Analysis & Comment

Opinion | The Wisdom and Prophecy of Jimmy Carter’s ‘Malaise’ Speech

On July 15, 1979, President Jimmy Carter emerged from days of isolation to deliver the most important and memorable address of his life. Carter had canceled vacation plans and spent more than a week cloistered at Camp David, where he met with a “steady stream of visitors” who shared their hopes and fears about a nation in distress, most immediately thanks to another in a series of energy crises.

Carter, however, discerned a deeper problem. America had a wounded heart. The president believed it suffered from a “crisis of the spirit.” The speech was among the most unusual in presidential history. The word that has clung to it, “malaise,” was a word that didn’t even appear in the text. It was offered by his critics and has since become something close to official history. Everyone above a certain age knows immediately and precisely the meaning of the phrase “the malaise speech.”

I believe, by contrast, the best word to describe the speech would have been “pastoral.” A faithful Christian president applied the lessons he’d so plainly learned from years of Bible study and countless hours in church. Don’t look at the surface of a problem. Don’t be afraid to tell hard truths. Be humble, but also call the people to a higher purpose.

The resulting address was heartfelt. It was eloquent. Yet it helped sink his presidency.

Read the speech now, and you’ll see its truth and its depth. But, ironically, it’s an address better suited to our time than to its own. Jimmy Carter’s greatest speech was delivered four decades too soon.

The ostensible purpose of the speech was to address the energy crisis. Anyone who remembers the 1970s remembers gas lines and the helpless feeling that our nation’s prosperity was dependent on foreign oil. Yet that was but one of a seemingly endless parade of American problems.

By 1979, this country had experienced a recent string of traumatic political assassinations, urban riots that dwarfed the summer riots of 2020 in scale and intensity, campus unrest that makes the current controversies over “wokeness” look civil and quaint, the defeat in Vietnam, and the deep political corruption of Richard Nixon. At the same time, inflation rates dwarfed what we experience today.

When he addressed the nation, Carter took a step back. With his trademark understated warmth, he described his own period of reflection. He’d taken the time to listen to others, he shared what he heard, and then he spoke words that resonate today. “The symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us,” he said, and he described symptoms that mirror our current reality.

“For the first time in the history of our country a majority of our people believe that the next five years will be worse than the past five years,” Carter said. (Meanwhile, last year a record 58 percent of Americans told NBC News pollsters that our nation’s best years are behind it.)

There was more. “As you know,” he told viewers, “there is a growing disrespect for government and for churches and for schools, the news media, and other institutions.” He was right, but compared to now, Americans were far more respectful of virtually every major institution, from the government, to the news media, to the private sector. Only the military fares better now in the eyes of the public.

Then there was this gut-punch paragraph:

We were sure that ours was a nation of the ballot, not the bullet, until the murders of John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. We were taught that our armies were always invincible and our causes were always just, only to suffer the agony of Vietnam. We respected the presidency as a place of honor until the shock of Watergate.

When we read these words after the contemporary onslaught of mass shootings, the anguish of the Afghanistan withdrawal, and the turmoil of two Trump impeachments, you can again see the parallels today.

We’re familiar with political speeches that recite the litany of American challenges, but we’re not familiar with speeches that ask the American people to reflect on their own role in a national crisis. Carter called for his audience to look in the mirror:

In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.

There is a tremendous amount of truth packed into those words. But there was a problem: Carter correctly described a country of mutual, interlocking responsibilities between the government and the people. Yet he was ultimately unable to deliver the results that matched his pastoral message.

For all the scorn heaped on Carter later, the speech was successful, at first. His approval rating shot up a remarkable 11 points. Then came chaos — some of it Carter’s fault, some of it not. Days after the speech, he demanded the resignation of his entire cabinet. (He ultimately fired five.) It was a move that communicated confusion more than conviction.

Then the world erupted. In November, Iranian militants stormed the U.S. Embassy and took dozens of Americans hostage. In December, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and at least appeared to secure the country quickly and easily. Contrary to popular remembrance, Carter did not respond with weakness. The defense buildup for which Ronald Reagan is remembered actually began under Carter. And in April 1980, he greenlit a daring attempt to fly into the heart of Iran and rescue American hostages by force.

It was not to be. Mechanical problems scrubbed the mission far from Tehran, and in the confusion of the withdrawal, two aircraft collided, and eight American servicemembers died. American gloom deepened. The nation seemed to be moving from defeat to defeat.

The failed rescue was a hinge moment in history. It’s hard to imagine the morale boost had it succeeded, and we know the crushing disappointment when it failed. Had the Army’s Delta Force paraded down New York’s “Canyon of Heroes” with the liberated hostages, it would have probably transformed the public’s perception of the president. But just as presidents own military victories, they also own defeats. Carter’s fate was sealed. Reagan carried 44 states, and on Inauguration Day — in a final insult by Tehran — the hostages came home.

The story of the next 10 years, moreover, cast Carter’s address in a different light. The nation went from defeat to victory: Inflation broke, the economy roared, and in 1991 the same military that was humiliated in the sands of Iran triumphed, with assistance from its allies, over an immense Iraqi Army in a 100-hour land war that astonished the world.

The history was written. Carter was wrong. There wasn’t a crisis of confidence. There was no malaise. There was instead a failure of leadership. Better, or at least luckier, leaders revived a broken nation.

Yet with every passing year, the deeper truths of Carter’s speech become more apparent. His insights become more salient. A speech that couldn’t precisely diagnose the maladies of 1979 more accurately describes the challenges of 2023. The trends he saw emerging two generations ago now bear their poisonous fruit in our body politic.

Carter’s central insight was that even if the country’s political branches could deliver peace and prosperity, they could not deliver community and belonging. Our nation depends on pre-political commitments to each other, and in the absence of those pre-political commitments, the American experiment is ultimately in jeopardy.

In 1979, Carter spoke of our civil liberties as secure. They’re more secure now. A generation of Supreme Court case law has expanded our rights to free speech and religious liberty beyond the bounds of precedent. In 1979, Carter said that the United States possessed “unmatched economic power and military might.” That assertion may have rung hollow to a nation facing a Soviet Union that seemed to be at the peak of its power. But it’s unquestionably true today.

We’re free, prosperous and strong to a degree we couldn’t imagine then. Yet we’re tearing each other apart now. The words that didn’t quite capture the moment in 1979 land quite differently today:

We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility.

With these words, Carter raised the question, what is our freedom for, exactly? While we want to better ourselves and our families, we cannot become self-regarding. We have obligations to each other. We have obligations to our community. The best exercise of freedom is in service to others.

Yet one of the stories of our time is the abuse of liberty, including the use of our freedoms — whether it’s to boycott, condemn or shame — to try to narrow the marketplace of ideas, to deprive dissenters of their reputations and their livelihoods. A porn-saturated culture luxuriates in its own decadence and exploitation, and then wonders why hearts break and families fail. And as Carter noted, our huge wealth cannot heal the holes in our hearts, because “consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”

At the start of this piece, I used the word “pastoral” to describe Carter’s speech. But there’s another word: prophetic. His words were not the clarion call necessary for his time, but they are words for this time. As Jimmy Carter spends his last days on this earth, we should remember his call for community, and thank a very good man for living his values, serving his neighbors, and reminding us of the true source of strength for the nation he loved.

Source: Read Full Article