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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, St Martins Pr, List Price: $25 |


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What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?'
Jimmy Carter, America's "Malaise," and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country
Kevin Mattson

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Book Summary

An assessment of the events that led up to Jimmy Carter's infamous 1979 "malaise" speech places it against a backdrop of such events as the gas crisis and the Iran-hostage situation while explaining that the speech had far greater relevance than its reception reflected.

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

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Excerpt: What The Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?'


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


Copyright © 2009 Kevin Mattson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59691-521-3


Introduction: "What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?"..........................11. Diagnosing a Nation's Heart of Glass (April 1979).................................132. Making Friends and Enemies in a Time of Crisis (May 1979).........................563. "The Worst of Times" (June 1979)..................................................974. "One of My Best" (July 1979)......................................................1295. The Speech Becomes a "Turning Point" (July 1979-January 1981).....................167Epilogue: In Dreams There Begin No Responsibilities..................................196Appendix: The Speech "A Crisis of Confidence" (July 15, 1979)........................207Acknowledgments......................................................................219Notes................................................................................221Bibliographic Note...................................................................247Index................................................................................253

Chapter One


APRIL 1979

And Iran really fell. It's so weird watching it all on TV; it really could happen here. -ANDY WARHOL


1979: A good year to pronounce the American century dead. The country's hold on the world had slipped. The Iranian revolution booted the shah, the man America had backed in power as a hedge against the spread of Soviet communism, from his throne. Just as in Vietnam, America felt defeated by a third world country. Except here the damage was harsher tot those at home: Iran, the second largest exporter of oil next to Saudi Arabia, shut off its supplies. Reports about an impending gas crisis hit America's newspapers and magazines. The age of limitless, low-priced gas what better symbol of American power than that?-had ended. As gas supplies dwindled, prices rose, and so would the general inflation rate, up, up, up, into double digits. The prosperity of the 1960s-when economic abundance raised tides and floated most boats-had collapsed. The pronouncement one social critic made at the beginning of the decade seemed more appropriate now: "We have arrived" at America's "years of middle age and decline."

Americans looked like citizens occupying an empire in its final days. They were jaded and apathetic. Polls showed that the number of citizens who read or worried about public affairs "hardly at all" jumped upward: 54 percent bothered to vote in the 1976 presidential election, and then 38 percent in the 1973 midterm elections (with lower participation among the most educated). The president's approval ratings crashed around the same time, almost reaching the level of Richard Nixon's during the Watergate scandal and the Arab oil embargo of 1973, even though most citizens thought Jimmy Carter a moral, upright president, the farthest thing from Tricky Dick. They had simply given up on politics, entirely. When Carter went on television to give speeches to his fellow citizens about the issues of the day, few Americans bothered to watch. There were so many bread and circuses that distracted and that constituted the cultural vacuity of the 1970s: disco dancing, roller skating, hot tubs, mood rings, television shows like Charlie's Angels and Three's Company, a whole slew of fads and mindless diversions.

They could not work forever, though. The energy crisis of 1979 would make itself known in the lives of ordinary citizens. It simmered at first and then finally blew up. On March 28, a nuclear power plant on Three Mile Island (TMI) near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, almost melted down due to a pump and valve failure. Residents heard resounding booms and watched "puff radiation" clouds released. Reports by the plant's spokespeople were confusing at best. Pregnant women and children evacuated "tens of thousands even hundreds of thousands to who knew where and for who knew how long," as one journalist described it. The story line coming out of TMI paralleled, to an eerie extent, the hit movie The China Syndrome released just weeks before. In it, a cameraman played by Michael Douglas shoots footage of a nuclear plant melting down, its cooling system rattling away, and then shows the footage to a scientist who says: It looks like the core almost melted. If that happened, he goes on, it would "render an area the size of Pennsylvania uninhabitable." The movie audiences who packed Harrisburg's local cinema must have gasped at that line.

Jimmy Carter was especially disturbed by the news at TMI and the fears provoked by the movie and press reports. The president believed nuclear power was one element in a broader solution to America's energy crisis. He had begun his career in nuclear engineering, working with nuclear-powered subs in the U.S. Navy right after World War II. Nuclear power couldn't be used to fuel cars, of course, but, if safe, it might alleviate some of the pressures on other energy sources, or so the president thought.

Carter decided to pay a visit to TMI on April 1. Hands folded behind his back, he shuffled around in the requisite plastic booties while glancing at control panels. Governor Dick Thornburgh of Pennsylvania, a moderate Republican who wanted to temper the panic, hovered close, offering words of assurance. But questions gnawed at the president: What about the gas bubble that remained in the plant's cooling system? Was it dangerous or potentially explosive? What did the near meltdown say about the energy crisis as a whole? What about the levels of confidence that Americans had in the country's ability to solve the impending energy crisis-of which TMI was merely the tip of the breaking iceberg?

