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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 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.

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.”

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.

By E.J. Dionne  | June 19, 2010; 6:49 PM ET
Categories:  Dionne  | Tags:  E.J. Dionne  
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You didn’t want a president worrying about the meaning of our lives? Come on, E.J., the entire liberal social project centers on benevolent elites using government power to improve the shoddy human fabric. Carter’s dream still lives. Remember these little jewels of wisdom?

“In 2008, we are still a nation that is too divided. We live in isolation, and because of that isolation, we fear one another. We don’t know our neighbors, we don’t talk, we believe our pain is our own. We don’t realize that the struggles and challenges of all of us are the same. We are too isolated. And we are still a nation that is still too cynical. We look at it as “them” and “they” as opposed to “us”. We don’t engage because we are still too cynical. …

That is why I am here, because Barack Obama is the only person in this who understands that. That before we can work on the problems, we have to fix our souls. Our souls are broken in this nation.”

Posted by: 1776nik | June 19, 2010 9:21 PM | Report abuse

Carter's malaise speech made an important point that has been missing from presidential messaging since 1980. The question is how to make that point without letting go of hope. Perhaps Eisenhower did it better on 1/17/61:

"As we peer into society's future, we -- you and I, and our government -- must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow."

The enduring legacy of the Reaganites is that they twisted Carter's message (and Eisenhower's) to make it synonymous with defeatism. And Democrats have reinforced that equivalence ever since by joining the Republicans in embracing the infectious corporatist materialism that swept our country in the intervening 30 years. Hope == Hummers. The American can-do spirit became "drill everywhere now". And now here we are.

Posted by: chase-truth | June 20, 2010 7:41 AM | Report abuse

All good presidents are concerned with meaning in our lives. One difference is that Republicans focus on meaning in the religious or family sphere, rather than the spiritual power that comes from a shared democracy that builds its own destiny and a just and equitable democratic society for EVERYONE, where ANYONE who works hard and plays by the rules can live a secure life. Only Liberals believe that a fair and just society that protects the future is important for the spiritual health of the nation, independent of the religious and military sphere, and that it is wrong for public institutions to avert their gaze when people are getting screwed. To the Republican mind, those Liberals want to control you, by using the resources of the nation to build hope for children who had the bad luck to be born to poor parents or to live in the path of an oil spew. The Great Communicator may have said it best:

"...freedom prospers only where the blessings of God are avidly sought and humbly accepted...Only through your work and prayers and those of millions of others cans we hope to survive this perilous century and keep alive this experiment in liberty, this last, best hope of man. I want you to know that this administration is motivated by a political philosophy that sees the greatness of America in you, here people, and in your families, churches, neighborhoods, communities - the institutions that foster and nourish values like concern for others and respect for the rule of law under God.

Now, I don't have to tell you that this puts us in opposition to, or at least out of step with, a prevailing attitude of many who have turned to a modern-day secularism, discarding the tried and time-tested values upon which our very civilization is based. No matter how well intentioned, their value system is radically different from that of most Americans. And while they proclaim that they're freeing us from superstitions of the past, they've taken upon themselves the job of superintending us by government rule and regulation."

There you have it: Liberals and bureaucrats are the enemy! Government rule and regulation is the enemy! (Except for the "rule of law under God": you know, drug laws, gays, sex, etc.)

Posted by: chase-truth | June 20, 2010 8:28 AM | Report abuse

Jimmy Carter’s malaise speech was not a home run and the text noted is an excellent example of why. Leadership is action, a plan and a active roll in its success. Carter's "the whipping will continue 'til morale improves" speech contained no such plan, strategy, or foe to fight. Just a call to be better people.
Carter was an engineer who never had enough data to make the correct decision. When he did have enough data the uncertainty of the average American was the problem and he attacked it.

The nature and intent of Obama's speech was completely different. Where Carter was trying to address a problem and came across less Presidential, Obama was trying to be more Presidential to address a problem.

Posted by: flyover22 | June 21, 2010 7:13 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Carter was a startlingly inept president, and has been a positive ninny in his senescence. Zimbabwe just refused him entry into that country. Too bad we can't do the same.

Posted by: sailhardy | June 21, 2010 8:50 AM | Report abuse

I would be satisfied with a President that just manages the government, foreign policy, the military etc. Isn't that enough? The Federal Government cannot be everything to everybody. BTW, we do have state and local governments too. "Bringing meaning to our lives" really falls outside the job description of any government. Guard life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and beyond that it is up to the individual. Less government in our lives is better.

Posted by: n5jjc | June 26, 2010 1:48 AM | Report abuse

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