It’s hard to imagine: As the nation’s economy sags under the burdens of skyrocketing inflation and crippling gas shortages, as the citizenry grown cranky resorts to fisticuffs and grass-roots rebellion, the president of the United States goes on television and tells his people that they are a whiny bunch of narcissistic greedheads who need to quit tuning out and start banding together.
But it really happened.
It was the summer of 1979, a crazy, chaotic period in America. Cars lined up for hours for gasoline, with even-numbered and odd-numbered license plates assigned to alternate steamy summer days. The occasional scuffle would break out in cities across the country.
A beer-soaked anti-disco promotional event at a Chicago baseball game turned into bedlam, and the home team had to forfeit as crazed fans tore up the field.
Truckers protesting gas shortages blockaded an intersection in Levittown, Pa., and a riot ensued, complete with police swinging billy clubs and making dozens of arrests.
Two of the top songs on American radio were the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.— and “My Sharona— by the Knack. The country appeared to be losing its collective mind.
As documented in a new book by Kevin Mattson — with the unwieldy title “What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?’: Jimmy Carter, America’s Malaise,’ and the Speech that Should Have Changed the Country— — it was into this maelstrom that President Jimmy Carter marched with one of the most remarkable of presidential speeches.
The speech, delivered on national television from the White House on July 15, 1979, is frequently remembered as Carter’s “malaise— speech, though Mattson reminds us that Carter never actually used the word.
What Carter did say is that America had come to “a crisis of confidence ... that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will.— And this crisis “is threatening to destroy the social and political fabric of America.— Too many people had turned their backs on community and family and now “tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption,— the president said. “Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns,— he lamented. And in a tone of deep foreboding, the president told his people, “This is not a message of happiness or reassurance, but it is the truth and it is a warning.—
A video and transcript of the entire speech is available on the Internet from the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia (millercenter.org/scripps/archive/speeches/detail/3402), and it is worthwhile and extraordinary viewing.
But more than the speech itself, Mattson’s book describes how Carter came to deliver this sermon to an agitated population and how the speech became the turning point, or perhaps the crumbling point, of Carter’s presidency.
It is a story full of things that seem impossible today, if only because Carter’s handling of the events leading up to and just after the speech were so horribly bungled.
Carter had planned to give a nationally televised speech on energy on July 5, 1979, but at the last minute he canceled the speech, with no explanation. Instead, he retreated to Camp David where, for the next 10 days, he holed up with advisers, religious leaders, public figures, regular citizens and basically anybody else he could find and held a brainstorming session about what was wrong with America.
Hard as it is to imagine now, at the height of a crisis, the president of the United States essentially disappeared from public view for two weeks. The book’s title comes from a headline in the New York Post that Mattson says was emblematic of the public view of the White House at the time: “What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?—
But Carter was convinced that another dry policy speech about energy would solve nothing. Instead, he spent days plumbing the soul of the nation and fretting over our moral drift.
The resulting speech includes flourishes that are unimaginable today. Carter read from index cards some of the trenchant quotes he gathered during his cram session, with occasional editorial asides — “this was a good one.— In some ways, the speech is a reminder that, once upon a time, an American president attempted substance over stagecraft.
Carter ultimately tried to wrap an energy policy program into the speech, which gets clunky. After painting a rich rhetorical picture of the corrosion of the national soul, Carter suggests that one of the solutions will be the creation of an “energy security corporation— that will sell “five billion dollars in energy bonds— that Americans could buy like war bonds to invest directly in the energy crisis. Hard to imagine a more powerful prescription for spiritual uplift than energy bonds.
Stranger than the speech itself and the era in which it was delivered is Mattson’s contention that it actually went over pretty well. According to his research, the immediate public response to the “crisis of confidence— speech was quite good, with citizens flooding the White House with supportive calls and letters thanking the president for identifying the moral drift at the heart of America’s economic ills.
But then Carter blew it.
Days after giving the speech that he hoped would prove the turning point of his presidency, Carter fired most of his Cabinet. This immediately changed the national discussion from the leadership and vision of his speech, to the chaos seeming to take root at the White House. Whatever wave of hope he managed to generate with the speech crashed upon the rocky shoals of his staff shake-up and quickly dissipated.
Mattson’s book spends far less time on the aftermath of Carter’s speech than it does on explaining how the speech was born, which serves to undercut the significance of the speech in history. In notes describing his book, Mattson argues that the speech “led to [Carter’s] downfall and the rise of the conservative movement in America,— and while it is hard to doubt this, the book gives short shrift to this history.
Mattson makes the point that Republicans — particularly Ronald Reagan — had a field day comparing their bright vision of the future and Norman Rockwell memories of the past with the “malaise— that Carter saw in the heart of America. But it is also true that between the speech and the election, there was this thing called the Iranian hostage crisis which arguably may have done more to doom Carter’s presidency than any single speech did.
Carter may deserve much of the credit that Mattson appears to want to give him for looking deeply and honestly into the soul of the nation and telling the American people the hard truths about their own culpability for its decline. But the man also presided over a catastrophic foreign policy, and Mattson seems to brush past all of that in an effort to elevate July 15, 1979, to a critical turning point in history.
Nevertheless, Mattson has crafted an interesting story, in part simply because it is a window into an unforgettably embarrassing time in the national history. And a president who tried to tell us we were making fools of ourselves.