The Real History of Carter’s “Malaise” Speech

by Russell Arben Fox on April 8, 2009 · 10 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Short

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.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar ken mcintyre April 11, 2009 at 9:49 pm

I remember the speech, and I’ve always admired Carter for making it. But then again, I’m very skeptical about the American mythos of progress, both in its Republican laissez-faire form and in its Democratic progressive dirigiste form. I prefer the former merely because it is not necessarily dependent upon the model of technocratic expertise that the latter is dependent upon. But, like most of the contributors to this forum, I don’t believe that either of the options on offer at present is capable of honesty about the limits of human endeavor.

avatar Patrick Deneen April 12, 2009 at 8:05 am

Before the speech Carter invited to Camp David a significant number of policymakers, scholars and intellectuals to offer him guidance. Among them was Christopher Lasch, whose influence I can’t help but see reflected in the speech.

Andrew Bacevich (a conservative scholar of military history, and retired Lietenant Colonel) revisted this speech some time ago and was impressed by its far-sightedness. As he said in this interview,
(http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/85882/tomdispatch_interview_bacevich_the_arrogance_of_american_power),

“I remember the Carter speech. I was a relatively young man at the time. In general, I have voted for Republicans, although not this Republican in 2004. But I did vote for Carter because I was utterly disenchanted with [President Richard] Nixon and [his National Security Advisor Henry] Kissinger. [President Gerald] Ford seemed weak, incompetent. And I remember being dismayed by the Carter speech because it seemed so out of sync with the American spirit. It wasn’t optimistic; it did not promise that we would have more tomorrow than we have today, that the future would be bigger and better. Carter essentially said: If we are serious about freedom, we must really think about what freedom means — and it ought to mean something more than acquisition and conspicuous consumption. And if we’re going to preserve our freedom, we have to start living within our means.

“It did not set well with me at the time. Only when I was writing my militarism book did I take another look at the speech and then it knocked me over. I said to myself: This guy got it. I don’t know how, but he really got it in two respects. First, he grasped the essence of our national predicament, of being seduced by a false and even demeaning definition of freedom. Second, he understood that cheap oil was the drug that was leading us willy-nilly down this path. The two were directly and intimately linked: a growing dependence on seemingly cheap foreign oil and our inability to recognize what we might call the ongoing cultural crisis of our time.

“Carter gives the so-called malaise speech, I think, in July ’79. The Russians invade Afghanistan in December ’79. Then comes Carter’s State of the Union Address in January 1980 in which he, in a sense, recants, abandoning the argument of July and saying, by God, the Persian Gulf is of vital interest to the United States and we’ll use any means necessary in order to prevent somebody else from controlling it. To put some teeth in this threat he creates the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force, which sets in motion the militarization of U.S. policy that has continued ever since. So, July 1979 to January 1980, that’s the pivotal moment that played such an important role in bringing us to where we are today. But of course we didn’t understand that then — certainly I didn’t. In July 1979, Carter issued a prescient warning. We didn’t want to listen. So we blew it.”

Part of a serious reassessment of this speech would also require a serious reassessment of Reagan, a hard task few on the Right are willing to undertake (they spend so much time invoking his name like a talisman, they don’t have the opportunity). Reagan effectively ran against this speech in many respects. He ran as the candidate of optimism and progress, out of the belief that there are no limits that can’t be overcome by American imagination and desire; and, forgotten by many on the Right, he frequently invoked his favorite philosopher, Thomas Paine (check – he wasn’t a conservative), and a favorite line from Paine, “I believe we can begin the world anew.” Reagan won so handily (twice) because he was no conservative: he was a progressivist Emersonian – appealing to the American propensity for self-flattery in their ability to fashion themselves anew – who was able to make enough rhetorical appeals to social conservatives that he carried the country handily. That trickery has resurfaced in our current President, methinks. Both, we should note, were stunningly adept at increasing deficits, showing a confidence that the future would always take care of itself, so long as we were able to live high on the hog now. Neither showed any facility at asking for sacrifice or acknowledging limits, though they could both ape the words well.

