Thirty Years Later, in Praise of Malaise

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


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.

Carter cut off the drama by proposing an idea he and Rosalynn had dreamed up: He would remain at his Maryland retreat for an informal summit with the American people. Over several days, governors, spiritual leaders, lawmakers, business executives, labor bosses and journalists paraded through Camp David, meeting with Carter for wide-ranging conversations on the nation's problems. It was an extraordinary week and makes for one of the most compelling portions of Mattson's story.

A 32-year-old Bill Clinton stopped by, as did Tip O'Neill, Jesse Jackson and even Alaska's Ted Stevens, who encouraged Carter to drill for oil in his state's wilderness. (One participant, former defense secretary Clark Clifford, told reporters that the president was worried about "malaise," thus slipping the term into the bloodstream.) Carter also met with ordinary families, including that of William Fisher, a 29-year-old machinist outside Pittsburgh. "Fisher argued that the country was in a 'downhill spiral' and was shocked to find Carter shaking his head, saying yes," Mattson writes.

Carter decided to merge these various perspectives in a single speech. He would talk about the nation's alleged spiritual challenges and would also offer solutions on energy -- forcing speechwriters Hendrik Hertzberg and Gordon Stewart to graft Eizenstat's bullet-point policies onto Caddell's civic crisis. They decided that if the country could come together on energy, it would show its mettle to solve the broader crisis of confidence. "It still seemed like two speeches," Mattson explains, "but they appeared at least tentatively hinged."

On Saturday, July 15, at 10 p.m., after a day of rehearsal -- speak with your hands, Rafshoon told Carter, and don't grin all the time -- the president gave the speech. For 32 minutes, he admitted his failings. ("I need your help.") He acknowledged his critics. ("Mr. President, you are not leading this nation, you're just managing the government.") He criticized American materialism. ("Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.") He argued that political assassinations, Vietnam and Watergate had undermined national confidence. ("These wounds are still very deep.") And he charted a new path on energy. ("This nation will never use more foreign oil than we did in 1977 -- never.")

The White House switchboard lit up. Letters poured in. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and Carter's approval ratings shot up 11 percentage points. For a fleeting moment, the speech was a hit.

Well, what changed? Mattson targets the media, for one, faulting journalists for interpreting the speech solely on political grounds -- dwelling on Carter's "performance" and his effort "to show his toughness"-- and not on its content. Columnists hammered the M-word into the popular consciousness, even though Carter hadn't used it. "The president has made malaise a household word," The Washington Post reported even before Carter's address. "On the heels of the speech," Mattson complains, "the media turned itself into an echo chamber in which 'malaise' bounced around."

Much of the blame, the author acknowledges, also falls on Carter. Two days after his speech, he followed Jordan's advice and dismissed five Cabinet members, including his attorney general and energy secretary, on loyalty grounds. The stunning move sent the dollar plummeting, while Carter's critics speculated about his mental health. As Mattson put it, "The president had blown it."

Conservatives smelled blood. Jerry Falwell -- who had recently founded the Moral Majority -- and Reagan seized the speech to offer their own optimistic counter-narrative. "Does history still have a place for America, for her people, for her great ideals?" Reagan would ask late in the 1980 presidential campaign. "There are some who answer no, that our energy is spent, our days of greatness at an end, that a great national malaise is upon us." The Gipper went on, triumphantly: "I find no national malaise. I find nothing wrong with the American people."

Mattson, whose sympathy for Carter is evident, concludes, almost bitterly, that "the script had been perfected . . . and it was working: weak president, overwhelming crisis, and American decline that demanded a stronger -- and different leader."

If it was a script, Carter's final months followed it perfectly. Iranian students seized hostages at the U.S. Embassy. Arms-reduction talks with the Soviets fell apart. News accounts of Carter tangling with a "killer rabbit" while fishing in Georgia made the president seem even wimpier. Reagan rode it all to victory.

Mattson makes the intriguing suggestion that the speech remains instructive today, not just politically, but substantively. If so, how do Carter's 30-year-old words illuminate Obama's current efforts and challenges?

To a young new president who has promised transparency in the White House, the speech offers a vivid instance of openness and trust in the public. Carter confessed some fundamental shortcomings -- well beyond Obama's "as a former smoker I constantly struggle with it" admission -- and called out the public on its failings. And to a new president who claims to eschew ideology in favor of pragmatism, Carter's week-long summit with the American people -- and Caddell's deep reading of contemporary arguments and popular books -- suggest an eagerness to raise new ideas in the public square.

Now, with the economy again in crisis and Iran again in turmoil, the parallels between the eras are hard to ignore. Obama speaks of restoring confidence in the markets and the government. As a final lesson, he might heed some polling data that Caddell shared with Democratic leaders in the weeks before Carter's speech. Caddell found that Americans had faith in Carter personally -- in his "trustworthiness" and "dedication" -- but many worried that he was "generally not in control of things."

Obama certainly fulfills the first half of that assessment. In three years or so, we'll know if he avoided the second.

Carlos Lozada is deputy editor of The Washington Post's Outlook section.

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