Past and Present: 'Malaise' and the Energy Crisis

Jimmy Carter's speech is remembered for something he never said—we should recall what he did say.

President Carter poses before his energy conservation speech.

President Carter poses before his energy conservation speech.

By + More

The president of the United States was rumored to have disappeared or gone crazy. It was July 5, 1979, and Jimmy Carter had canceled a speech scheduled for national television that evening. During the day, as the press pondered his infirmity, the president was at Camp David, consulting his staff about a broad "crisis of confidence" that his young pollster, Patrick Caddell, had diagnosed.

He spent 10 more days at the Maryland mountain retreat, meeting with not only staff but also political and civic leaders from various walks of life. On July 15, 1979—a Sunday, fit for a national sermon—Carter went in front of television cameras to give the most important speech of his presidency. He spoke in dire terms of the "crisis of confidence." Since then, his words have been remembered as the "malaise" speech, a word never uttered during it but later grafted onto it by the media and Carter's political opponents, Ted Kennedy to the left and Ronald Reagan to the right. "Malaise" stuck.

As with so many other things from the Carter years, the speech has been misremembered, mocked on The Simpsons, or glossed in college textbooks. But with energy prices again reaching record highs, the speech is worth recalling today not simply for what Carter proposed but also for how he did so.

What Carter really did in the speech was profound. He warned Americans that the 1979 energy crisis—both a shortage of gas and higher prices—stemmed from the country's way of life. "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," the president said. Consumerism provided people with false happiness, he suggested, but it also prevented Americans from re-examining their lives in order to confront the profound challenge the energy crisis elicited.

"We've always believed in something called progress," Carter explained. The simple version of this big idea was the faith that "piling up of material" goods would ensure a better life. Carter condemned the idea's naiveté and warned his fellow Americans that they could not live in a world without limits. Selfish individualism (what he once called "me-ism") wouldn't pull us through the crisis.

As Americans, Carter explained, we had to stop daydreaming and realize that our reliance on foreign oil made us vulnerable. Here he used a war analogy for his solution—though sometimes a faltering metaphor, it made sense. Our country had been founded by a revolution against foreign dependence, and now the country needed to throw off reliance on the Middle East's "black gold." So Carter proposed an Energy Mobilization Board modeled after the sort of government agency that got the country through World War II.

Some of the other policies Carter offered in the speech still get recycled today. He wanted a "windfall profits tax" to hit the oil corporations. The money garnered would help fund the search for alternative sources of energy. Short-term pain would be inevitable, Carter warned ("This is not a message of happiness or reassurance," he said, "but it is the truth and it is a warning"). Still, the tax seemed the best compromise between two polarized positions, the open-ended deregulation called for by the right (including Reagan) and a call to nationalize the oil companies from the left. Before Bill Clinton, then a young governor of Arkansas, articulated a "Third Way" philosophy, Carter had discovered the virtues of the middle road and compromise.

We would do well to remember Carter's speech in today's context not for a word it never offered—malaise—but for the warnings it provided. Carter was right to suggest that the energy crisis of 1979 had to do with our moral shortcomings—our culture's penchant for selfish individualism and its desire to live without limits or a sense of a public good. Those are not bad lessons to heed today, as we think about our current energy crisis. After all, we should have readied ourselves during the go-go 1990s for the problems we face at the gas pumps now instead of rushing out to purchase SUVs and Hummers in record numbers.