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Book Review: "What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?" by Kevin Mattson

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By Carlos Lozada
Friday, July 10, 2009; 9:06 PM

WHAT THE HECK ARE YOU UP TO, MR. PRESIDENT?

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Jimmy Carter, America's "Malaise," and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country

By Kevin Mattson

Bloomsbury. 263 pp. $25

Ronald Reagan wished us a good morning in America, while Papa Bush foresaw a new world order. Bill Clinton did not have sexual relations with that woman, whereas George W. told his enemies to bring 'em on. Further back, we had nothing to fear but asking not for a Great Society. Trust me -- I am not a crook, and I cannot tell a lie.

History seems to remember occupants of the White House as much for their words as for their actions. It's too soon to know which words will define President Obama. "Responsibility"? "Empathy"? "Hope" and "change" echoed through his campaign, but over time will they start feeling a little old, a little yes-we-canned?

Among all the men who've held the office, however, President Jimmy Carter alone may have the distinction of being defined by a word he did not utter. In an extraordinary speech from the Oval Office on July 15, 1979, the 39th president looked straight into a television camera, deep into the nation's psyche, and proclaimed a "crisis of confidence" in America, one "that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will." Despite a brief bump in the president's approval ratings, the address became forever disparaged as the "malaise" speech, and it doomed Carter's reelection chances. That speech, history has concluded, was a huge mistake.

Ohio University historian Kevin Mattson challenges that conclusion in his feisty new book, "What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?" Chronicling the mood inside the White House and across the nation in the months surrounding the speech -- months when gas lines and Three Mile Island monopolized the news while "Apocalypse Now" and "disco sucks!" dominated the zeitgeist -- Mattson offers a radically different reading. The speech, far from a political miscalculation, was a brave attempt by a thoughtful president to reimagine the nation and bind citizens and government in a common purpose, one that the author believes should still resonate today. If the speech failed, it was not because of the president's words, but because of the way his message was twisted by his opponents and because of strategic flubs Carter made shortly thereafter.

It was a speech that almost never was. In the early months of '79, with a presidential election season on the horizon, Reagan was charging on the right, Ted Kennedy challenging on the left and the White House imploding among bickering advisers. Carter seemed disconnected, traveling to Austria, Japan and Korea on foreign policy jaunts while gas lines gave rise to violence in America's streets. The president's top men -- image-polisher Jerry Rafshoon, domestic policy wonk Stuart Eizenstat, press secretary Jody Powell and soon-to-be chief of staff Hamilton Jordan -- were hounding their boss to address the energy crisis in a major address to the nation. But the first draft the speechwriters delivered was so bland that Carter fell asleep reading it. "I just don't want to bullshit the American people," Carter told his team on the phone from Camp David, canceling a scheduled address.

This left an opening for Pat Caddell, the president's 29-year-old pollster, who emerges as the hero -- or goat -- of Mattson's tale. Known for his apocalyptic views, Caddell had long been ruminating on a nationwide spiritual crisis that transcended gas shortages and oil cartels. Inspired by books such as Daniel Bell's "The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism" and Christopher Lasch's "The Culture of Narcissism," Caddell decided that "disastermania" had taken root, with Americans losing faith in their government and their future.

Caddell's genius, Mattson explains, was to appeal to both sides of the president's personality. For Carter the nuclear engineer, Caddell offered charts and data showing an increase in the number of "long-term pessimists" in America. For Carter the born-again Christian, he offered visions of decline and redemption: A self-centered, insecure nation felt defeated by the Vietnam War, embarrassed by Watergate and pained by inflation. If Carter spoke honestly to the country about its problems (and his own), he could guide it out of the morass.

But the White House team couldn't agree on what to do. While Caddell plotted, Eizenstat counseled the president to deliver a tough speech taking on OPEC and calling for new energy regulations. Meanwhile, the speechwriting shop warned against another televised energy speech, after several had fallen flat over the years. The fight came to a head July 5 in an eight-hour shoutfest at Camp David. Eizenstat screamed that Caddell's ideas were nonsense while Vice President Walter Mondale "fought off a nervous breakdown," Mattson writes.


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