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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January 6, 2010 - 10:08am
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