Obama, Carter and malaise (cont’d)
Thanks to Ezra Klein for the kind reference to my Thursday column and for raising a good point.
Ezra takes issue with my shorthand reference to Jimmy Carter’s malaise speech, which carried negative implication. On the contrary, says Ezra, Carter’s speech “was actually a home run.” To support his point, he quotes the excellent Kevin Mattson, who literally wrote the book on the subject, "What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?": Jimmy Carter, America's "Malaise," and the Speech that Should Have Changed the Country.
As it happens, I had Kevin’s book next to me while I was writing the column. Mattson is right that the speech, delivered on July 15, 1979, went over well initially and that Carter dissipated its impact with his Cabinet shake-up and his failure to be more specific about what he was asking of the American people.
It sure did dissipate. This is Haynes Johnson, writing in The Post a week after Carter’s speech and the firings:
The government's not about to crumble, despite the shock waves that swept through Washington last week, and the current political spasm will pass. But once again Jimmy Carter's presidency has been shaken by new impressions of instability just as it appeared that people were beginning to rally around his new bid for leadership. The president's hope is that the events of last week -- the most disconcerting coming out of the White House since the Nixon years -- will be put in perspective as he takes his administration in a new direction.
That won't be easy, for the dramatic actions of last week have created problems for Carter within the government, and quite possibly with public perceptions of his political standards.
The question isn't over the firing of a Cabinet officer, or two or three or four.Or more. For months there were growing signs of displeasure directed at the Cabinet by top members of Carter's White House. "We've been more loyal to them than many of them have been to us," one person close to the president said weeks ago.
It's how the changes were made, with what impact, that caused concern. To an extraordinary degree all of government has been affected by the shakeup/evaluation process now under way. The tremor that's swept through the government has exposed old fears and insecurities, the very kinds of things the Carter administration hoped to reduce by restoring stability and better management to Washington's bureaucratic fiefdoms.
For the purposes of my column, I was simply making the point that “malaise” had become a negative political word because of the longer-term impact of that speech. But substantively, I have a less positive view of Carter’s speech than Kevin does. I recall watching the speech when I was a young reporter living in upstate New York and feeling that Carter had addressed the national psyche when what we mostly wanted was to fix the energy problem. That was a common view at the time and was shared by Carter’s vice president, Walter Mondale.
I was generally sympathetic to Carter’s values, his emphasis on “the public good,” and his critique of the “worship of self-indulgence and consumption.” And, yes, you sure wish we had done a lot more, then and since, to free ourselves from dependency on foreign oil. But some of the language was just too much for me. Here’s a sample:
I was not easy about a president worrying about “the meaning of our own lives,” meaning us, the citizens. I didn’t see that as part of his job description. In his book, Mattson quotes Daniel Bell, the great social thinker who had met with Carter at a dinner the president held with a group of intellectuals when he was pondering the speech. I think Bell got it just about right. “I do not think one can yoke a theme that is primarily moral and cultural to a ‘cause’ or ‘crusade’ that is so complex as energy,” Bell said. “Many persons, while appreciating the seriousness of the president’s effort, in the end found themselves confused as to what was being asked.”
I want to speak to you first tonight about a subject even more serious than energy or inflation. I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy.
I do not mean our political and civil liberties. They will endure. And I do not refer to the outward strength of America, a nation that is at peace tonight everywhere in the world, with unmatched economic power and military might.
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. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.
The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.
And my view of the speech hardened during the 1980 election. It struck me that Carter’s rhetoric allowed Ronald Reagan to steal hope and optimism, a liberal and Democratic long suit from the time of FDR, for modern conservatism and the Republican Party. It took 12 years for the Democrats to steal them back, one of Bill Clinton’s real achievements.
But it’s entirely true that there has been a renewed appreciation for Carter’s speech in recent years, and so I appreciate Ezra’s comment as invitation to debate it anew. Readers interested in reading the famous speech can click here. Kevin Mattson closes his book by insisting that “Carter’s speech still resonates to this day.” That I certainly agree with.
| June 19, 2010; 6:49 PM ET
Categories: Dionne | Tags: E.J. Dionne
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