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

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

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

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Independence Day, 1979: lines at gas pumps stretch for blocks, and President Jimmy Carter is scheduled to address the nation. But then he does something strange, he cancels at the last minute and disappears from the public eye. Rumors spread of a health problem or, worse, that he's left the country. But 10 days later, he reemerges to address the energy crisis, unemployment, inflation and something else more nebulous.

President JIMMY CARTER: 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.

HANSEN: That speech, later dubbed the Malaise Speech, was delivered 30 years ago this week.

Kevin Mattson is the author of a book about the speech, "What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?" Kevin Mattson joins us now from WOUB in Athens, Ohio.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. KEVIN MATTSON (Author, "What the Heck Are You Up to, Mr. President?"): Thanks for having me on.

HANSEN: You know, we call it the Malaise Speech but I don't think he ever used that word. What was the speech about?

Mr. MATTSON: Well, Jimmy Carter had grown increasingly convinced that Americans had to face up to the energy crisis, but they only could do this if they also faced up to the crisis in their own values. He believed that until Americans confronted the crisis of consumerism, of materialism, of self-infatuation and of self-interest, they would never really be able to confront the energy crisis.

So what he tried to do was 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 kind of sense of civic sacrifice.

HANSEN: President Carter was not very popular at this point in his presidency. His approval ratings were low. Do you think this was the speech of a desperate president?

Mr. MATTSON: I don't think it was the speech of a desperate president. I think Carter was trying to figure out what it was going to take to really confront the problems. And he grew increasingly convinced that unless Americans really did some serious soul-searching, and Carter himself I think did some serious soul-searching. He himself asked a lot of questions about his own capacity for leadership sitting as president. He wanted the country to become much more self-inquisitive, I think.

HANSEN: There were telephone calls to the White House pouring in after the speech. Actually more calls than when President Richard Nixon had announced the invasion of Cambodia. Only this time, these calls were mostly positive. I mean people liked the speech. Then over the course of the next week, he fired several members of his cabinet, and journalists called it a purge and that did not go over very well.

What happened?

Mr. MATTSON: The key thing to keep in mind here is that Jimmy Carter had really opened up a window of opportunity for his presidency. As you point out, the phone calls were incredibly positive. All the letters were very, very positive and people were calling in and saying, you know, I'm going to ride a moped to work, I'm going to do my own part to really fight the energy crisis.

And he was pulled, I think, in different directions by a number of different advisors. And one of the advisors had told him that he really needed to do this firing of the cabinet, in order to show some sense of leadership and strength.

The fact that he did it two days after he had given the speech and the fact that he did it not terribly well, he admits in his memoirs that it was a mistake and that he didn't do it as well as he probably could, that really shuts down that window of opportunity.

And it's from then on that I think 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.

HANSEN: Let's listen to a little bit more of that speech where he outlined a new energy policy.

President CARTER: Beginning 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.

HANSEN: And the president went on to call for alternative energies, even a solar bank. And, well, needless to say, those targets weren't met. This actually sounds like something we might hear today.

Mr. MATTSON: Yeah, that's exactly right. That's one of the reasons I wanted to write this book, was because I think Carter really had put his finger on the sort shared purpose that the nation had to embark upon in order to fight the energy crisis, like a war.

The problem, of course, was that Carter just didn't have the legitimacy in the eyes of Congress. This is a presidency that sits not too far from Watergate and Vietnam. Congress had become quite emboldened and was going to do everything it could to check the Executive Branch.

HANSEN: The subtitle of your book is "The Speech That Should Have Changed the Country." Do you really think the speech had the potential to do that?

Mr. MATTSON: I think Carter had opened up, as I was calling it earlier, this window of opportunity. You know, it's funny. The biggest counter intuitive lesson that I learned in writing this book, Carter goes out there and he essentially condemns the American way of life. He says our consumerism, our materialism, our individualism have really gotten in the way of us confronting this problem in the way that we need to.

And, of course, your expectation from that would have been that Americans would have recoiled, that they would have rejected their president. The fact that Americans responded overwhelmingly positively, suggests to me that Americans actually do like to be engaged in a process in which their values are called into question, in which their leaders are saying, you know, there's something that we can do that's better than the situation we're mired in, in the present.

That's what Carter wanted to do. He did blow the opportunity. 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.

HANSEN: Kevin Mattson is the author of "What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?" about the speech given by President Jimmy Carter that was dubbed the "Malaise Speech."

Thank you very much.

Mr. MATTSON: Thanks for having me on.

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