The same day he visited TMI, Garter got bad news from Iran. That country had taken the next step in its long-unfolding revolution by declaring itself an Islamic republic. Ayatollah Khomeini-his white beard stretching out his stern face-called his countrymen's declaration "unprecedented in history." Khomeini was right; Shiite Islam had never embarked on remaking a country's entire existence. The Iranian revolution was no longer about toppling the American-backed shah but rewriting all civil laws to follow the Quran or at least Khomeini's interpretation. Theocracy now administered itself at the grass roots: Roving mobs attacked women who refused to wear the chador and enforced the ayatollahs' bans on disco dancing, drinking, and watching movies. "Death to America!" chants were heard on the streets of Tehran. Soon American flags would be burned, effigies of Carter torched in Tehran's public squares. For President Carter this wasn't just creepy but bizarre. He had suspected communists might take over the country-this still being the cold war, albeit in a state of d├ętente-but never mullahs and Islamic fanatics. This was new and terrifying all at once.

The New York Times reminded readers that the America hating in Iran was bad enough on its own terms but also for its material consequences: "The loss of Iranian oil" would leave "the United States with a gap of 400,000 to 500,000 barrels a day" The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) would constrict oil shipments even further, hiking prices, and eventually generating long gas lines in America. The radical countries within OPEC-especially Libya wanted to take revenge against the United States no matter what more moderate Saudi Arabia might desire. After all, America under Carter's leadership had just gotten Egypt to recognize the state of Israel and to sign a peace treaty that didn't address the Palestinian question. Even Saudi Arabia had no problem avenging this insult by America, knowing it was one of Carter's most famous and proudest accomplishments.

America-hatred and OPEC retaliation sparked retaliatory backlash within the United States. Henry "Scoop" Jackson, a powerful Democratic senator from the state of Washington who had run against Carter in the Democratic primary and was highly critical of the president's energy and foreign policy; denounced OPEC's move as "a combination of greed and punitive doctrine." Hints were given that retaliation-through either trade or military action would be legitimate. Jackson had an intellectual fan base growing at the magazine Commentary, edited by Norman Podhoretz. The publication was a hotbed of what some now called neoconservative thinking about American foreign policy. Writers there loved to dream of a time when the legacy of the Vietnam War-the defeat of a superpower by a scrawny third world communist country-could be overcome, when America's "confidence" in its military power reasserted. "As for America," Walter Laqueur wrote in the March issue of Commentary, "its inability to influence events in the Persian Gulf reflects its diminished stature in world affairs." Overly fearful of another Vietnam. Laqueur went on, Americans fell prey to the "shilly-shallying in Washington."

Even Carter's own secretary of energy, James Schlesinger, thought along these lines (as did sometimes his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski). Schlesinger had served as defense secretary under Carter's predecessor Gerald Ford, and now he was, in the words of the National Journal, suggesting "the United States make its military presence known in the Middle East to safeguard the flow of oil from that region." Such gutsy posturing-an agressive solution to the energy crisis-frightened Schlesinger's own boss, Jimmy Carter.


Carter had to figure out his own solution to the energy crisis and quickly. He had to make a speech about the matter on April 5. Jackson's words, Schlesinger's counsel, and the neoconservatives' bellicose writings were too aggressive and hypocritical for him. After all, Carter had been warning for the last two years that an energy crisis like this should be foreseen and that angry tantrums against the world were childish. Carter's original National Energy Policy (NEP), proposed back in April 1977 and constructed by Schlesinger himself, had aimed to "reduce United States dependency on foreign oil" by emphasizing conservation through an intricate network of taxes and tax credits. But Carter had botched the plan. He had sent Schlesinger off to work in secrecy and to complete the plan in ninety days (Carter himself was confused by Schlesinger's first draft). The president had refused to take any advice from Congress, even though the plan would eventually go there for approval. So when the cumbersome NEP came out of the legislative meat grinder eighteen months later, it had lost most of its punch. Carter continued to warn and push for more action on the energy front, but nothing came from his warnings.

So now in early April of 1979, on the second anniversary of Carter's announcement of the NEE the president's speechwriters struggled to write something about TMI, the news in Iran, and the gloomy forecasts for a future energy crisis. They passed to the president drafts on which he'd scrawl his inimical slanty handwriting. Speechwriting in the Carter White House was, to be blunt, a royal pain and cumbersome process. Drafts of speeches had to be sent out to anyone with an inkling of expertise in the area. And in the case of energy, there were a lot of experts. Staff members too were pulled in to see this speech as it moved through draft after draft. The final version turned soggy, a compendium of different views. It was becoming, like most of Carter's speeches, uninspiring.

The difficulty in writing wasn't just the bureaucratic nature of composure. It was the president himself. Carter had a split personality when it came to explaining policies. Part of him was a technician, the man with an engineering background who explained the ins and outs of oil import levels, refinery production, inflationary rates, and an allocation system created under President Nixon until inevitably the television viewer's eyes glazed over. Then there was Carter the moralist, the born-again Christian who had taught Sunday school in Plains, Georgia, for years, until he came to the White House. This side of Carter pined to diagnose the end of the American century; to argue that a dream of limitless supplies was a bad idea in the first place, an unrealistic and even sinful way of looking at the world. This president didn't want to get technical but wanted to ring warning alarms in public. So the speech he planned to deliver did both things at once, and neither very well.

