Jimmy Carter’s “Malaise” Speech

The presidential address that should have changed the country.

Kevinmattson Cover

The first half of 1979 was a turbulent time in America, characterized by high inflation, plummeting auto sales, and a fuel shortage that led to violence on gas lines around the country. In the midst of these day-to-day challenges, a nuclear power plant nearly melted down on Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (March 28); a DC-10 en route from Chicago to Los Angeles crashed upon takeoff, killing 271 people (May 24); NASA’s Skylab plunged to earth (July 11); and a stadium-wide riot occurred between games of a major league doubleheader on “Disco Demolition Night” at Chicago’s Comiskey Park (July 12).

Then on July 15, Jimmy Carter delivered one of the most remarkable presidential addresses in U.S. history—the “Crisis of Confidence” speech—in which he spoke of a crisis in the American soul, and also detailed his proposal for a new national energy policy. Though Carter’s words were initially well-received—the address, now commonly known as the “malaise” speech—went on to play a pivotal role in his political downfall, and helped usher in the rise of the conservative movement.

In the new book “What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?” (Bloomsbury), author Kevin Mattson revisits the “Crisis of Confidence” speech, placing it in the cultural and political context of the time and explaining why it has been misremembered by the public. It’s an eye-opening work that begs the question: Would the U.S. be better off today if it had taken Carter’s words to heart? 

Failure interviewed Mattson to find out how and why the speech became associated with malaise, a word Carter never uttered during the thirty-two minute address.

Set the stage for our readers: What was going on in the U.S. in the months leading up to July 1979?
What you had was a maelstrom of things occurring. First off, there were enormous gas lines, and a lot of violence on those gas lines, with fights breaking out and murders occurring. In addition, you had independent truckers upset with the fact that they couldn’t find diesel supplies, and an independent trucker strike that was also quite violent.

But the event that is most symbolic of how crazy and chaotic things had become took place in Levittown, Pennsylvania, where there was a confluence between the gas lines and the truckers strike. There were gas lines and protests against gas lines. Then the truckers drove into town and there was a full-fledged riot.

Originally, Carter’s speechwriters drafted a different address slated for July 5. Why didn’t Carter deliver that speech?
Carter was out of the country for most of June, engaged in diplomatic initiatives. He cancelled a vacation and came back in late in the month to try to deal with the gas crisis. At that moment there was a push for him to address the situation. A speech was drafted very quickly, one that the speechwriters didn’t believe was very good, and one that Carter didn’t like either.

During a telephone conversation with his advisors Carter told them he was going to cancel the speech. They told him he couldn’t cancel, that it would be really detrimental to do so. At some point during the conversation Carter said, “I don’t want to bullshit the American people any longer.” Then he hung up, which gives you a sense of how tense things had become within the White House, and how precarious things had become for his presidency.

Carter went on to cancel the speech—with no explanation—even though he had blocked out television time on all the networks.

But he went on to address the country on July 15. What was the public’s initial response to the “Crisis of Confidence” speech?
That speech was very strong, and the response was extraordinarily favorable. A lot of it was about how the American way of life had to be called into question—that there was a civic crisis in addition to the energy crisis. One might think that the American people would be angry about being berated by the president. In fact, because many Americans recognized that there were significant problems with the country, the reaction was quite favorable. [Overnight] Carter’s poll numbers went up by 11 percentage points, which was pretty shocking. In the day or so afterwards, he rolled out a bunch of other elements of his plan for addressing the energy crisis, and again got a very favorable response.

How is it that such a well-received speech ended up ensuring his defeat in the next election?
He did a lot of things after the speech—and very quickly afterwards—that worsened his reputation. For instance, he took the advice of one of his key advisors and fired his cabinet. So instead of keeping the country’s attention focused on the themes of the speech, attention turned back to what was going on in the White House. The firings were also done awkwardly; he admits this himself in his memoirs. The decision to fire his cabinet pushed his [approval ratings] below where they were before the speech.

How did the “Crisis of Confidence” speech become known as the “malaise” speech?
It was the media that first tagged it as a speech about malaise. In fact even before the speech was given a number of media outlets said that Carter was going to talk about the country’s malaise. Of course, in the speech, Carter never uses the word. But the media uses the term and bandies it about in op-ed’s, giving it the title we know today.

The first person who took advantage of the word “malaise” was Teddy Kennedy. He used it in his announcement that he was going to run against Carter in the Democratic primary. But the individual who does the best job of using “malaise” to attack Carter was Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s handlers advised him that he could use the idea that Carter had given up on the American people to present himself as the optimistic alternative.

But it was a mischaracterization. If you actually go back to the speech and read it, Carter never said that Americans were corrupt, or that there was something fundamentally awful about the American people.

Why didn’t Carter heed those who warned that his words might be misconstrued and used against him by political opponents?
There were those within the White House who told Carter that he shouldn’t give the speech, people like domestic policy advisor Stewart Eisenstaedt and vice president Walter Mondale. Mondale warned Carter that he had to be careful about what he called the “grouch factor.”

Carter resisted that line of advice; his idea was that he had to be honest and forthright. He believed the American people had to hear this message and that it had to come from the president. And after the speech, Eisenstaedt admitted it was the right thing to do. He also said it was a mistake for Carter to fire his cabinet two days later.

How did the conservative movement use the speech to propel itself forward?
Conservatives had been perceived as being kind of cranky and cantankerous and negative. But after people began to view Carter as pessimistic and obsessed with malaise, conservatives saw a chance to position themselves as the party of optimism and hope.

At the end of the book you note that the U.S. still has many of the same problems—especially dependence on foreign oil and lack of a national energy policy—that it had in 1979. Would we be better off today if we had gone Carter’s way?
The easy answer to that from my perspective is yes. We definitely needed a coherent energy policy to reduce our reliance on imported fossil fuels. That was what Carter was trying to get at in the second part of the speech. I think we would be better off if we had dealt with that situation and unified as a nation to fight the energy crisis. Can I say with assuredness that we would be better off? No. But it’s amazing to go back and see how many things Carter diagnosed as problems that remain big problems for America today.

In the speech Carter posits the question: “Why have we not been able to get together as a nation to resolve our serious energy problems?” Thirty years later, do we have an answer?
I think the problem Carter was getting at is that we needed to take some risks that in the short term many Americans would have found troubling. Americans have a very short-term sensibility about the way they want to live. They want to have gas now, and they want it in as an abundant supply as possible.

The difficulty is having the leadership and the capacity to say: We’re going to have to compromise some of our short-term self-interest for our longer term common purpose. That’s a really difficult thing to do, and the notion of asking whether our way of life can be sustained is very difficult. Americans are divided, and it’s tough to get them to think about the need for a common purpose because self-interest is so powerful in our country.

Can a politician be honest and critical and also succeed as a leader?
My feeling is that—and I hope this comes through in the book—you can be forthright and honest and also succeed. In the speech on race that Barack Obama gave, he came clean about the fact that America has a racial problem. The fact that he did that and succeeded is a sign that some Americans do want honesty and are willing to listen to criticism in the process of accepting someone as an honest and truthful leader.

On the other hand, there seems to be this tendency to say that the last thing on earth you want to do is to be honest with people because it is going to bite you in the ass. There is that tension in our political culture, and I hope that re-exploring Carter’s speech shows there is reason to be hopeful that honesty and forthrightness in political speech and political dialogue can sometimes do some good.