Today is the 30th anniversary of Jimmy Carter’s famous “Crisis of Confidence” speech (referred to by many as the “malaise speech” despite the fact that Carter did not use the “m” word in the speech).
In 1979 the United States was in crisis. Gas lines were long, interest rates were high, and the country was defined by a decadence and narcissism that was seen most clearly in the disco culture of New York’s “Studio 54.” Jimmy Carter’s popularity was at an all- time low. On July 15th Carter told the American people that sacrifice was needed. He spoke with a Niebuhrian sense of realism and human limitation and chided Americans for their “worship” of “self-indulgence and consumption.” Carter wanted Americans to see that the nation had problems that ran far deeper than the energy crisis. He urged them to consider a form of happiness and human flourishing that did not require the piling up of material goods. It was a speech unlike any other. It was a reflection on the American condition.
The commentary on the thirtieth anniversary of the speech has been mixed. Gordon Stewart, one of the speech’s co-authors, reflects on the events surrounding the speech. He concludes that Carter “insisted on the realities of responsibility and the need for radical change.” Marty Peretz says that the speech was “pathetic.” Damon Linker describes it as Carter’s “kick me” sign. Chris Matthews thinks Carter was “dead on.”
To commemorate the anniversary of the speech, I took a break from early America and read Kevin Mattson’s excellent narrative history of 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. Instead of listening to blogging pundits like Linker or Peretz who thoughtlessly rant about the speech from their own political point of view, read Mattson’s book for a sustained analysis of the speech and its meaning. Mattson argues that Carter’s speech was a success.
Positive letters and phone calls poured into the White House in the days following the speech. Carter’s approval ratings went up 11% on July 16th. The speech could very well have changed the nation if Carter had not undermined the success of the speech by firing his cabinet several days later. According to Mattson, “Americans might have been able to take a tough speech about the state of their country and the energy crisis, but they couldn’t take a complete shakedown of the government at the same time.”
The speech has received largely negative criticism because it was used as a foil for Carter’s political opponents. The speech’s call for sacrifice and limits ran counter to Ted Kennedy’s liberal optimism and Ronald Reagan’s conservative optimism. As Mattson writes: “Our memory of the speech comes from those who reworked it, who twisted its words into a blunt instrument that helped them depose a president.” Mattson notes how Reagan used the speech to his political advantage, defending a political philosophy that offered “the right to dream ‘heroic dreams’ without sacrifice.” While Carter talked about the “fallibility” of America, Reagan believed that “fallibility only meant defeatism.” “There was no place in his world,” Mattson writes, “for sin or self-inquisition.” Reagan’s promised “a combination of guttural self-interest mixed with a utopian vision of the future,” a vision “that Carter could never offer…”
In the end, Mattson’s Carter is not a very good politician. Carter tended to side with cultural critics such as Daniel Bell, Christopher Lasch, and Reinhold Niebuhr (Bell and Lasch were consulted prior to the speech) in the belief that the problems facing civil society could not be solved by government or politics. Such an approach to culture does not usually win elections. The American people were not ready for this kind of message and, frankly, they never have been or will be. While the “malaise speech” did not help him win re-election in 1980, it did teach Carter that true change must happen on the ground. As Mattson shows, Carter lived out his ideas in this speech through the multitude of service projects and civic programs he participated in and sponsored after he left office.
Carter’s speech will remain one of the best presidential speeches in American history because of the courage it took to deliver it. Carter may not have been a great president, but this was a great speech–an exercise in truth-telling. Mattson is right–it could have changed America. Perhaps it still can.