Days of Malaise
Historian takes a second look at President Carter’s infamous energy speech
Oct. 14, 2009
In Jimmy Carter’s infamous 1979 “malaise” speech (which never used that actual word), the president presented the energy crisis as the moral equivalent of war and challenged the American values of consumerism and individualism. He proposed that 20 percent of the nation’s energy be generated by solar by the year 2000. He asked Americans to carpool and to turn down their thermostats. He had a sincerity in his tone that today seems downright old-fashioned.
“The speech, I would argue, was successful,” says Kevin Mattson, Connor Study Professor of Contemporary History at Ohio University. “If you look at the reaction to this speech, it was resoundingly positive; Carter bumped up 11 percent (in approval polls).”
Mattson boldly compares the speech to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and FDR’s first inaugural speech. “I think that great historical speeches usually have something to do with trying to get a read on the nation’s psyche and its soul, and try to get Americans to unite around some sort of national purpose,” he says.
So what happened? That’s the subject of Mattson’s recent book What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President? Jimmy Carter, America’s ‘Malaise,'” and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country, which has received national media coverage in outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Colbert Report. Just days after the speech, Carter fired his entire cabinet. That, Mattson maintains, drew the nation’s attention away from fighting the energy crisis to scratching their heads at the disarray in the White House.
“Then the term malaise and the projected idea of what the speech is about becomes fodder for his enemies,” Mattson explains. “And of course it’s Reagan who can craft almost his entire political persona around the idea that he’s optimistic and that Carter is this negative, pessimistic man.”
In the book, Mattson sets out to disentangle the speech, which he calls prophetic, from the rest of Carter’s term. For research, he surveyed newspapers and magazines from the time and spent almost a month at the Carter Presidential Library in Atlanta.
“He was a president who governed by memos,” Mattson says, which made the historian’s job easier. Mattson also interviewed some of the key players from the time, including Carter press secretary Jody Powell and speechwriter Hendrik Hertzberg. He was not able to secure an interview with Carter himself, but Mattson says that most people’s memories are not a reliable source.
“'Do your interviews late,’ I always tell my students,” he says. “You want to have a hand on the historical record. (Your sources) may mislead you, because if they have any agenda, it’s that they want to look like the heroes of the story.”
Mattson believes historians should address big questions and remind us of how people in the past grappled with them. He also thinks historians are on the cusp of reevaluating Carter, at a time when we are again facing an energy crisis.
“People who might have been losers in history might have had the right ideas about what to do at the moment,” he says, “and the danger is that we don’t pay attention.”
By Mary Reed
This article will appear in the Autumn/Winter 2009 issue of Perspectives magazine, slated for release in early November.
For more information about Kevin Mattson, visit: http://www.ohio.edu/history/facultystaff/Mattson.cfm.