The recent stunning images of revolution in the Islamic world is reminiscent of the Iranian revolution of 1978. Protests throughout Iran had led to the dethroning of the Shah of Iran and in his place, Ayatollah Khomeini– a fundamentalist cleric- became the leader of the nation.
The revolution had thrown oil production into decline and, this, in turn, had driven up prices.
To make up for this loss, Saudi Arabia and other OPEC nations boosted their respective production; however, the cartel had also announced that a series of oil price increases would accompany this increase. Gasoline prices skyrocketed and the perception of a shortage had led to widespread panic. Beginning in California and spreading eastward, the panic soon turned to anger from the American public and this hostility was primarily directed at the Carter administration. One of reason for this was Carter’s decision to cut all imports of Iranian goods, following the seizure of American hostages when students raided the American embassy in Tehran.
Carter’s approval rating had dropped to 25%, lower than Richard Nixon’s during the Watergate scandal. Following an exhausting summit in Tokyo, the one thing President Carter desired most was a break. He had planned to travel to Hawaii for a vacation. However, his chief of staff took a look at the poll numbers and warned him that his chances of re-election would be in serious doubt unless he took some action immediately.
Reluctantly, he cancelled his vacation and retreated to Camp David to begin working on a speech to the nation regarding the energy crisis. His heart was conflicted. His other speeches had had limited effect and he had begun to feel that the public had simply stopped listening. He now felt that a new approach was necessary.
Casting aside his previous plans- much to the concern of his staff- Carter privately invited dozens of prominent Americans to Camp David- members of Congress, governors, labor leaders, academics and clergy- to speak their minds about the present state of the nation. Carter sat on the floor and took notes while citizens from all walks of life shared their opinions with the leader of the country.
What Carter heard was not flattery but valid, honest criticism of his leadership. For Carter, this “domestic summit” was enlightening and the things he had learned directly from the voters offered him a new direction for the nation.
The speech was given on a Sunday evening of July 15, 1979. Millions of Americans watched as Carter gave what was to be his most important speech. I recall the speech and looking back on the online video copies of it now, it is faintly embarrassing. Carter was not at all a smooth speaker and in some ways, his corniness was part of his appeal. In the years following Watergate, the public had grown intensely frustrated with career politicians and yearned for an outsider. Compared to Carter’s successor, Jimmy Carter’s manner of public speaking was unnatural, his gestures forced and awkward. As one of his speech writers, Hendrik Hertzberg, remarked, “[it] was more like a sermon than a political speech. It had the themes of confession, redemption, and sacrifice. He was bringing the American people into this spiritual process that he had been through, and presenting them with an opportunity for redemption as well as redeeming himself.”
Though he never used the word, it became known as Carter’s “malaise” speech. That, then, is the background of the speech and here are some excerpts.
We’ve always believed in something called progress. We’ve always had a faith that the days of our children would be better than our own.
Our people are losing that faith, not only in government itself but in the ability as citizens to serve as the ultimate rulers and shapers of our democracy. As a people we know our past and we are proud of it. Our progress has been part of the living history of America, even the world. We always believed that we were part of a great movement of humanity itself called democracy, involved in the search for freedom, and that belief has always strengthened us in our purpose. But just as we are losing our confidence in the future, we are also beginning to close the door on our past.
In 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.
As you know, there is a growing disrespect for government and for churches and for schools, the news media, and other institutions. This is not a message of happiness or reassurance, but it is the truth and it is a warning.
These changes did not happen overnight. They’ve come upon us gradually over the last generation, years that were filled with shocks and tragedy.
We were sure that ours was a nation of the ballot, not the bullet, until the murders of John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. We were taught that our armies were always invincible and our causes were always just, only to suffer the agony of Vietnam. We respected the Presidency as a place of honor until the shock of Watergate.
These wounds are still very deep. They have never been healed.
The gap between our citizens and our Government has never been so wide. The people are looking for honest answers, not easy answers; clear leadership, not false claims and evasiveness and politics as usual.
What you see too often in Washington and elsewhere around the country is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well-financed and powerful special interests. You see every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath by one unyielding group or another. You often see a balanced and a fair approach that demands sacrifice, a little sacrifice from everyone, abandoned like an orphan without support and without friends.
Often you see paralysis and stagnation and drift. You don’t like it, and neither do I. What can we do?
First of all, we must face the truth, and then we can change our course. We simply must have faith in each other, faith in our ability to govern ourselves, and faith in the future of this Nation. Restoring that faith and that confidence to America is now the most important task we face. It is a true challenge of this generation of Americans.
We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.
