“What The Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?”


I (Ben) don’t dabble much in pop history books, but Kevin Mattson’s “What The Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?” piqued my interest for several reasons. One is the speech the book is based on — Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech from July 1979 — and specifically how it has been canonized with a word that Carter never actually used. The second is that I’ve always admired Carter as a tragic figure; he was a good man who was a poor president. The third is that the incomparable Hendrik Hertzberg was Carter’s speechwriter and plays a peripheral role in the book. So I decided to pick it up.

Mattson sets the stage by capturing the late 70s zeitgeist: the energy crisis, gas shortages (and riots at the pump), Three Mile Island, disco, inflation, mood rings, Studio 54, The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now. 1979 “was a year in which secular trends bubbled up into crisis points,” writes Mattson. And the biggest crisis for Carter was an energy crisis which eroded his poll numbers and the country’s faith in him as a leader.

Carter saw it as more than a political crisis though. Prodded on by pollster Patrick Caddell, Carter looked at the challenges facing the nation in spiritual and moral terms. Carter admired the teachings of the theologian Rienhold Niebuhr, who counseled humility as a corrective against inherent sinfulness, specifically selfishness ( “self-love” being equivalent to placing oneself above God). In May of 1979, Carter gave in speech in Iowa and said, “The federal government has no secret scientific miracle tucked away that will suddenly produce a cure for our long-standing overdependence on foreign oil.” For Carter, Mattson writes,

the energy crisis prompted more than a change in policy but rather an end to narcissism and childishness. There are “thousands of smaller steps by individual people, by scientists, by researchers, by local officials, business” that can “lead to an eventual goal of energy self-sufficiency for our country.” Carter hit upon the ideal of a nation bonded together in common mission to tackle the crisis, a nation that recognized limits and its own vulnerability.

Carter was walking a fine line. A meeting with religious leaders at Camp David several days before the speech reinforced the risks of indicting the American way of life. “How much can the American people take?” Carter asked professor and participant Robert Bellah. Vice President Walter Mondale had cautioned Carter against being a “scold” and a “grouch.” But these leaders convinced Carter that he could frame his speech with the religious language of a covenant between a leader and his people. (One participant likened Carter to Moses coming down from the mountain to address the people.)

When Carter gave the speech on July 15, 1979, he said, “This is not a message of happiness or reassurance, but it is the truth and it is a warning.” He addressed the country’s cynicism about its political leaders. He quoted liberally from citizens with whom he’d met over the preceding weeks. The first quote he shared was from a Southern governor: “Mr. President, you are not leading this nation — you’re just managing the government.” (From a citizen: “Mr. President, we’re in trouble. Talk to us about blood and sweat and tears.”) He affirmed “the decency and strength and wisdom of the American people.” He also said, “Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.” He said, “We know the strength of America. We are strong. We can regain our unity. We can regain our confidence.” He also said the nation faced “a crisis of confidence … that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will.” He used the image of a fork in the road. “One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest,” he said. The other path was “one of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our nation and ourselves.”

When he finished, White House phones rang off the hook. Thousands of calls came in; polls indicated that 84 percent of them applauded the speech. Mail flooded the White House over the coming weeks — more letters, Mattson notes, “than those received when Richard Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia or when Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon. Except in this case, the letters were positive: 85 percent of them oozed with praise for the president’s speech.” Carter’s approval rating jumped 11 points overnight. The press dubbed the speech “remarkable,” Carter’s “best.” David Broder said “it will surely go down in history as one of the most extraordinary addresses a chief executive has ever given. What he said was the kind of thing Americans have never heard from a president before.” Added Time, “In the whole history of American politics, there had never been anything quite like it.”

So how did it become the “malaise” speech? How did Carter plummet to defeat in the 1980 election? (Even though his approval rating jumped 11 points, it was only at 25 to begin with.) How did all of this coincide with — even fuel — Ronald Reagan’s ascent to the presidency? And the rise of the odious Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority? Mattson spends the final chapter contemplating these questions, to which there are many answers. (Carter himself likely made the biggest blunder when he fired his entire cabinet two days after the speech.)

What I found most timely about the book is how an insurgent movement — in this case, those on the right coalescing behind Reagan — reframed the debate and used Carter’s words against him. Not unlike the health care debate going on now, conservatives seemed to own the narrative. Carter was not good at simplicity, whether it be from a policy, theological or speech-making standpoint. (His former speechwriter James Fallows damned him with this verdict: “I came to think that Carter believes fifty things, but no one thing.”) Reagan was. His message was clear. When he assumed the presidency in January 1981, his Inaugural words were a sting to the man whose hand he had just shaken: “It is time for us to realize that we are too great a nation to limit ourselves to small dreams. We are not, as some would have us believe” — here one imagines Reagan grimacing and nodding his head in Carter’s direction — “doomed to an inevitable decline.”

Mattson’s book is not a counterfactual. He is plain about Carter’s faults. (Interestingly, he suggests that the speech was the impetus for Carter’s remarkably busy post-presidential life.) But he has done us the service of providing context for Carter’s speech as well as rescuing it from its detractors. “This book ends with a question about 1979 as a turning point,” he says, issuing a challenge to his audience not unlike Carter did. “Are we so certain that the turn taken was the right one?”


You can watch the first five minutes of Carter’s speech here. Or you could just buy the book. (Or bum it off me.)


12 thoughts on ““What The Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?”

  1. Ben- Do you really think that conservatives are owning the health care debate narrative? Maybe my view is skewed living inside the beltway- but I don’t think this statement is true.

