CARTER’S NATIONAL MALAISE SPEECH
CARTER’S NATIONAL MALAISE SPEECH
by William H. Benson
August 20, 2009
The 1970s seemed a disaster for our country. It was a time of faltering American military power relative to the Soviets, productivity declines in our nation’s industries, galloping inflation, and high unemployment. The causes for this disaster were mainly political: a failure to control the money supply, excessive taxation, and government intervention. In a word, it was a weak federal government headed by Jimmy Carter.
By 1979, Carter’s approval rating had dropped to 25%, which was lower than Nixon’s during the Watergate scandal.
If it was Carter’s job to restore the faith in the nation’s political system, “here was his greatest failure—solving the economic problems of the American people.”
Then, when it seemed it could get no worse, during the last week of June of 1979, OPEC, the oil-producing cartel, announced a series of oil price increases. Gas prices skyrocketed, severe shortages resulted in long lines and waits at the pumps, and the people were mad, focusing their outrage over a seemingly endless economic decline.
Beginning on July 4, 1979, Carter disappeared for the next ten days to his Presidential retreat at Camp David, and there, he listened to teachers, preachers, businessmen, and government officials—people whom he had invited—as they explained to him what was wrong with America, and what he should do about the energy crisis.
Millions tuned in to listen to his televised speech on July 15. Since then, it has been called his “national malaise speech,” even though he never used the word “malaise.” People had expected him to talk about his energy legislation, and he did, but only briefly at the tail end of his speech. Instead, he chose to talk mainly about the American people’s lack of confidence, even though Walter Mondale, his Vice-President had warned him.
A frowning Carter quoted from those who were at Camp David: “Mr. President, you are not leading this nation—you’re just managing the government.” “You don’t see the people enough any more.” “Some of your Cabinet members don’t seem loyal. There is not enough discipline among your disciples.” “If you lead, we will follow.”
Then, he began to sound as if he was giving a sermon, which in a sense he was: “We are losing our confidence in the future.” “Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.” “We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”
“This crisis of the American spirit is all around us.” “There is growing disrespect for government and for churches and for schools.” “Often you see paralysis and stagnation and drift.” “What you see too often in Washington and elsewhere is a system of government that seems incapable of action.”
These were harsh words, and the people who heard them resented them. One commentator suggested that it was as if Carter had told the American public that they had bad breath, as if he had pointed an accusing finger at them and said, “It’s all your fault!”
Two days later, on July 17, at a Cabinet meeting, Carter requested resignations from all the heads of the various departments. He only accepted five of them, but the damage was done: the public believed that the Carter Presidency was unraveling, and it was.
Months later, the former Governor of California, sixty-nine year old Ronald Reagan, announced that he would run for President, and at that time he said, “I find no national malaise. I find nothing wrong with the American people!” Carter’s exact opposite, Reagan smiled, laughed, and joked. “A recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose yours. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his.” Reagan’s jaunty affability and folksy charm shone like sunlight upon the dark and gloomy mood, this so-called national malaise that Carter had dared to suggest.
In a new book, What the Heck are You Up To, Mr. President?, the historian Kevin Mattson wrote that both “Carter and Reagan sprang from the same ideological impulse; both responded mainly to moral decline, but where Carter saw a need for humility and limits, Reagan saw a vacuum of optimism and determination. Reagan carried the day.”
“The new President’s self-confidence, and confidence in America, soon communicated itself. It was not long before the American public began to sense that the dark days of the 1970s were over, and that the country was being led again.”
The economic recovery that began under Reagan continued well into the 1990s, “the longest continual economic expansion in American history.”