Aged Malaise

July 15th marked the 30th anniversary of President Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech, also known as the “Malaise Speech” (complete text and video here courtesy of the University of Virginia). Here’s the first five minutes:

After a ten-day retreat at Camp David, where he met with various political, religious, and academic leaders to hear their criticisms of him, President Carter delivered this speech, thinking he had a grasp on the nation’s psyche. The speech was well received at first (immediate polls shot up 11 percent), but Carter followed it up by asking for resignations from his entire cabinet, perhaps suggesting that Carter’s crisis of confidence was in his own administration. Needless to say, the buoyant optimism of Ronald Reagan in 1980 provided a stark contrast.

Yet liberals, and not a few conservatives (like Rod Dreher), have tried to resuscitate the image of the Crisis of Confidence speech. They say it was a sober assessment of where America was in the 1970s, but the nation was unprepared to receive it or Carter was a bad messenger. The recent book What the Heck are You Up to, Mr. President? called it a speech that should have changed the country. Fans call it sober, realistic, and adult; the kind of message a president should be giving. Not a few of them say President Obama should use the same kind of straight talk, because he could pull it off far more effectively.

There is some appeal, I admit, in portions of the Crisis of Confidence speech. Passages like this–“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.”–are appealing. But when I watch that video, I see a chastened, almost hurt, man. Like he took the Camp David meetings a little too much to heart.

Frequently our politicians try to fill us with false hopes based on cliche and catchphrase. Campaign 2008 was enough evidence of that. Jimmy Carter tried to diagnose a problem, but without providing much motivational inspiration (“This is not a message of happiness or reassurance, but it is the truth and it is a warning.”), so he got burned by Reagan’s “we can do it” optimism. Americans are ok with self criticism and reflection, provided leaders also show the way to something better, smiling as they go.

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