Presented by Charter Communications: Netroots Pitch; 'Crisis' Mode; Carter's Malaise
Good morning, it’s Monday, July 15, 2019. Forty years ago today, as inflation raged, high interest rates choked the U.S. economy, and an oil embargo by OPEC generated record-high fuel prices, the president of the United States felt the need to address the American people.
His popularity plummeting, Jimmy Carter wanted to talk about what he saw as the underlying ills sapping American strength even more than the sour economy. The result was destined to be known as the “malaise” speech.
I’ll have more on Jimmy Carter’s much-maligned rhetorical gambit in a moment. First, I’d steer you to RealClearPolitics’ front page, which presents our poll averages, videos, breaking news stories, and aggregated opinion columns spanning the political spectrum. We also offer original material from our own reporters and contributors, including the following:
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To this day, Jimmy Carter’s loyalists will remind you that on July 15, 1979, the 39th U.S. president never uttered the word “malaise.” This is true, although it’s probably also accurate to say that this short-hand description was as good as any.
It certainly seemed to fit the mood in the White House, and even in the country. The July 4 holiday that year was epitomized by lines at gas stations that stretched for blocks. Holed up at Camp David, Carter was scheduled to give a prime-time July 5 speech on energy policy -- the third of his presidency -- but it was abruptly canceled with no explanation.
Ten days later, Carter emerged with a speech that was about more than an energy crisis. It was about what he called “a crisis in confidence.”
“After listening to the American people, I have been reminded again that all the legislation in the world can’t fix what’s wrong with America,” the president told the nation. “So I want to speak to you first tonight about a subject even more serious than energy or inflation. I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy.”
That threat, in Jimmy Carter’s telling, was “an erosion of our confidence" that undermined the “social and political fabric” of America.
“Too many of us,” Carter continued, “now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.”
He wasn’t wrong, exactly. It’s just that this was a pretty high-handed tone for a president to take with Americans who couldn’t find work or pay the family bills and were stuck in a gasoline rationing lines at a time of double-digit inflation.
The following year, Americans voted with their feet, to use an expression from that time, retiring Jimmy Carter involuntarily from elective office and replacing him with a sunny Californian who stood on the steps of the restored west front of the U.S. Capitol and offered a different prescription: “Let us renew our determination, our courage, and our strength,” Ronald Reagan proclaimed at his inauguration. “We have every right to dream heroic dreams.”
Jimmy Carter could never quite fathom why the “malaise” speech is remembered so unkindly. As recently as 2012, in an interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan, Carter insisted that initial reaction to the speech was positive. It wasn’t until his 1980 primary opponent Ted Kennedy (and, later, Reagan) started mischaracterizing it that the public turned against it, Carter told Morgan.
This revisionism isn’t altogether wrong. The malaise speech itself got some good reviews. The White House was inundated with positive letters, and Carter’s job approval rating went up briefly. It was what came before and after that solidified Carter’s reputation as a hapless leader.
After he had canceled the July 5 speech without explanation, the Washington gossip mill was rife with speculation about the president’s health. One rumor had it that he’d left the country.
Then, two days after the speech Carter abruptly demanded the resignations of all 12 members of his Cabinet and top members of the White House staff, telling them archly that he’d decide which ones to accept. In the end, he fired half the Cabinet and several top aides.
This inexplicable action struck voters as panicky and it eroded any goodwill Carter had earned by trusting the American people enough to talk to them from the heart. In my view, it changed how people thought about the July 15 speech. Voters didn’t need Ted Kennedy or Ronald Reagan to tell them how they thought. Coupled with the firings, it now sounded to many Americans as though Carter was blaming the voters he was supposed to be leading. Over time, this morphed into a conventional wisdom that the “malaise” speech is what doomed his reelection chances.
But being tin-eared politically isn’t the same thing as being wrong. After playing a clip of the controversial “worship self-indulgence and consumption” passage, Piers Morgan enthused to Carter, “You were right then and you would be right to say that today, wouldn't you?”
That kind of cheerleading is to be expected in modern journalism, but Morgan was hardly alone. Scapegoating the citizens for his own shortcomings is an unattractive thing for a president to do, but Jimmy Carter’s larger point -- that materialism is not enough to nourish the human spirit or solve all problems -- cannot be dismissed lightly.
Two decades later, a prominent Reaganaut who worked to defeat Carter gave the man his due. “The ‘malaise’ speech was bad politics,” Peggy Noonan told me in 2000. “But it wasn't bad thinking.”
In that 2000 election cycle, both presidential nominees seemed to concur with Carter's views about over-reliance on materialism.
“Ordinary Americans have decided to confront the fact that our severest challenges are not just material, but spiritual,” said Democratic Party standard-bearer Al Gore while discussing faith-based solutions to social problems. “There is a better way.”
“Our country must be prosperous, but prosperity must have a purpose,” George W. Bush told the American people. “The purpose of prosperity is to make sure the American dream touches every willing heart. The purpose of prosperity is to leave no one out -- to leave no one behind.”
Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics