CLAY JENKINSON: The Future In Context — Malaise Forever?

This is another in an occasional series of articles Governing is publishing this year by Clay Jenkinson on some of the less well-known presidents of the United States.

You can listen to the companion audio version of this and other essays in the series using the player below or on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsStitcher or Audible


Jimmy Carter and American Memory

Jimmy Carter was a toothy optimist and arguably the most hopeful and idealistic of American presidents, and yet, on July 15, 1979, he delivered one of the most pessimistic (and perhaps tone deaf) presidential speeches in American history. In doing so, he permanently damaged his political standing and his legacy. Carter failed to understand one of the deepest truths about the American presidency. Successful presidents sing the Song of America — abundance, optimism, boundlessness, opportunity, the best is yet to come. Unsuccessful presidents fail to sing the Song of America. The American people want their presidents to tell them that their prospects have never been brighter, and that America is abuzz with human possibility “from sea to shining sea.”

After mulling over his message for weeks, Carter told the American people — in a speech from the Oval Office — what he thought they needed to hear about the state of America’s soul just three years after the bicentennial of American Independence. We’re suffering from a national crisis of confidence,” he said. The president spoke of “a growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives,” and “the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.” TheMalaise Speech,” as it is now universally known (though he never used that word), became the most well remembered of the hundreds of speeches Carter delivered during his one-term presidency.

Historian Ronald Gruner has written, “It would not be until President Trump’s ‘American Carnage’ inaugural address some 38 years later that a president painted a darker picture of America.”

A Difficult Time

Gasoline price numbers in the late 1970s marked a turning point in gas pricing, when fuel jumped above the $1 per gallon level for the first time. (americanhistory.si.edu)
Gasoline price numbers in the late 1970s marked a turning point in gas pricing, when fuel jumped above the $1 per gallon level for the first time. (americanhistory.si.edu)

It was admittedly a very difficult time in American life. The second national energy crisis had brought on daylong gas lines, rationing, truckers’ strikes and violence at the pumps. In Fairfax, Va., a woman talked her way to the front of a long gas line by explaining she was pregnant. Everyone understood. Then two pillows fell out from under her dress. On another occasion, an angry customer charged a gas station attendant with a machete while screaming, “I’m going to cut your ass up.”

There was an actual gas riot in Levittown, Pa., on June 23-24, 1979, resulting in considerable property damage and 117 arrests. The Wall Street Journal declared that “the social fabric of this society is stretched tauter than any time in a decade.”

President Carter was not speaking in a vacuum.

The Three Mile Island nuclear disaster had occurred in March 1979; a DC-10 crashed in May; in midsummer NASA’s first space station, Skylab, was about to plummet to the Earth, possibly over a population center.

Interest rates and unemployment were up. The nation was still reeling from a decade of political assassinations, the constitutional debacle and ethical tawdriness of the Nixon presidency, the revelations of the Senate Church Committee that the United States routinely engaged in thuggish behavior in its attempts to overthrow “undesirable” regimes around the world and, perhaps most of all, the searing images of helicopters lifting a handful of lucky survivors off of the embassy roof in Saigon.

And this was before the Iran hostage crisis.

Preparing for the Speech

President Carter had scheduled a national television address on the energy crisis for July 4, 1979. It was abruptly canceled at the last minute. Instead, Carter moved up to Camp David for 10 days to formulate what he regarded as his most important speech to the American people. His intention was to rally the people to endure the disruptions of the energy crisis in a spirit of high resolve and self-sacrifice.

Carter was so concerned about the soul of America that between July 5 and July 14, he did something that no president had done before: He invited different groups of people to come up to Camp David one after another to talk about America’s malaise. Governors came one day, members of Congress on another. Religious leaders (the “God Squad”), “prominent Americans,” economists, labor representatives, and business leaders all took their turns advising the president. The sociologist Robert Bellah urged Carter to have the courage to tell the American people some difficult truths. He was not a politician.

By the evening of July 14, the president knew what he wanted to say.

The president’s White House staff was leery of the speech and of the honesty with which Carter chose to speak to 225 million Americans. But when Jimmy Carter made up his mind about something, he was hard to dissuade. On this occasion, his characteristic earnestness, righteousness, honesty and stubbornness etched his place forever in American history. What is clear is that Carter was not thinking politically but morally and had something he wanted to say to the American people — we had lost our civic soul — and he said it in plain terms:

The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and political fabric of America. … Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. … For the first time in the history of our country, a majority of people believe that the next five years will be worse than the last five years.

And then, “All the legislation in the world can’t fix what’s wrong with America.”

