Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A story where nothing happens

Kevin Mattson’s What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?: Jimmy Carter, America’s “Malaise,” and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country

The following review was published yesterday at the History News Network.

It has now been almost exactly thirty years since a summer of discontent led to one of the most remarkable presidential addresses in American history: Jimmy Carter’s so-called “malaise” speech. (The word “malaise” was never actually used in the text, but in surfaced in the pre-broadcast discourse of the speech, and stuck.) As far as I can tell, the only other public address remotely like it is Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural of March 4 1865, in that it, like Carter’s speech of July 15, 1979, held American citizens responsible for the crises that beset them. For Lincoln, it was the Union no less than the Confederacy that God punished with a Civil War; for Carter, it was a culture of narcissism that explained a nation literally and figuratively sapped of its energy. But whatever their similarities in content and tone, the outcome proved to be quite different. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural solidified his claim on immortality; Carter’s speech, after giving him a momentary bump in the polls, became an emblem of his ineffectuality and hastened the end of his presidency.

The “malaise” speech is well known among presidential historians and students of the 1970s. But Kevin Mattson, recently named a “Top Young Historian” at the History News Network, here offers the first major book-length narrative history, focusing on the three months prior to Carter’s address. Yet perhaps without intending to, the effect of his account leads one to conclude not so much that his speech should have changed the country, but rather an explanation why it couldn’t. Challenged from his left by Ted Kennedy and on his right by an ascendant Ronald Reagan, the Carter White House was also riven by internal conflict that extended even to his genial vice-president, Walter Mondale, who fruitlessly urged Carter to take a focused and pragmatic approach to a national energy crisis that caused riots, mile-long gas lines, and seething anger at OPEC, the domestic oil industry, and the U.S. government. Instead, Mattson shows, Carter increasingly fell under the influence of the young pollster Patrick Caddell, who, armed with empirical data as well as the writings of scholars like Robert Bellah and (especially) Christopher Lasch, urged Carter to articulate a broader critique as to the troubled state of the nation and what the president would ultimately term “a crisis of confidence.”

Carter pulled few punches. “In a nation 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,” he told the American people. “Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and 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.” Carter, whose persona oscillated between his engineering training and his evangelical faith, re-entered the world of the Puritan jeremiad, and hoped to take the nation with him.

He did not. As Mattson’s analysis makes clear, that’s because public opinion was not sufficiently prepared or willing to accept the implications of his message. But this unwillingness was also a result of what Carter did – or, more accurately, failed to do – in his leadership role. The president’s address followed ten days of confusion resulting from a cancelled address on July 5 (prompting the New York Post to ask “What the heck are you up to Mr. President?"). Two days after the speech, Carter asked for the resignations of his entire cabinet, an act meant to demonstrate decisiveness but instead projected weakness. So was Carter’s inability to get his energy plan (which included a windfall profits tax and gas rationing) through Congress in anything like a recognizable form that summer. In November of 1979, the coup de grace of the Carter’s presidency – the Iranian hostage crisis – began. It’s probably this event rather than the “malaise” speech that was the true turning point that Mattson asserts the speech was.

Moreover, Mattson, who is also a historian of neoconservatism, is off the mark in another sense as well, one that again harkens back to his subtitle. For in a way, Carter’s speech did change the country: it crystallized the perception that modern liberalism was exhausted, and it became the touchstone for conservative critics – Reagan was only one of a number who cited it as justification for a political realignment – who would soon dominate American society. Mattson seems to imply that the nation was at a crossroads in 1979, that it was “a time of contingency, when a turn was taken that wasn’t carved in stone.” Yet he has little positive to say about Carter, not to mention his liberal challengers Kennedy and Jerry Brown, and gives little indication of a countervailing force anything like that of an ascendant Moral Majority and a new Right that made even figures like the one-time Republican front-runner John Connally look passé. The country was changing all right, just not in a way Mattson wished it would have. And his analysis, which explicitly affirms contingency, implicitly shows inevitability.

In the final pages of the book, Mattson makes clear that he regards the speech it as prophetic, only becoming more resonant as U.S. global confidence sinks and its energy dependency deepens. He’s right about that. Yet this is an argument in favor of a book that looked more closely at what Carter actually said than Mattson does, a book with a lot more of the Hendrik Hertzberg who helped write the speech and less of the Pat Caddell who lobbied for it. In his acknowledgments, Mattson notes his commitment to write narrative history. Alas, there isn’t much of a story here. It’s more a snapshot of a body politic facing right, not quite in motion.