Carter's "Crisis of Confidence" Speech

This was on my original list of topics to write about, because Kevin Mattson, the author of "What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?" was on The Colbert Report a while ago. I was going to quote a few sections and ask "who do you think said this and when?" But with the 30th anniversary yesterday, the element of surprise was ruined, so I'll have to tackle this straight on.

Jimmy CarterWhat a bum rap Carter got for this speech. Certainly Jimmy Carter made mistakes. And this speech is no different - shaking up the cabinet a few days later, losing the momentum it generated - but for it to be known as the "Malaise" speech and become a symbol of his purported failed presidency, is grossly unfair. He did exactly what we say we want to hear: confronted a serious problem head on, spoke clearly and without spin, asked for sacrifice, offered concrete solutions, and promised we would solve the problem together. No good deed goes unpunished, I guess.

The speech starts with the problem, a crisis of confidence, of which the energy issue was only a symptom:
In a nation that was proud 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. 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.
...
What you see too often in Washington and elsewhere around the country is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well-financed and powerful special interests. You see every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath by one unyielding group or another. You often see a balanced and a fair approach that demands sacrifice, a little sacrifice from everyone, abandoned like an orphan without support and without friends.
...
We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I've warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.

All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our nation and ourselves. We can take the first steps down that path as we begin to solve our energy problem.
It then lays out a series of energy policy proposals and finishes with encouragement and inspiration:
You know we can do it. We have the natural resources. We have more oil in our shale alone than several Saudi Arabias. We have more coal than any nation on Earth. We have the world's highest level of technology. We have the most skilled work force, with innovative genius, and I firmly believe that we have the national will to win this war.
...
Little by little we can and we must rebuild our confidence. We can spend until we empty our treasuries, and we may summon all the wonders of science. But we can succeed only if we tap our greatest resources -- America's people, America's values, and America's confidence.

I have seen the strength of America in the inexhaustible resources of our people. In the days to come, let us renew that strength in the struggle for an energy secure nation.

In closing, let me say this: I will do my best, but I will not do it alone. Let your voice be heard. Whenever you have a chance, say something good about our country. With God's help and for the sake of our nation, it is time for us to join hands in America. Let us commit ourselves together to a rebirth of the American spirit. Working together with our common faith we cannot fail.
Sound like malaise to you? Please read the whole speech and decide for yourself.

Some side notes:
  1. "[P]roud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God." These are old things, not conservative or liberal.
  2. Jimmy Carter was our first modern evangelical president. Evangelical did not have a politically conservative connotation until after the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition hijacked the term.
  3. Congressional gridlock and the power of special interests is not a new phenomenon. They existed not only in the 70's, but since the founding of the republic. While they definitely pose a problem, especially in regards to campaign money, the Constitution deliberately used them in service of preventing the tyranny of the majority, which was one of the main problems the founders saw with democracy.
  4. Self-interest was defined as bad: "the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others." Aren't the people who still call themselves conservative fighting to retain that grip?
UPDATE: Hendrik Hertzberg, the other speechwriter, weighs in. Good stuff, and he cites a review of the Mattson book. And if you think it was the delivery, not the words, think again. Finally, Jimmy Carter is still working for human rights at 85.

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