avatar Russell Arben Fox April 12, 2009 at 7:38 pm

Great excerpt from Bacevich, Patrick; thanks for sharing it. I think–or, at least, hope–that you’re wrong to compare Obama to Reagan in this particular way, but there’s plenty of opportunity for him to prove you right still ahead of him, that I can’t deny.

avatar Caleb Stegall April 13, 2009 at 10:59 am
avatar D.W. Sabin April 13, 2009 at 2:18 pm

Deneen is spot on, Carter was maligned for attempting to speak an unwelcome truth and Reagan continues to be celebrated for telling the lie that he was for smaller government and it’s attendant fiscal prudence while building a gargantuan deficit and government. The Ronald Reagan Office Building in Washington, second in size only to the Pentagon is a fitting monument.

The public, raised on a weird blend of triumphalism and Ward of the State would seem to prefer being relentlessly lied to as long as the lie tells a pretty story. Attempt to level with the public and they turn on you quick.

It is almost taken as an article of faith that to be effective as the Executive, you cannot be a humane or generous person but if you talk like Hastings extolling the route to golden shores over the Salt Flats, the National Donner Party will listen raptly before finishing the story by dining on one another.

Carter is often characterized as a kind of wilting wimp who does good but never had the guts to be a proper President. An analysis of his early campaigns for Governor show him to be a man of steel backbone and grit. What appears to have no guts for the real fight in front of us is The Public. This cannot be proven , of course, because the Public is rarely accorded the real story and after Carter, no President will ever hazard that. It is like what my wife says to me after I’ve just unloaded another chapter of “The Handbasket of Hell Just Got Deeper” . She smiles and says “Tell Me A Story About a Bunny”. the fact that this then results in an essay on the centerfold of August 1978 is of little consolation.
I think where Carter failed is he did not resort to humor. Maybe he should have done a brothers routine like the smothers and trotted the crazed Billy out to break the bad news.

avatar Kevin Carson April 13, 2009 at 11:23 pm

A lot of people forget just how fluid a situation existed in the late seventies, and what a bundle of paradoxes Carter was.

It’s insructive to read Harry Boyte’s The Backyard Revolution: Understanding the New Citizen Movement, which was a product of that period.

Certainly there were glimmerings of the New Right, dating back to the Business Roundtable and to Huntington’s inaugural Trilateral paper on the “crisis of governability,” and a pretty clear elite consensus that a full-scale social clampdown and massive shift of GDP to accumulation was needed. In a sense, Carter was the first president of the New Right, prefiguring Reagan in many ways.

But the zeitgeist also had a whole lot of Whole Earth Catalog and People’s Bicentennial Commission mixed in, as well. And Carter had his share of that tendency. At the time, things looked pretty hopeful for a shift in American public consciousness toward “small is beautiful” and toward a decentralist reconsruction of both big government and big business. In retrospect, we can see that these populist and decentralist sentiments were coopted by the New Right and its direct mail networks, and diverted down a false path by corporate money. But at the time, anything seemed possible.

At the time, it was fairly common to predict that the average person had had enough of working for a machine, and that employers were being forced to introduce higher and higher degrees of self-management to keep a work force with an “altered consciousness” from getting too disgruntled. Unfortunately, people at the time underestimated the power of things like the Volcker recession and massive union-busting to get workers’ minds right.

If the Internet revolution had happened twenty years earlier, the ruling class might have had a lot tougher going in diverting the rebellion.

avatar Jon S. April 14, 2009 at 9:47 am

Mr. Fox alludes to the problem with the speech when he says that Carter was a far from perfect messenger. Political rhetoric is not the same rhetoric one uses at an academic conference. You must convince people to follow you. Delivering harsh truths with a long face is unlikely to inspire people to action. This was and is one of Carter’s chief failings, namely that he is a professional scold, and a self-rightous one at that.