Surprisingly perhaps, his poll numbers went up 11 percent the day after the speech. That glow was short-lived, however. Carter didn’t help himself by clumsily conducting a shakeup of his government in the week following the speech. That decision, too, came directly from the opinions he had collected about the loyalty of his staff. This ill-timed house-cleaning of his cabinet, so late in his term, suggested that things were in a state of collapse. His vice-president, Walter Mondale recalls, “ the message the American people got was that we were falling apart.”
The Republican side clearly saw an opportunity. Ronald Reagan offered a vision of America without limit whose glory lay before it. A little more than a year later, Ronald Reagan defeated Carter by offering Americans a vision that was as optimistic as Carter’s was pessimistic. Americans have always been a positive people and Reagan, whatever his true record, made Americans feel good about themselves. The Neo-Conservative movement adroitly used the phrase “a crisis of confidence” to mean “weakness.” Re-reading the text of the speech shows this was not quite what Carter was actually referring to. However, the label stuck tight and that is what historians now use to define the Carter years.
Admittedly, Reagan was, unlike Carter, a master of rhetoric and the smooth delivery. His old style patriotism was a political masterpiece, delivered by the idealized grandfather.
In his book, Limits of Power, Andrew J.Basevich notes:
No doubt Reagan spoke from the heart, but his real gift was a canny knack for telling Americans what most of them wanted to hear. As a candidate for the White House, Reagan did not call on Americans to tighten their belts, make do, or settle for less. He saw no need for sacrifice or self-denial. He rejected as false Carter’s dichotomy between quantity and quality. Above all, he assured his countrymen that they could have more.
But as Basevich also points out, there is a cost to unlimited demand A life without restrictions or sacrifice necessarily requires an ability to control the resources that underpin it. As an political policy, this, unfortunately, demanded an imperial approach. If Mubarak tortured his own people, denied them free elections and squashed any and all dissent, then at least, he was “ours.” He was, we assumed (incorrectly)- somebody we could rely on. If the strong man approach did not work, then the use of force was always available. This, however, requires an expensive modern military, ready to secure our resources, under the guise of protecting our “national interests.”
In a excellent article regarding the speech, author and history teacher at Ohio University Kevin Mattson observes:
The other way to understand the speech is to see it as a turning point. The age of conservatism….has been framed not by Carter’s tones of humility but celebratory nationalism. In fact, the game plan was laid by Ronald Reagan’s direct retort to Carter, made when announcing his candidacy just three months after Carter’s speech. Reagan explained, “I find no national malaise. I find nothing wrong with the American people.” Instead America stood as a “shining city on a hill,” a term he used persistently throughout the campaign.
Where did this talk of positive thinking take us? Well, triumphant confidence can become dangerous. It can lead Americans to questionable ambitions overseas, to think of themselves as leading the world and unwilling to scrutinize their own values or ask any questions about themselves.
Carter’s speech reminds us that a leader can ask something of the American people and can tell citizens they have grown too comfortable in their ways and must face some uncomfortable truths about the perils of their way of life. It shows that a leader can speak boldly to the American people about their problems and can in fact re-energize the civic bonds between leader and citizens. The “malaise speech,” as it’s unfortunately titled, didn’t necessarily show exactly how we would get off our reliance on fossil fuels today. But it did suggest that we would become better – not just environmentally but morally – if we did.
So much of what Carter warned the American people about has now come to pass and so much of it is related to our dependence on petroleum. This, in turn, drives an economy designed, for the most part- to support a way of life we did not actually need and could not afford. The attitude throughout the last decade of the last century was: Too much was not nearly enough. And there may not be anything wrong with that if it had been a reward for our hard work but instead, it has all been constructed on a false sense of entitlement.
Unlike the social movements of the 1960s whose goals were diversity and a sharing of the American pie, The Tea Party movement appears to advocate a defense of the entitlements that certain citizens have come to expect. This essentially selfish philosophy, fully financed by corporations, and regaled by the bellowing voice of Murdoch, has become “The New Patriotism.”
I think Reagan’s ultimate legacy will be that we now have a generation of people that have been raised to believe that the government can provide all sorts of services (police and fire departments, schools, hospitals, national defense, health care, etc) and no one has to pay a dime for it. We have a generation of adults who believe they shouldn’t have to make a single sacrifice in order to benefit from all the services that the government offers. In fact, some believe that their taxes should be cut even further or eliminated all together.
This makes getting out of the current mess altogether more difficult. Politicians who propose raising taxes and/or cutting government services have a hard time getting elected and those in power who do so usually don’t get re-elected.
The testing of the soul of America seems to be in full swing, as much now as it was when Carter made that speech on a summer night more than thirty years ago.