The year 1979 was not one of our best. I remember it well. The inflation rate was 11 percent, the interest rate was 15 percent, a nuke plant went haywire at Three Mile Island, the Iranians seized 53 American hostages, 11 rock 'n' roll fans were trampled to death at a Who concert, and during the spring we motorists had to queue up at the gas station for as long as an hour for the privilege of filling the tank. Oh, and one other thing: We had a Democratic president who was widely perceived as being incapable of locating his own rear end with his own two hands. The guy couldn't even go fishing without being attacked by a swamp rabbit.
Which brings me to the 30th anniversary of Jimmy Carter's "malaise" speech - 30 years ago last evening, in fact. His TV address is likely to live on in presidential annals as one of the most boneheaded of all time. He certainly meant well. But I watched it at the time, and I simply assumed that, by lecturing Americans in the manner of an Old Testament prophet, he had dug himself a hole too deep to escape. He did enjoy a post-address poll bounce, but of course it didn't last. Any future president who wishes to commit political suicide need only consult this speech for guidance.
It should be noted that, contrary to conventional wisdom, Carter never once used the word "malaise" to describe the American mood of 1979 (just as Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca never actually said to the piano player, "Play it again, Sam"). But the gist of Carter's message was indeed that a malaise (specifically, "a crisis of confidence") had settled upon the land, and that Americans themselves were partly responsible for it.
The biggest lesson of all: Generally speaking, Americans don't like to be told they are doing anything wrong. Carter did. That night 30 years ago, he told TV viewers that they were selfish people living empty lives.
This passage, in particular, made me wince: "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."
There was surely some truth in that passage. But Carter was a tad tin-eared. Politically, it's kind of tough to upbraid Americans for worshiping self-indulgence at a time when they have to spend an hour in a gas line.
A few minutes later, Carter sought to diagnose one of the big reasons for the crisis of confidence: "Looking for a way out of this crisis, our people have turned to the federal government and found it isolated from the mainstream of our nation's life. Washington, D.C., has become an island. 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."
He continued, "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, and neither do I."
Sadly, his diagnosis of Washington could easily be voiced today, and most of the speech dealt with an energy crisis that persists today. But let's stick with the political context of 1979: the long passage quoted above was dumb politics to the max.
By the summer of '79, Carter already had been president for two and a half years. He was working (or, more accurately, not working) with Democratic majorities in both congressional chambers. By reciting the failures of '79 Washington, he was virtually inviting his fellow Americans to say, "Hey, pal, don't try to blame us for the nation's crisis. You're the guy who's supposed to be in charge. You're the one who owns these problems, so what are you gonna do about it?"
But Carter didn't come off as a guy in charge. At one early point in the address, he said: "I realize more than ever that as president I need your help." Given the woes afflicting America at the time, and Carter's fragile political status that summer, his cry for help was akin to saying that he was not up to the job. Such was the perception that sunk in, after the initial poll bounce fell away. Americans generally don't warm to presidents who appear to be pleading for a life preserver.
And within days of the speech, he left a fresh impression of being overwhelmed by the job. He sacked half his Cabinet, an act that came off looking more desperate than decisive.
All told, the "crisis of confidence" speech cleared the path for Ronald Reagan, who defeated Carter 16 months later. Reagan didn't tell Americans that they were materialistic creatures leading spiritually barren lives; instead, he dispensed flattery, telling Americans that they were great. Carter's TV address was gloomy; Reagan was sunny. Americans want their presidents to be sunny. Indeed, Reagan twisted the knife in his remarks on election eve, 1980: "I find no national malaise, I find nothing wrong with the American people. Oh, they are frustrated, even angry at what has been done to this blessed land. But more than anything, they are sturdy and robust, as they have always been."
Carter was probably on to something; after all, materialistic greed and self-indulgence obviously fueled the financial abuses that helped trigger the current economic crisis. But a president's tone and timing matter greatly, and Carter was not gifted in either department. Which is probably why, 30 years later, he is generally viewed by younger Americans as merely some old guy with big teeth who builds houses.