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4 Stories About Jimmy Carter's Malaise Speech

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by "¨Kevin Mattson

On July 15, 1979, President Jimmy Carter spoke to the American people about the nation's crisis of confidence. Kevin Mattson's latest book, What the Heck Are You up to, Mr. President?, re-examines the address that defined—and perhaps doomed—Carter's presidency. Here are a few things you might not remember about the speech.

1. Carter Never Used the Word "Malaise"

Weird, huh? The speech was actually entitled "Crisis of Confidence." The media hung that term on the speech, both before and after it was given. But it was really in two speeches made by Carter's political opponents where the word turns up the most. In November 1979, Ted Kennedy announced he would run against Carter in the primary and stated: "The people are blamed for every national ill, scolded as greedy, wasteful, and mired in malaise." Kennedy was quickly followed by his political better, Ronald Reagan, who said that in taking stock of the country, "I find no national malaise. I find nothing wrong with the American people." So Carter's presidency is often defined by one word he never used, but that his shrewder critics were quick to employ.

2. Weird Riots Were Happening in America

America had just experienced two of its weirdest riots right before the speech: One in Levittown, Pennsylvania, the other in Chicago.

The Levittown riot was generated by independent truckers protesting dwindling supplies of diesel fuel and stoned teenagers who liked to light things on fire. Both groups seemed to rally around the country song "Cheaper Crude or No More Food," played over and over by a local disc jockey.

The other riot had something even more to do with music. It was called Disco Demolition. Kids brought disco records to Comiskey Park in Chicago and tossed them into a vault, getting in for cheap to a White Sox doubleheader. Between games, Steve Dahl came out and blew up the vault of records. Then stoned teenagers ran onto the field and lit it on fire. That was just a few days before Carter's speech, which focused on themes of dwindling civic respect in America. Perhaps a coincidence.

3. Carter's Intellectual Speechwriters

Jimmy Carter actually invited intellectuals into the White House and to Camp David to help him write his speech. He listened to Christopher Lasch, a historian who wrote The Culture of Narcissism, and Daniel Bell, a sociologist who wrote The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (take it from me: Neither of these are "easy" books to read). The White House seemed, for a moment, to become a hotbed of ideas—even if Carter explained that he had gotten through these books by speedreading.

4. His Poll Numbers Actually Went Up

carter-mattsonThe speech is thought to have been a disaster for Carter—he's been depicted ever since as scolding the American people. The speech certainly turned an unkind light on the American people, but it actually drove Carter's poll numbers up 11 points. The White House received more calls than it did when Richard Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia, and the support was overwhelming. Go figure: American president tells tough truths to the American citizenry, and they actually listen and take heart. This, of course, is just one strand in the story. There are others, none too favorable for President Jimmy.

Kevin Mattson is the author of What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President? He's a Professor of Contemporary History at Ohio University.

Here's the first part of Carter's speech (audio quality not great):

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How Urban Legends Like 'The Licked Hand' Are Born
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If you compare the scary stories you heard as a kid with those of your friends—even those who grew up across the country from you—you’ll probably hear some familiar tales. Maybe you tried to summon Bloody Mary by chanting her name in front of the mirror three times in a dark bathroom. Maybe you learned never to wonder what’s under a woman’s neck ribbon. Maybe you heard the one about the girl who feels her dog lick her hand in the middle of the night, only to wake up to find him hanging dead from the shower nozzle, the words “humans can lick too” written on the wall in the dog’s blood.

These ubiquitous, spooky folk tales exist everywhere, and a lot of them take surprisingly similar forms. How does a single story like the one often called “Humans Can Lick Too” or "The Licked Hand" make its way into every slumber party in America? Thrillist recently investigated the question with a few experts, finding that most of these stories have very deep roots.

In the case of The Licked Hand, its origins go back more than a century. In the 1990s, Snopes found that a similar motif dates back to an Englishman’s diary entry from 1871. In it, the diary keeper, Dearman Birchall, retold a story he heard at a party of a man whose wife woke him up in the middle of the night, urging him to go investigate what sounded like burglars in their home. He told his wife that it was only the dog, reaching out his hand. He felt the dog lick his hand … but in the morning, all his valuables were gone: He had clearly been robbed.

A similar theme shows up in the short story “The Diary of Mr. Poynter,” published in 1919 by M.R. James. In it, a character dozes off in an armchair, and thinks that he is petting his dog. It turns out, it’s some kind of hairy human figure that he flees from. The story seems to have evolved from there into its presently popular form, picking up steam in the 1960s. As with any folk tale, its exact form changes depending on the teller: sometimes the main character is an old lady, other times it’s a young girl.

You’ll probably hear these stories in the context of happening to a “friend of a friend,” making you more likely to believe the tale. It practically happened to someone you know! Kind of! The setting, too, is probably somewhere nearby. It might be in your neighborhood, or down by the local railroad tracks.

Thrillist spoke to Dr. Joseph Stubbersfield, a researcher in the UK who studies urban legends, who says the kind of stories that spread widely contain both social information and emotional resonance. Meaning they contain a message—you never know who’s lurking in your house—and are evocative.

If something is super scary or gross, you want to share it. Stories tend to warn against something: A study of English-language urban legends circulating online found that most warned listeners about the hazards of life (poisonous plants, dangerous animals, dangerous humans) rather than any kind of opportunities. We like to warn each other of the dangers that could be lurking around every corner, which makes sense considering our proven propensity to focus on and learn from negative information. And yes, that means telling each other to watch out for who’s licking our hands in the middle of the night.

Just something to keep in mind as you eagerly await Jezebel’s annual scary story contest.

[h/t Thrillist]

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