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.

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We would also do well to remember the sort of complexity and humility that Carter tried to inject into political rhetoric. Some think of Carter as wishy-washy, as a leader who didn't lead. And there are truths in that assessment. But he also called for patriotism—a return to "confidence" in America—while holding onto a sense of national humility that the energy crisis made imperative. Carter was unwilling to pander to the people. He said instead, let us examine our way of life with its "self-indulgence." He refused to place all the blame on government and turned some of it back to the people.

In the end, Carter dropped the ball. He didn't have the requisite political skills to work with Congress and get things moving. His presidency was such damaged goods that few would work with him. He didn't think long term enough to figure out how to implement the policies he had set out. But in his failure, he left behind a possibility. He left behind a way of talking about the country's promise and its need to confront what is undoubtedly one of its biggest challenges—to solve the energy crisis in a way that takes seriously both our limits and our greatness.

Kevin Mattson teaches history at Ohio University and is author most recently of Rebels All!: A Short History of the Conservative Mind in Postwar America. He's writing a book about Jimmy Carter's 1979 "Crisis of Confidence" speech.