The Real History of Carter’s “Malaise” Speech

By Russell Arben Fox for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

A couple of young, progressive liberals (Kevin Mattson and Ezra Klein) note what too many mainstream American politicians and pundits have conveniently forgotten: that President Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech–his thoughtful, brave, reflective call to America to embrace (or rather recover) an ethic limits, humility, and civic obligation, a call praised by the likes of Rod Dreher (and me)–was hardly a failure; the public responded well to it, recognizing in the sort of maturity that had been long missing from American political discourse. The “official” reaction was that the speech was a significant success, and would have a positive impact on the American character.

As it turned out, Carter was a far-from perfect messenger for this kind of message; his subsequent various missteps poisoned the public perception of everything he did or said, and made it easy for establishment voices–who had never liked the born-again Georgian as president, anyway–to capture the “official” story of the speech, and make it in public memory into a failure, a coffin nail in the Carter presidency. The forces then against thrift, conservation, and sacrifice won the battle over images and ideas, and the speech was dismissed as an act of incompetence. Perhaps it will ever be such. But history of his audacious speech at the time he gave it suggests that the ideals of a Front Porch Republic are not so lost to the American people as we sometime may fear.

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