Warning Americans about the energy crisis came easy to Carter. He had done it throughout his presidency: In his original speech announcing the NEE he had explained that "the energy crisis has not yet overwhelmed us, but it will if we do not act quickly." Carter also feared that warnings fell on deaf ears. Most Americans thought the energy crisis a hoax: Big oil companies had simply jury-rigged it, holding back supplies to ratchet profits. The words big oil rolled off Americans' lips with disdain, conjuring memories of greedy robber barons at the turn of the century watching ,gushers of oil shoot sky high and their bank holdings along with them. Or, take the current images of Dallas, a television show Americans started to watch in record millions in 1978, about a sleazy oil-rich family whose members screwed and screwed over one another. There was legitimacy to such hatred: Oil companies really were making money hand over fist in 1979. When Mobil Oil released an advertisement in the spring of 1979 that equated "increased profits" with higher "productivity," most Americans hearing about an impending gas shortage probably thought "Bullshit." The companies were probably just hoarding gas in underground bunkers somewhere.

Carter's gut raged with anger at the oil companies, but his head rang with complexity. The reality of the energy crisis was more complicated than greedy companies bilking the public. For sure, oil monopolies tamped down production in early 1979 to tighten markets and drive up revenues. But there were also federal policies at play here, and not just price controls. Around the time of the famous Arab embargo of 1973-the last time that Americans panicked on growing gas lines-President Nixon created a gasoline allocation system. It had been intended to "distribute supplies evenly around the country," but like numerous policies, it now backfired and "assured, perversely, that gasoline could not be shifted from an area already well-supplied to one where it was needed." Thus, Carter knew that once the gas crisis really hit, the pain would be maldistributed: Big cities (Los Angeles, for instance) would suffer more than small towns in rural states like Wyoming. He also knew that some oil refineries had recently experienced accidents and thus weren't producing at full throttle. The Iranian cutoff of exports and the aggression of OPEC simply pushed the problem over a cliff, making an already bad situation worse.

So on April 5, Carter gave his speech of policy explanations mixed with moral warnings. "The energy crisis is real," America's greatest I-told-you-so president intoned, recalling his predictions of an energy crisis two years earlier. He calmed fears about TMI, promising an "independent Presidential commission." But he mostly focused on the gas crisis Americans would face soon, knowing that here was where federal action could actually make an impact. Carter called tar phased "decontrol" that would raise prices in the short term by repealing ceilings on prices and force Americans to cut back on gas consumption. But worry not about your wallets being drained, he counseled his fellow citizens, for as president he would impose a "windfall profits tax" that would hit oil companies like Exxon and Mobil hard and would generate federal funds that could be used to search for alternative energy sources. This was Carter's famous centrism: Neither over- or under-regulate. In other words, aggravate both conservatives and liberals.

Carter hoped to provide some policy solutions and also show Americans the moral dimension of the energy crisis-how the gas shortage highlighted the country's frailties in a world not under its control. He hoped to dissect those ironies of history in which a superpower watched its power curdle. He pressed tot Americans to think of living with limits and making sacrifices. If Americans didn't start cutting back their oil consumption, Carter explained, "we will almost certainly have gasoline shortages as early as this summer." As a prophecy of doom, it was a bit softer than it should haw been. The shortages would, in fact, come sooner.

There was a problem with Carter's warnings: The American people didn't listen to them. Roughly 80 million Americans watched Carter's first energy speech back in April 1977 when he announced his NEP and called for a "moral equivalent of war" against the energy crisis; only 30 million watched him on April 5, 1979. The denizens of a declining empire had tuned their leader out.


Pat Caddell thought he knew why Americans were tuning the president out, and on April 9 he started to make direct inroads on getting the president to listen to him. Caddell had been paid by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to provide the White House with numbers about approval ratings, the popularity of specific issues, and strategy. He was a peculiar-looking man, impeccably dressed but shaped like a pear. His jaw caved in, providing him his nickname "the chinless wonder." He hid that feature by growing a black beard that happened to have a white streak running through it. It gave his darker features more intensity and helped hide his youthfulness. He was only twenty-nine. He had spent an itinerant childhood following his Coast Guard father from Florida to Boston. In Florida, Caddell taught himself polling by going door to door in Jacksonville, asking his neighbors questions and then predicting elections which he did well. He then studied politics at Harvard University where he formed his own company, Cambridge Survey Research (CSR), and joined the growing ranks of professional pollsters, first advising George McGovern's unsuccessful run for president. Along the way to joining Carter's team in 1976, he honed interviewing techniques but also grew fascinated by ideas, avidly reading and arguing about history and politics.

He wasn't just the president's pollster, he was a full-time worrier. He was moody, and his moods shot in different directions. He could be exuberant and confident at times, morose at others. At one point, he'd make doomsday predictions, at another sunny forecasts, believing even the worst situation could take a positive turn. During the famous Middle East peace talks in 1978, Caddell remembered Carter introducing him to Egyptian president Anwar Sadat: "This is my pollster. He brings me a lot of bad news, but I still love him anyway." That's because Caddell had a penchant for seeing silver linings in collecting storm clouds. The situation in April 1979 was no different.