Examining Carter's 'Malaise Speech,' 30 Years Later

Author Kevin Mattson. Credit: Jacob Silberberg i i

hide captionAuthor Kevin Mattson's new book examines the underlying themes of President Carter's famous 1979 speech.

Jacob Silberberg
Author Kevin Mattson. Credit: Jacob Silberberg

Author Kevin Mattson's new book examines the underlying themes of President Carter's famous 1979 speech.

Jacob Silberberg
"What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?": Jimmy Carter, America's "Malaise," and the Speech that Should Have Changed the Country
By Kevin Mattson
Hardcover, 272 pages
Bloomsbury USA
List Price: $25

Read An Excerpt

Independence Day, 1979: Lines at gas pumps stretch for blocks, and President Jimmy Carter is scheduled to address the nation. But when he cancels last minute and disappears from the public eye, rumors spread of a health problem or, even worse, that he's left the country. After 10 days, he reemerges with a speech — to address the energy crisis, unemployment, inflation and something else a bit more nebulous:

The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.

The speech was later dubbed the "malaise speech," even though Carter never used that word.

"Jimmy Carter had grown increasingly convinced that Americans had to face up to the energy crisis, but they only could do this if they faced up to the crisis in their own values," says Kevin Mattson, author of "What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?", which examines the underlying themes of Carter's speech. "He tried to push the energy crisis on to a kind of moral and civic plane, and the speech was used to unify around a sense of civic sacrifice."

Mattson tells NPR's Liane Hansen that Carter did some serious soul-searching before giving the speech, and he hoped to entice Americans to do the same.

"He wanted the country to become much more self-inquisitive," he says.

The reception to Carter's speech was overwhelmingly positive: Approving phone calls poured into the White House — more calls than when President Richard Nixon had announced the invasion of Cambodia — along with many letters of support. But the goodwill was short lived. Within days of the speech, Carter fired several members of his cabinet, closing what Mattson calls "a window of opportunity."

"It's from then on that Carter had a really difficult time at bouncing back and being seen on the part of the American people as a strong and significant leader — especially a leader that could take America through solving the energy crisis," Mattson says.

"Carter goes out there and he essentially condemns the American way of life," he says. "He says our consumerism, our materialism have really gotten in the way of this problem."

Mattson says the fact that Americans responded positively to a speech that berated their way of life suggests that they don't mind having their values called into question. In that way, he says, the malaise speech had the potential to effect a significant cultural change.

"[Carter] did blow the opportunity," Mattson says. "But I think the original success that the speech had symbolizes the fact that Americans will listen when they're being criticized and when they're being called out to their better selves."

Excerpt: "What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?"

What The Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President
"What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?": Jimmy Carter, America's "Malaise," and the Speech that Should Have Changed the Country
By Kevin Mattson
Hardcover, 272 pages
Bloomsbury USA
List Price: $25

July 4, Independence Day, 1979: Rain fell like sheets on Washington, D.C., and suspense mounted. Would the nation's biggest fireworks show proceed or be drowned? National Park officials huddled in rickety wood structures roped with plastic and decided around 3pm to make an announcement: Please be patient. Then at 5pm, they announced an official delay. Four hours later, they cancelled the show altogether.

Close-by, a different celebration got underway: The annual "smoke-in" of the Youth International Party (Yippies), an organization founded twelve years ago by counterculture celebrities Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. There was no Vietnam War to protest in 1979, of course, but the right to get high seemed as urgent as stopping a war. In Lafayette Park, across from the White House, scraggly young adults toked joints, swigged bottles of Jack Daniels, and set off firecrackers. The rain turned the tangy smell of pot slightly mellower, but when the high wore off, the crowd went berserk. The mob scrambled over a large black fence onto the White House lawn. Cops pursued, dodging beer bottles flung at them. Nine arrests followed, one just a few feet away from the White House.

Perhaps it was fortunate fewer people were on the Mall to be disappointed by cancelled fireworks or freaked out by police-hippy melees. Most gas stations in D.C. were shut down, not for the July 4th holiday but as a result of the decision by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to cut exports to the United States. Stations with gas reported mile-long lines and three-hour waits. This was becoming a summer when people coasted or pushed their cars to stations to find no gas. Most D.C. residents simply stayed home on July 4. Those who did search for gas raged. "The greatest country in the world," one person on a gas line told an inquiring journalist, "is stifled by a few shieks."

An editorial in the Los Angeles Times on July 4 stated the obvious: "This Independence Day, the holiday's very name seems to mock us." The grand old document known as the Declaration of Independence trumpeted citizens' rights to "alter" or "abolish" governments in face of a hostile world. Now this. Americans couldn't even get the third world to cough up enough gas to roll their cars out of driveways for traditional summer vacations. Stoned teenagers took over the White House lawn. Freedom seemed a cruel joke or an excuse for chaos. The conservative tabloid, the New York Post, intoned that on "Independence Day, 1979 the American paradox is bleakly apparent. As a nation, we appear to have become steadily more dependent on forces seemingly beyond our control, losing confidence in our ability to master events, uncertain of our direction." And then the editors slipped in this zinger: "The United States is now a victim of a loss of nerve and will, wracked by indecision and groping for a glimpse of inspirational and innovative leadership."

