Jimmy Carter’s ‘malaise’ speech was popular!

August 9, 2013
The malaise speech worked! (Dale G. Young / AP)
The malaise speech worked! (Dale G. Young/AP)

Jill Lawrence knocks Maryland Governor (and presidential hopeful) Martin O'malley for telling Americans that the nation is enduring "a crisis of confidence."

The phrase called to mind Jimmy Carter's famous "malaise" speech of 1979, in which he lamented that the country had not come together to solve its problems. Carter never actually used the word "malaise" – but he did use the phrase "crisis of confidence." In fact, it was the title of the speech.

"I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy," Carter said. "The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will."

There is nothing wrong with the phrase itself, and the speech has gotten better reviews in hindsight than it did at the time.

This is the conventional wisdom. It's also wrong. The truth is the speech got great reviews at the time and horrible reviews in hindsight. As historian Kevin Mattson writes, Carter's mistake wasn't the speech — it's what he did next:

The speech worked. It prompted an overwhelmingly favorable response. Carter received a whopping 11 percent rise in his poll numbers. The mail that poured into the White House testified that many citizens felt moved by the speech. One man wrote to Carter, "You are the first politician that [sic] has said the words that I have been thinking for years. Last month I purchased a moped to drive to work with. I plan to use it as much as possible, and by doing so I have cut my gas consumption by 75%."

In the end, Jimmy Carter did blow the situation, but it wasn't because of the speech itself. Rather, he blew the opportunity that the speech opened up for him. Just two days after July 15, Carter fired his Cabinet, signifying a governmental meltdown. The president's poll numbers sank again as confusion and disarray took over. Carter could give a great speech, but there were two things he couldn't manage: to govern well enough to make his language buoy him or to find a way to yoke the energy crisis with concrete civic re-engagement initiatives.

So O'Malley probably shouldn't fire his entire Cabinet next week. But he shouldn't shy away from talking about "crises of confidence"!

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