But that doesn’t mean the underlying meaning of the speech is false. Right message, wrong messenger.

avatar Matt Stokes April 16, 2009 at 3:00 pm

I’d add on that part of the problem with Carter’s speech was this feeling that we are to just…well, bend over and let the rest of the world dictate to us how we should live. Now, prudence and wisdom suggests that sometimes we do in fact let the circumstances dictate our lives, and when we try to work around that, we create a whole new set of problems. On the other hand, in the case of the Cold War and the Islamic Revolution, it was clear that those actors on the international stage were purposefully trying to upset American power and influence, and to many Americans, particularly conservatives, it was problematic to suggest that we change our lives because the Ayatollah and the Politburo said so.

avatar Al February 10, 2010 at 1:24 pm

If Jimmy Carter could have foreseen the future 20 years ahead – he wouldn’t have given that speech. He would have foreseen an economic explosion based on high technologies and industries unimaginable in 1979. He would have seen an entire generation of economic growth. He would have foreseen the US economy growing so fast and getting so huge, no one would have believed him.

If he could have foreseen the future, he would have led us there. Because that is what leaders do. Carter was no leader.

Carter didn’t give this speech because he believed what he said – he gave that speech to save his political hide. Policy makers didn’t shape that speech – a pollster did, Pat Caddell. The purpose of this speech was to turn his floundering administration around politically. His speech wasn’t a call to service – it was an excuse for being a political failure. This speech was a means to fingerpoint away from himself as a failed leader, back to the people who once supported him three years earlier. Carter’s poll numbers were at 25%! He was a dead man facing a re-election. He knew Ted Kennedy was going to announce to face Carter in the Primaries, and Carter had to so something drastic to change his downward projection in the polls. This speech was it. This speech stinks of pollsters and politics, not sincerity or policy.

The little 10 point bounce Carter got in the polls from this pessimistic monologue lasted only two days. So, what did Carter do? Fire everyone. Why? Because since he failed to blame Americans for his political failure – he decided to blame his administration. Once again, we are seeing a political animal drowing and willing to say or do anything to save his political life. How Carter behaves after the Malaise Speech poll bounce ended, exposes the purpose of the Malaise Speech itself. It is no accident that Americans turned away from Jimmy Carter within the week. Carter got caught being utterly insincere, by massacring his Cabinet and Administration. We knew at that moment, Carter’s Malaise Speech was a ruse to save his own scalp.

Extracting Carter’s Malaise speech from it’s timeline and it’s political moment corrupts any analysis based solely on the Speech.

Resurrecting Jimmy Carter over the past thirty years as some kind of prophet is ignoring the general intelligence of the American people during his administration. Remember that the same people who voted for Jimmy Carter, turned away from Jimmy Carter – for a reason. Are we now saying that these same people were wrong – twice? Nonsense!

That is ignoring democracy itself. It insults everyone who was there, interpreting what the President was saying at that time. Carter was speaking contemporarily, and being understood contemporarily. Hijacking the Malaise speech and making it stand up to Ex-President Carter’s political image, is just adulterating history.

These two professors need to go back to college to better understand how to research and write history without insulting everyone’s common sense and intelligence.

avatar Montello March 20, 2010 at 5:56 pm

There is no doubt that Al understands the context of the times under which the speech was made. There is no doubt the 15 years of social and politically upheaval in the country does not have any play in Carter’s words. There is no doubt that the correct political move for an unpopular president is to present a grim and pessimistic view of his country’s life. I wonder why present politicians do not use the similar tactics!

Could it be possible that Carter recognized the loss of his political power and chose to present and extreme (although realistic) impression of American life? Could it be that Carter understood the importance of engaging the damaging events of the previous 15 years of US history (Vietnam, Kennedy and King assassinations, Watergate, etc…) at a time when the country seemed to be living in denial? Could it be that Carter recognized the illusion (or delusion) that Americans were creating for themselves and that was so powerfully sculpted by his successor?

In the end, Carter is remembered as a weak leader because he could not convince Americans that they indeed were becoming obsessed with consumption and celebrity rather than a people working for the common good. In comparison, Carter’s version of “freedom” involves conservation and achieving energy independence while the previous administration’s suggestion of “freedom” is to shop!

Regardless of one’s political-suasion, regardless of who is responsible for Carter’s words, it is difficult to argue that they were not prophetic. To say that America has been in ascendance in the time since the speech is to be living under the delusion that Carter passionately (although unconvincingly) described.

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