***

It didn't take much to figure out that the New York Post's editors intended those words for Jimmy Carter, the thirty-ninth president of the United States. Carter wasn't in the White House the day Yippies jumped the fence. He was at Camp David in the Catoctin Mountains of rural Maryland, the place where just a year ago he initiated the grandest accomplishment of his presidency, a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, after long, tiresome meetings and brutal negotiations. Since then, Camp David provided good memories and a refuge from the strains of an increasingly strainful presidency, a place to fish, read, and relax. But on July 4, Carter felt the bad mood setting in on the nation and himself.

Before he had helicoptered to Camp David on July 3, key members of his staff – Gerald (Jerry) Rafshoon, a man whose background in advertising helped him work on improving the president's image; Hamilton (Ham) Jordan, the president's loyal right hand man and soon-to-be Chief of Staff; Jody Powell, the press secretary; and Stuart Eizenstat, a policy wonk and chief domestic advisor at the White House – hounded Carter to make a speech about the energy crisis, about those long gas lines exploding with anger. This group, most often called the "Georgia Mafia" since they followed Carter from the governor's mansion of Georgia to the White House, applied pressure.

The member of the mafia that Carter trusted most, Ham Jordan, had been watching over the White House while Carter had bounced around the world on a series of diplomatic trips recently. During the president's June sojourns to Austria, Japan, and Korea, Jordan would sometimes kick back and watch television news. He saw repeated images of gas lines tinged with violence and interviews with angry citizens: "What in the hell is Carter doing in Japan and Korea when all the problems are here at home?" Don't wait, Jordan counseled the president, to calm these people's nerves. Citizens "want to hear from their President." So Jordan applied pressure the best way he knew how: He summoned Jerry Rafshoon to get Hendrik Hertzberg and Gordon Stewart, chief speechwriters at the time, to work up a speech. "With a very heavy heart," they sent a speech to Camp David. They knew it was bland, dry, and not up to the crisis Americans faced.

Pressure, such as it was, never made Carter nervous. Just the opposite. He had a phenomenal ability to grow calmer while others went bonkers. Rafshoon would pace and pull on his curly locks, Jordan would boil, Eizenstat would blurt out criticisms, and Powell would smoke cigarette after cigarette. Carter just flashed a steely grin. The political commentator and historian Garry Wills once described Carter's "ferocious tenderness, the detached intimacy, the cooing which nonetheless suggests a proximity of lions." But one thing always wound up driving the president crazy: His need to rely on others to perform tasks that produced mixed results.

The drafted speech he stared at was a case in point. He could barely make it past page four. For sure, it had its moments, talking of patriotism and American independence and the need to extol the key virtue of war – sacrifice for the common good – while battling dependency on OPEC oil. Those were ideas Carter could get behind. The speech also mentioned an incident where a pregnant woman was violently attacked in a Los Angeles gas line. That frightening story might send shivers up the spine of the public's conscience. But the rest of the speech read like a laundry list of vague energy plans. After falling asleep reading it, Carter went to bed. Later that night, First Lady Rosalynn Carter stumbled across it on a coffee table. Suffering jet-lag related insomnia (she had accompanied Jimmy overseas), Rosalynn read the speech and then told her husband the next morning it was awful. She had a much better ear than the president for the way a speech like this might play politically, and her judgment mattered immensely to Jimmy. That was it, Carter thought, there was to be no speech, at least not this one.

So while National Park officials and fireworks operators worried about rain and the citizens of the nation's capitol waited in gas lines or stayed home, Carter placed a call from Camp David to the White House. Vice President Walter Mondale joined Jordan, Powell, and Rafshoon on phones. Cancel it, the president's words hissed over telephone wires. Rafshoon flew into a panic. This had never happened before, never, not in the course of American history had a president canceled a speech with no explanation. Rafshoon complained that he had already called the television networks and asked them to block out the time. Calling them back wouldn't be easy. This is not the image we want to project, Rafshoon argued.

Carter rebuffed his image man. "There's more to it than energy," Carter explained. And then to underscore his point, as if the exhaustion and curtness in his voice weren't enough, he blurted out, "I just don't want to bullshit the American people." The advisors grew shocked at these words but continued to protest. So Carter hung up on them. Jody Powell looked at the others in the room with grief. He knew he'd have to make a statement the next day. The best he could come up with was short and perfunctory: There would be no speech, he announced, and then followed that with a "no further comment."

And then the president seemed to disappear...

Copyright 2009 by Kevin Mattson. Reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury USA.

Books Featured In This Story

What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?'
What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?'

Jimmy Carter, America's "Malaise," and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country

by Kevin Mattson

Hardcover, 263 pages | purchase

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