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The speech that could have saved America

Thirty years ago tonight, then-President Jimmy Carter gave a major speech - ostensibly on energy policy but really about a crisis of the national soul --that became known as "the malaise speech," which is kind of odd since the word "malaise" does not appear from the text. But since all know that "malaise" is something that politicians don't normally aim for, so that characterization should tell you that the speech is largely remembered with scorn by conservatives, and by the punditocracy as the beginning of the end of Carter's presidency.

Too bad. I think you can make a strong case that America would be a better place if we had only listened that night. I talked about this in my recent book, "Tear Down This Myth," seeking to contrast how Carter looked at energy, and at the notion of Americans striving toward a worthy goal that might involve a little sacrifice, against the reversal that would come under pro-consumption Ronald Reagan. Here's an excerpt:

...[W]e now know that Jimmy Carter was the world's worst messenger, but with an important message that would have spared Americans a great deal of pain, if only anyone had bothered to listen. Remember Carter's "malaise" speech, the moment that came to define the 39th president's inability to lead, or inspire? In hindsight, the speech deserves an "F" for connecting with voters and for impact, but an "A-" for accuracy. Carter scolded America that night: "In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God, too many of us tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does and what one owns." But while he was tough on the American people -- bad politics, there -- he was also deadly serious about the nation's energy problems, and the risk of importing so much oil once U.S. production had peaked around 1970. He said: "Beginning at this moment, this nation will never use more foreign oil than we did in 1977 -- never. From now on, every new addition to our demand for energy will be met from our own production and our own conservation. The generation-long growth in our dependence on foreign oil will be stopped dead in its tracks right now."

He backed up his words with solid proposals to tackle what he called "the moral equivalent of war" -- spending money to reserch alternative forms of energy with the same zeal that America has researched deadly new weapons, with tax credits to encourage the use of solar and wind power, and with government help for mass transit and to enact higher fuel standards. Earlier, Carter had donned a cardigan sweater and recommended that Americans consider lowering the thermostat to 55 degrees at night -- common-sense advice that is ridiculed to this very day on right-wing talk radio (and finding echoes in the recent 2008 campaign, when the GOP tried to laugh at Barack Obama for noting that Americans could save gas by inflating their tires). Although there were some boondoggles and missteps along the way, Carter's push for conservation was on many levels a rousing success - perhaps even worthy of some Reagan-like Mt. Rushmore chatter, if only it had continued. Average fuel efficiency for American cars ultimately doubled from 1974 into the late 1980s (which was when Reagan finally successfully rolled back the standards). Energy conservation surged into the early 1980s, and oil consumption dropped.

But for Ronald Reagan, to win in 1980 he would not only destroy the messenger but his message as well...

I think a number of enormously positive things would have happened if the alternative energy research -- gutted by Reagan, who in the ultimate act of symbolism even ripped out the solar panels that Carter had installed on the roof of the White House -- and other conservation programs had continued. For one thing, U.S. consumers would have pocketed more of the cash that we instead borrowed from China, and innovation in fields like wind and solar power would have created thousands of new jobs. More importantly, our foreign policy would not be ruled by the need to dominate in the Middle East, and regardless of whether or not you think the 2003 Iraq invasion was all about oil, I think we can agree it never would have happened if the United States wasn't importing 70 percent of its oil, which is a lot MORE than 1977 levels.

Then there was the continued moral erosion of America. Gordon Stewart, one of the two authors of Carter's July 15, 1979 speech, touched on this today in an outstanding op-ed in the New York Times:

To this day, I don't entirely know why the speech came to be derided for a word that was in the air, but never once appeared in the text. Still, the "malaise" label stuck: maybe because President Carter's cabinet shake-up a few days later wasted the political energy that had been focused on our energy problems; maybe because the administration's opponents attached it to the speech relentlessly; maybe because it was just too hard to compete with Ronald Reagan and his banner of limitless American consumption.

The real reason is probably that there was never any way the Jimmy Carter we all know would avoid saying: "There is simply no way to avoid sacrifice." Where the speeches of Reagan and Barack Obama evoke the beauty of dreams, President Carter insisted on the realities of responsibility and the need for radical change. Mr. Carter's sense of our own accountability, his warnings about the debilitating effects of self-centered divisiveness were the speech's true heresies. They are also the very elements that keep it relevant today. 

Also, one piece of unfinished business related to "Tear Down This Myth" -- when I was in Southern California recently, my good friend John Amato of Crooks and Liars filmed an interview with me about the book, which I've been looking for an excuse to link. You can watch it here.