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Its hard to imagine: As the nations 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 Peoples 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, Americas 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 Carters 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, Mattsons 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 Carters presidency.
It is a story full of things that seem impossible today, if only because Carters handling of the events leading up to and just after the speech were so horribly bungled.