  2. Aha! I knew Embo would turn out for a semi-political post.

    From my vantage point, yes. Purely on a language level, Obama’s “bending the curve” doesn’t have the emotional punch of “death panels” or “rationing” or a government bureaucrat “standing between you and your doctor.”

    Maybe a more precise term for “owning” would be “dictating” the health care debate (or at the least the language of the health care debate).

    That’s my take from outside the Beltway. Maybe we all just feel that the other side is “winning” though.

    Here’s an NPR transcript of an interview with Republican pollster Frank Luntz, and a relevant health care lexicon I found interesting.

  3. Nice review. This sounds interesting.

    Carter. Yeah, that’s a tough one. One (timely) thought is that Ted Kennedy ran what was by any standard a TERRIBLE campaign and still managed to take about 10 states in a primary battle against a sitting president. Remarkable.

    Reagan deserves credit on Carter’s loss. Republicans today venerate him because (and they probably don’t realize this) he was the best campaigner their party has ever seen.

    On the healthcare debate…I don’t know as I would go so far as to use the term “owning” but the momentum is clearly with them. Obama got elected because of three things and healthcare reform was one of them. What this legislation is shaping up to be is truly a joke.

  4. Mike, I cannot believe Obama’s team has not been consulting you throughout this process. They don’t call you the Tom Daschle of Lexington for nothing.

  5. Ben- you know me too well. Here’s a question for you though, do you really think that the town hall outcries are organized by the GOP? I must say that I wish they were organized enough to create this kind of a response, but looking at the ’08 election leads me to believe otherwise…

    Mike- remember in ’04 when Bush ran on reforming Social Security and then wasn’t able to get the reforms passed? I think this debate is shaping up in much the same way. The difference being that the Dem’s have the majority they need to get a bill through with little to no Republican support.

  6. Embo — Yes and no. (I’ll never be a successful pundit.) The GOP has certainly harnessed populist anger on the right, I don’t think there’s any question about that. But it’s still grassroots, not astroturf. (I wouldn’t have said the same about the Tea Parties.) I don’t doubt that town hall protestors genuinely believe in less government. But the GOP is certainly stoking the fire.

    Mike — Rahm said you aren’t returning his calls. Get it together, man. Your party needs you.

  7. I will be buying and reading this book. I know very little about Carter and his presidency and this strikes me as a good time to start to learn.

    I think it is simplistic to think that one side or the other is “controlling” or “owning” the health care debate. I think this is the first time in a long time that we’ve seen a genuine reaction from the public, on both sides, to something that effects all of us (except for perhaps the war in Iraq). I agree with Embo that the GOP isn’t nearly good enough to stoke this kind of emotion and response. While some would dismiss the town hall meeting participants as “crazy” or “wingnuts” their fear and concern is very real. At the same time the “liberals” or “left wingers” attending these meetings and protesting have an equal level of concern for those who are uninsured or denied coverage.

    In the end I believe there is clearly a very real need for a debate on this issue. Sadly I don’t believe that debate is ever really going to happen. These town hall meetings are just dog and poney shows for the politicians and have become a joke to the rest of the nation. While I believe the anger to be sincere on both sides, it won’t produce anything useful.

    It’s easy for both sides to look at each other and point fingres, and certainly the media eats it up. But in the end real conversations regarding tort reform, pre-existing conditions, and whether or not to have a public option will never take place. Washington will bow to the groups that have the money and something may or not actaully happen.

    Just one man’s opinion.

  8. Ben- These guys are going to have to learn to fight on their own. Emanuel’s SUPPOSED to be a pit bull, but this white house has been too focused on bipartisanship. They took a single payer system off the table within the first five minutes of debate and now they’re wavering on a public option.

    Embo- I agree on Bush ’04. I think President Obama is trying really, really, really hard to avoid getting nothing because he knows the kind of hit Bush took on that. Let’s hope he doesn’t try to appoint Harriet Myers to the supreme court after this.

    Consider this: If the GOP and Democrats reversed roles right now (huge GOP majority in congress and controlling white house) would it be unreasonable to think the GOP might pass a healthcare reform bill without a single payer system or a public option? What’s being discussed right now wasn’t part of the platform I heard last August and that’s what ticks me off.

  9. Great discussion, it seems to me what this dialogue has that the “national debate” is lacking is nuance. These are complicated issues that are being dulled down into buzzwords. That reminds me I’m late for my appointment with the Death Panel.

  10. Mike — I hate to correct you, but the Dems set their watches to beep five minutes before the health care debate began so they could pull the single payer option off the table then.

    Steve — How’d your Death Panel appointment go? Mine was not so good. I thought I was getting a throat culture but then my doctor stuck me with a shiv.

  11. Matt- you once again hit the nail on the head, Washington is going to bow to where the money is and the current debate on these issues is not focused on what the real problems are, and won’t do anything to fix what is fundamentally a broken system.

    Mike- thats the irony of politics, what is discussed during campaigns is rarely followed up on once in office. It has been very interesting to watch the Obama Admin try and make the transition from campaigning to governing (I’d argue that they haven’t come close to figuring it out yet). It’s easy to promise the American people what they want to hear when you aren’t in the drivers seat, much harder to follow up on those promises once you’ve won the election.

    And lastly- if the GOP continues on the Sarah Palin death panel track I may be forced to revoke my membership and start my own smart conservative third party… ugh

  12. Embo — Why wait for the GOP to continue down the SPDP track? I say start today. Weak opposition parties aren’t good for anyone. (Our nation needs you!)

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