Desert One dovetails into a rumination on what exactly toughness in a president even means. When many Americans wanted Carter to go into Tehran and remove the hostages by force, this Navy veteran preached pacifism and soft power. If Operation Eagle Claw had been a success, maybe Carter’s brand of leadership would be more admired today.

Last week, I spoke with Kopple about getting manly Delta Force veterans to cry, why she doesn’t have any interest in interviewing Donald Trump and how blue-collar workers (like the ones she profiled in classic documentaries such as Harlan County, USA) are faring today. But she kept returning to the idea that Carter needs to be reevaluated. “We now think of him as someone who we wish was back in office,” she says. “[He illustrates] how we should govern, how we should care about each other, how we should care about other nations. He’s a very powerful person.”

While watching Desert One, I was thinking, “This is a rare film about American failure.” We tend to be uncomfortable with that as subject matter, which made me wonder if that was part of the allure for you. 

What drew me to this project was the courage of these men who really were willing to give up everything to release the 52 hostages that were taken by the Iranian students and held at the American embassy for 444 days — even if this was a mission that had a lot of moving parts and maybe wouldn’t be successful. Sometimes military people think, “No matter what, it’s going to be successful,” but…

What drew me is the story of the people — the hostages, the people on the mission, President Carter, Vice President [Walter] Mondale. I love to interview people, and I love to see who they are. And I love to see what makes them tick. 

Because the mission didn’t succeed, how hard was it to convince people to talk?

Some people had talked for things in the past, and some people had made promises that they would never talk about this. But I think people were ready to do it — it’s the 40th anniversary. And once they got started talking, they couldn’t stop — it just came pouring out of them, whether it was tears or memories. It was quite an extraordinary experience to have these tough Delta Force and Special Operations guys really spilling it all.

I love talking to men. I mean, I did a film on Mike Tyson. My very first [film] — I was very young — was with a collective of people, and it was called Winter Soldier. It was about Vietnam vets saying what they had done in Vietnam. My Al Jazeera America film, called Shelter, was about homeless veterans. I like seeing who men are and seeing what men are about.

Have you always known you’re good at talking to men?

Well, I never would say I was good at talking to men. [Laughs] I’m just very curious who you guys are and what makes you make certain decisions. Life has changed over the years so much for men that it gets difficult to be politically correct yet do the things that you want to do. I love knowing who people are.

Like you mentioned, I was struck by how emotional so many of your military subjects get. How were they in the room? Were they apologetic about getting weepy or tried to shake it off quickly?

I think that getting emotional felt good if you’re doing it with a woman. If it had been with another man, it might’ve been different, because you have to be tough with each other. Because it was a woman, it was easier. Also, I’m very empathetic and I care a lot — and then we’d move on to something else. It’s not like we would dwell in that [emotional] space.

That connects to a larger theme in Desert One, which is how we measure “strength.” For years, the knock on Carter’s presidency was that he wasn’t tough enough — the Iran hostage crisis was supposedly emblematic of that. 

I thought President Jimmy Carter was exceedingly strong. He wanted to be diplomatic and to be a humanitarian. He didn’t want any of the 52 people who were taken hostage to die — he did everything he possibly could to preserve that. He cares about human life. Up to today, he’s still doing Habitat for Humanity

For me, [preferring diplomatic channels] took a lot of courage. He wouldn’t [make] the Shah go back. [Earlier] presidents had taken in the Shah and he did too — whether that was right or wrong, it was his decision to make. But Khomeini hated [Carter] because he wanted the Shah — he wanted him to stand trial for his human rights abuses. But the Shah had cancer and he had nowhere to go, and so Carter helped to get him medical treatment. So, no, I don’t think [Carter] is weak at all. I think he’s very strong, and I admire him greatly. And I think he’s a man of great courage and caring for fellow human beings — much different than what we have today…

When you talked to Carter, was this something that came up? This impression that he wasn’t a strong leader?

Not really. I had 19 minutes and 47 seconds to talk to him.

Wow, not a lot of time.

It wasn’t much. So I needed to have him really talk about what happened and why he chose to do something. Taking him into the weeds — knowing that I had such a finite time — [would have been] difficult. So all the questions I would have asked like that, I had to let go from my mind to just get to the points that I thought we really needed in the film.

One of the Desert One’s selling points is that, for the first time, we get to hear the top-secret phone calls between Carter and his generals as he’s learning that the operation is failing. The audio that we hear is remarkable for how blasé Carter and the men he’s talking to sound. Terrible news is being conveyed, but he has to stay even-keeled.

The mission was a secret mission. There was no photography, there was nothing shot on the mission. Everybody had to silence their radio. The only [information] that ever got out was between the generals and Carter — the information was given, and there were no big discussions about it. 

If the Iranians tapped [their communication], it had to be very bland. That’s really fascinating for me, because you’re seeing history in the making. [They] were living it as it was happening.

It’s a glimpse into being Leader of the Free World. You have to convey a certain image, even in such a tragic moment.

He was very presidential. Matter of fact. I’m sure a million different things were going on in his mind. But you could tell by the way he was breathing, or you could tell by the way that he reacted to certain things… some of those things just said far more than any words could have.

Desert One lightly mentions the popular belief that Reagan and Iran had a secret agreement where the hostages would be released only once he was sworn in as president. I’m guessing you tried your best to confirm whether that actually happened.

Yeah, I was curious. So I asked [U.S. Foreign Service hostage] Michael Metrinko and also [Richard Sanchez, who took part in Operation Eagle Claw], and they both presume that this definitely happened. But nobody had any real information about it. So I wasn’t able to get it.

