David H. Noon: The 29th anniversary of Carter's malaise speech

Roundup: Talking About History

[David H. Noon teaches history at a fine public university at one of the many edges in the American West.]

There are many ways to measure the failure of the Carter administration. Among them, we would have to include his inability to control the name usually associated with the most important and memorable address from his single term in office. Dubbed the “Malaise Speech” by the press, Carter’s televised address — watched and heard by 65 million Americans — did not actually include the word “malaise,” though it accurately condensed the overall thrust of his message, delivered 29 years ago today, on July 15, 1979.

The economic situation in July 1979 was — not to put too fine a point to it — shit. Inflation lumbered along at 12 percent, gas prices had doubled since January, and a decade of slow economic growth had depressed public confidence in the country’s future. In the metro area of New York City, 90 percent of the gas stations had closed in early July, as fuel shortages throttled the country for the second time in five years. More than 60% of Americans believed the nation was in deep trouble. In foreign affairs, another of America’s regional deputies — Iran — had succumbed to a revolution that exposed once more the limits of American power. Carter’s poll numbers were tanking. Having already proved himself inept in dealing with a Congress controlled by his own party, Carter looked uncomfortably at the meat thermometer protruding from his administration’s glistening, browned carcass.

The overall tone of Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech derived from his evangelical faith and his aversion to the sin of pride, which he believed had drawn the nation into a tornado of unsustainable materialism. In the months leading up to the July speech, Carter pursued conversations with a variety of public intellectuals, including Christopher Lasch, Daniel Bell, and Robert Bellah, each of whom had published books over the previous few years decrying consumer capitalism and warning that the nation was imperiled by the demise of traditional religious values and a collapsing ethic of hard work. Carter also received conceptual guidance from the pollster Patrick Caddell, who — in a 75-page April memo to the president — described a nation brought to spoilage by its status as “the first true leisure society.” Having conquered the problem of survival, Caddell suggested, Americans had abandoned a collective sense of purpose, while the political class had drifted far from any commitment to “rough consensus democracy.” Unless political leaders – that is, Carter himself – enunciated a new message of collective responsibility, the nation’s citizens would continue to lose themselves in a haze of narcissism, consumer debt, and vapid soft rock.

The outlines of Carter’s speech took shape during a bizarre domestic summit at Camp David, where Carter received hundreds of visitors – including academics, journalists, religious figures, and ordinary citizens – who offered their wide ranging views on contemporary economic problems, the nation’s political impasse, as well as the flaws in his own presidency. During those ten days, numerous dissenting voices emerged within Carter’s own cabinet. The vice president, Walter Mondale, nearly resigned in protest against Carter’s apparent belief that Americans were primarily to blame for their own predicament; Mondale and others insisted that the country faced objective, structural problems that public officials could and should address pragmatically. Scolding his constituents for their spiritual and psychological failures, Mondale believed, was no way for Carter to address these challenges. In the end, the vice president did not resign, but neither could he persuade Carter to focus his speech on practical solutions rather than philosophical reflection.

The televised address, delivered the evening of July 15, was a unique moment in the history of the American presidency. Carter, a horrific public speaker to begin with, delivered a monotonous and halting half-hour sermon that included nearly five full minutes of criticism, encouragement and commentary from ordinary Americans with whom he had conversed during the previous week.

What followed was an unprecedented presidential jeremiad against affluence. Warning that a “crisis of confidence” threatened to “to destroy the social and the political fabric of America,” Carter observed that

[i]n a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, 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. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives, which have no confidence or purpose.

The symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us. For the first time in the history of our country a majority of our people believe that the next 5 years will be worse than the past 5 years. Two-thirds of our people do not even vote. The productivity of American workers is actually dropping, and the willingness of Americans to save for the future has fallen below that of all other people in the Western world.

Inasmuch as these observations might have been true, Carter’s speech was loaded down with a the sort of self-righteous moralizing that had often irked many Americans who might have been inclined to agree with him. Moreover, the national scolding did nothing to address — or even extend legitimacy to — the immediate and quite real economic perils facing a labor force in the throes of deindustrialization, urban Americans (many of them African American and Latino) enduring their worst decade since the depression, farming communities facing an endless upward ramp of debt. His proposals for a comprehensive national energy policy — most of which had been articulated by Carter on several previous occasions — were overshadowed by his failed attempt to reverse the “crisis of confidence,” a crisis that he defined, in any event, in extremely vague ways.

The months following of Carter’s speech underscored his own political weaknesses. In a moment of epic clumsiness, he asked his entire cabinet to resign, bungled several transitions, then hired the inept Hamilton Jordan to serve as his chief of staff; he faced the start of a devastating intra-party challenge from Edward Kennedy; and he endured one of the oddest moments in presidential history when his own press secretary revealed to an AP reporter that Carter had been attacked by a rabbit earlier that spring. The administration’s foreign policy faced a series of pressures that would set the state for much worse to come. In November, Iranian students captured the American embassy; six weeks later, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Carter’s inability to manage these crises effectively brought his administration to an end and brought undeserved discredit to energy proposals that were objectively decent and sane. The speech that was supposed to reverse the nation’s self-destructive culture — and reverse his own administration’s downward spiral — became one of many emblems of the missed opportunities that defined the Carter years.

Read entire article at Edge of the American West (blog)

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Arnold Shcherban - 7/16/2008

rather they finally responded to the numerous requests for direct military involvement coming from the Kabul's government, which was unable to protect itself and its supporters from the continuous terrorists attacks
of radical Islamists, financed, equipped, and supported by Karachi's regime (that also stood behind terrorism in Penjabe province against India) and the US. The straw
that broke Soviet leadership's back that was reluctant to directly interfere in Afghanistan for long time was the report written by the head of KGB at the time to the members of Soviet Politbureau informing them that according to the variety of the Russian intelligent reliable sources the US military interference in Afghanistan was going to happen within several months period, unless Soviets move in their ground troops first.
That's the real and main reason Kremlin did what it did.
We don't know up to this day whether
the plan of US invasion existed in Washington, but we know that President J. Carter did sign the secret order to unfold the wide-scale covert operation for overthrowing Kabul's government (before Soviet "invasion") which had not remained a secret to Soviets for long.