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.)