I guess I could have been a lot more persistent, gone to a lot of other people, but I probably would’ve gotten the same answer. I doubt anybody would have said to me, “Yes, this was all pre-planned.” I mean, that would be very dangerous and criminal activity. So I got what I got: “Yes, we think so, but we can’t prove it.” 

But you do believe that there was a secret agreement?

I would think so. I mean, I know that Khomeini just wanted to totally humiliate Carter, and so letting [the hostages] go one minute after Reagan was inaugurated is a little fishy, a little crazy, or it’s just a big punch in Carter’s face. He wanted to do anything he could to let Carter know that he was in charge.

It’s remarkable that our intelligence agencies, as noted in the film, were getting their information for this mission partly by watching Nightline, which had reporters over in Tehran. That seems like a pretty damning commentary of our government agencies.

Well, it was a secret mission, and we didn’t have the internet, and it had to be kept on the down-low. They were getting [intel] where they could get it. One of [my interview subjects] said we had to watch footage that [TV crews] got in front of the American embassy to see how the [Iranian students] were holding their guns, which way the doors opened — small things that we wouldn’t think of — so that, if their mission was successful, they would know as much as they possibly could about the place they were going to enter into.

Were you interested in this story partly because Iran has remained one of our biggest adversaries? The tensions back then aren’t dissimilar from the tensions today.

And I knew that I wanted the Iranian point-of-view. Thirty-five percent of Iran today is young — they care about culture and they care about connection. So it was very important to me not to do just a one-sided piece. 

One of the great interviews that we had was with this [Iranian man] whose family went on a trip through Tabas once a year, and it happened to be the exact same place [and time] where the Americans landed [in April 1980]. Throughout the whole interview with this man, it’s almost as if he was doing it through his 11-year-old eyes, telling the story of being afraid and hoping that he would make it so he could tell his school friends what an adventure he had been on and what he had seen. It’s moments like that that make it so similar to every human’s feelings and sensibilities. 

[U.S. Foreign Service officer] John Limbert, who was one of the hostages, had married an Iranian woman. When he was released, the press came up to him and said, “Now, what do you think about the Iranians?” And he said, “I think they’re incredibly intelligent people. They have wonderful art. They have wonderful culture. And I hope that one day I can go back there and show my children their roots.” And so, this was also a film about hope that these two countries can come together and be able to share again.

But he has yet to go back.

Right, he hasn’t been welcomed back. And it’s one thing on his bucket list that he wants to do. He went there as a child. He married a woman from there, and he has children that are part-Iranian and want to see where they’re from.

I’m assuming he hasn’t been allowed back because of his involvement with the U.S. government.

It’s partly because of politics, it’s also because of the Iranian-U.S. relationship. I mean, under Trump, we’ve almost gone to war with the Iranians.

It’s hard to watch a movie about quiet strength and not think about Trump, who’s the exact opposite of that.

Bluster. Negativity. Doing things to enrage other countries. Thinking only about power, not about humanity. It’s a tough run that we’ve had. Then you compare it with somebody like President Carter, who is so incredible and such a humanist and loves culture and loves art and people. He’s just an amazing human being.

And yet, a lot of people voted for Trump. What is it about a certain portion of Americans that they think he represents strength? 

It’s so far in the weeds for me to ever think why somebody could vote for someone like this. He doesn’t read, he doesn’t understand things. He only cares about himself. And he treats women very, very badly. I mean, he just called [Kamala] Harris a nasty woman. He called [Nancy] Pelosi a nasty woman. He just has no sense of empathy, no sense of humanity. Doesn’t know how to relate, only can relate through what he wants and what he will gain from something.

As a documentarian, is there any part of you that would be curious to interview him?

I think I feel that I know the answers, and because he lies so much, we wouldn’t get the truth. I’d rather be with the good guys and learn who they are. 

Would you like to interview him?

Well, on the one hand, no — I wouldn’t want to give him any more airtime. But there’s a part of me that, when I watch bad journalists ask him bad questions, I think, “Hell, I could at least do better than this.”

He gets so much time anyway. All that anybody talks about is Trump. And there’s so much more to talk about — about our lives and about the essential workers and COVID and how people are making their way. There’s just a whole world out there that doesn’t revolve around Trump. He gets too much of it.

I think about your Oscar-winning documentaries Harlan County, USA and American Dream, which are about workers. It’s been awhile since you made those films. It seems like the plight of blue-collar folks has only gotten worse.

American Dream was about meat-packers, and look at meat-packers now: They’re the people who are getting COVID. A lot of them are refugees, and a lot of them need to support their families and they even go to work when they’re sick. There’s just a huge change in how we treat people from other areas and how little life means.

It seems we’re less and less interested in understanding people who aren’t like us.

But you learn so much. I mean, your preconceptions of somebody are probably totally wrong. The only way that we get to know each other is by communicating and by figuring out what one’s life is about — what makes them who they are, the history of where they came from, the dreams of where they’re going. Those are all exciting, and they just take you around the corner. So you should just go.

Early in Desert One, Carter tells you, “My life had been mostly one of successes” before this hostage situation. It runs counter to this narrative we have of Carter as a loser. 

He didn’t like to fail. He thought of himself as somebody who is very strong and macho and really could succeed in things. Failure for him was not in the cards. He said, “Well, I’m going to be president,” and everybody went, “Come on, a peanut farmer being president? That’s ridiculous.” And he did it. 

That’s why it’s so striking to see that footage of Carter apologizing to the American public for the mission’s failure. It’s so rare to see a leader be humble in that way. It says something about the quality of his character. 

When he decided to do the mission, he [told the military], “If you succeed in this mission, it’s your victory. If we fail, it’s my defeat.” That was just the way he was.

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