The great mistake President Carter made was to blame the American people for their problems, rather than OPEC or the oil corporations or post-Vietnam inflation. According to historian Kevin Mattson, the author of a full-length book about the speech, What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President: Jimmy Carter, America’s ‘Malaise,’ and the Speech that Should Have Changed the Country, President Carter misread the mood of America. The people were not in a malaise. Actually, “the country was “pissed” — in a state of outrage. June became a month of violent gas lines, trucker shootings, riots in American suburbs, and visceral hatred of the president.”

Historian Kevin Mattson points to episode 80 of The Simpsons (Season 4, which aired May 6, 1990, a decade after the speech) for a telling example of the lingering resentments toward, if not Carter, his Malaise Speech. In the episode, cash-strapped citizens of Springfield cannot afford a statue of Lincoln or Washington. When the new presidential statue is unveiled, townsfolk are disappointed to see that it is one of Jimmy Carter. “Aww, come on,” yells one. In Simpson’s fashion, another screams, “He was the worst monster in history,” which sparks a riot. At the base of the statue are the words, Malaise Forever.

The Aftermath

Carter’s speech was, at least in the short term, greeted with a national outpouring of respect. His poll numbers temporarily shot up 11 points (a gigantic bump). He received appreciative telegrams and letters from all over America. But then things went terribly wrong. Just two days after his soul-searching speech, Carter abruptly called for the resignation of his entire Cabinet (in the end, just five were fired). Public confidence in the man and his Democratic administration plummeted. There was a widespread sense that Carter’s White House was adrift. Some commentators worried about the president’s mental health. In his presidential memoir, Keeping Faith (1982), Carter admitted, “I handled the Cabinet changes very poorly.” That was certainly an understatement.

Sen. Ted Kennedy, who would challenge Carter unsuccessfully in 1980 for the Democratic nomination, said, “Now, the people are blamed for every national ill, scolded as greedy, wasteful and mired in malaise.” Carter, he said, was a pessimist who had forgotten about “the golden promise that is America.” Ronald Reagan, who would supplant Carter in 1980, said, “I find no national malaise. I find nothing wrong with the American people.”

Singing the Song of America

Telling the Americans what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear may be good leadership, but it is usually poor politics. Americans like to be told that everything is going to be fine, in fact, everything is going to be rosy.

It was Thomas Jefferson, perhaps the most inveterate optimist of our 46 presidents, who created the song-of-America template March 4, 1801, in his first inaugural address. Jefferson prepared his address with great care, partly because that was how he was wired, and partly because his hotly contested election represented the first transfer of power from one party of men to another.

Jefferson began by calling the United States “A rising nation, spread over a wide and fruitful land, traversing all the seas with the rich productions of their industry … advancing rapidly to destinies beyond the reach of mortal eye.” That’s the note that Jimmy Carter could not, would not sing in 1979.

Jefferson called for national unity and an end to political wrangling: “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle,” he insisted. “We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” For Jefferson, the dream of America floated above the grubbiness of politics. All Americans want the same things, he declared; they just have different ideas about how to achieve those universal ends. But we can disagree as rational friends.

Toward the end of his inaugural address, Jefferson laid out his vision of “a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.”

Finally, after modestly wondering if he were the best possible person for the job, Jefferson closed by assuring the American people that they possessed “a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation.”

As we say today, this was a “drop the mic” moment. And this was “before” Jefferson doubled the size of the United States with a single stroke of his pen in 1803 for three cents per acre: the Louisiana Purchase.

Lesson Learned?

Presidents who sing the Song of America tend to do well. Those who choose not to do so generally fail. Among the former: Jefferson, FDR, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan (“It’s morning again in America”). Among the latter, John Adams, William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Gerald Ford and (most famously) Jimmy Carter. As in so many other ways, Donald Trump was unique. Somehow he managed to sing the song (“Make America Great Again”) and also deliver one of the darkest and most divisive inaugural addresses in American history, now universally remembered as the “American Carnage” address.

In 1979, our most earnest president attempted to inspire the American people to rethink the American dream, to recommit themselves to our core national values and come together again as a national community of thoughtful patriots. He asked us to look unblinkingly into the mirror. He believed that we could not overcome our challenges without a national spiritual renewal. Eighteen months later, the American people sent him packing and elected one of the nation’s most reassuring presidents in his place.

You can also hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” and the Governing podcast, Listening to America.” Clay’s most recent book, “The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota,” is available through AmazonBarnes and Noble and your local independent book seller. Clay welcomes your comments and critiques of his essays and interviews. You can reach him directly by writing cjenkinson@governing.com or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.

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