Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Remembering the "Malaise Speech" on Jimmy Carter's Birthday

Jimmy Carter turned 95 today, a minor miracle considering his recent bout with cancer. Growing up in the Reagan years (my first political memory was his inauguration) Carter was always played off as a joke, a typically embarrassing memento of the 70s like pet rocks and polyester pants. He gradually earned a lot of respect back for his post-presidential work, although this has not (with justification) changed the low ratings of his presidency.

I have always felt that Carter was not the kind of person suited for that job, although he is a brilliant person nonetheless. I guess I have felt a kind of kinship with him, in that his moral commitments made it hard to function in a job that required the abandonment of morality.

That tension probably came out the most in his supposed "malaise speech" in the summer of 1979. He gave the speech after a new spike in oil prices after the Iranian Revolution threatened a new bout of inflation after years of economic turmoil and energy crises. Carter went to Camp David for several days to meet with a variety of advisors, and the public anticipated the speech he was going to give.

Instead of offering a list of policy solutions, Carter gave a sermon. He spoke of the nation's "crisis of confidence" and how its inability to unite to make a collective sacrifice the underlying problem in American society. Like a typical sermon it started with an accusation of sin, pointing out how American society had become consumeristic and materialistic. He discussed the failures of Vietnam and the divisions wrought by the sixties. He then ended as many sermons do with a call for repentance and renewal.

As Robert Mattson's "What the Heck Are You Up to, Mr President" lays out, some people actually responded to the call issued by the speech. That good feeling was short-lived, since Carter then immediately fired his cabinet and asked for them to re-apply for their jobs. This move was meant to show his commitment to making big changes, but it came across as chaotic and desperate. A speech that could have been a risky shot to go beyond the usual political bromides now looked confused and inappropriate. Although he never used the word, Carter's message to the country would be dubbed "the malaise speech."

It deserves to be reconsidered. Presidents should probably not be delivering sermons, we expect them to deliver solutions. But torn from that context the speech seems remarkably prescient. Carter was getting at the "fault lines" that Kruse and Zelizer made the focal point of their history of recent America. He also understood the moral hazard of consumerist society, and how it rots community. We are living now forty years later with those trends having continued unabated in an atomized society where people are killing themselves and dying of drug overdoses so often that life expectancy is going down.

Carter's opponent in 1980 did not critique the consumerist mentality, he embraced it. Reagan asked "are you better off than you were four years ago?" It's a crass-sounding question that perfectly fit the new values matrix. Carter talked about the need to conserve and make sacrifices, Reagan said we didn't have to. Carter questioned America's human rights abuses in its foreign policy, Reagan told the nation they had nothing to be ashamed of.

The "malaise speech" is a prophecy, and for years after Carter was a prophet without honor in his own land. Today he has become a kind of avuncular mascot, but on his birthday I want to remember the Jeremiah who issued a challenge that the nation has failed to pick up to its detriment. As the seas boil and the country comes apart, that challenge is more important than ever.

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