In the summer of 1979, America faced an energy crisis punctuated by long gas lines and frayed national nerves. President Jimmy Carter was scheduled to address the nation about its problems on July 5, 1979. But he canceled the speech on the day before and sequestered himself at Camp David for 10 mysterious days, communing with Americans from different walks of life in a "domestic summit" that culminated in his famous "malaise" speech. In "What the Heck Are You Up to Mr. President?" Jimmy Carter, America's "Malaise," and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country, Ohio University historian Kevin Mattson argues the speech is misremembered. He chatted recently with U.S. News about why Carter's moment should be reconsidered. Excerpts:
So what the heck was Carter up to?
[He thought] you really needed to embrace a kind of mentality of shared civic sacrifice in order to fight the energy crisis, and you weren't going to be able to do that until Americans really became much more introspective about what was wrong in the country at the time. So why should the speech have changed America?
In fact, it won Carter a great deal of support. And so there's this kind of counterintuitive that as he goes out and seemingly berates the American people, it's actually quite effective in drawing their support. So people write in and say, "I'm willing to sacrifice in my own way by riding a moped to work or taking fewer trips, cutting down on my own consumption of oil, cutting down on my own consumption of goods in general." It did rivet the attention of Americans at that moment and could have potentially led to a long-term energy plan that would have been viable. It's just that Carter blows the option that he opens up by firing the cabinet two days later and sending the country back into this sense of shock and dismay. The speech is remembered as the "malaise" speech, but he never used that word?
No. He never used the term "malaise." The term gets into circulation prior to the speech. A number of people who are invited to Camp David are then interviewed by journalists, and a few people, including Clark Clifford, use that term. So journalists already even before the speech is given start to put the tag "malaise" on the speech. And then obviously it's Carter's political opposition, both Ted Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, who in November of 1979 announce their candidacies for the presidency, and both of whom use the term malaise, argue that there is no malaise in America, that Carter's wrong about diagnosing malaise, and it's that attempt to say that what Carter was trying to do was blame people for the problems and take the blame off of his own shoulders. It's really the opposition to Carter that starts using the term in order to essentially pummel him. Doesn't Carter deserve a share of the blame?
There's no doubt about it. And he knew it. At the time, he wrote quite openly that he knew when the cabinet firings took place that he handled them very poorly. I think of the story as really kind of a tragic story, which is that he opens up the possibility and then two days later he closes his own window of opportunity. You put the speech in a broader cultural context?
We know the '70s as being a decade of disco, decadence, drug use, divorce, a sense that America was in a state of cultural decay. And, in fact, there's a lot of truth to that. And that's why the speech somewhat worked, that Carter was trying to address a number of cultural problems that had set in to America. Disco symbolizes it perfectly. All of these things trouble Carter and need to be addressed in terms of why Americans are having a difficult time facing up to this very real problem of the energy crisis and our consumption needing to be checked. He's trying to relate some of the kind of cultural issues and cultural problems that numerous social observers had made about the '70s. Thirty years later, why should people care about the malaise speech?
Situating the speech as part of a larger turning point toward the ascendancy of conservatism and the ascendancy of what we would call Reaganism allows us to rethink whether or not we took the right turn at that moment . . . or whether or not we can actually return to the speech and pick up on some of the challenges it set for Americans. I'm thinking now in terms of the debates that we're going to be having about the climate change bill as it moves into the Senate. Can we see the importance of the nation embarking on changing its ways of being and its ways of living its life in order to confront what's still a major, pressing energy crisis?