Entry from July 17, 2009

Interesting that the media are engaging in what looks almost like a concerted effort at historical revisionism to mark the 30th anniversary of Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech of 1979. Articles in The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Politico and on Chris Matthews’s show, many of them tied to reviews of a new book — a whole book! — about the speech, What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President? by Kevin Mattson, all make the same point that Professor Mattson does, namely that what has been seen for 30 years as a political disaster was in fact “an incredibly successful speech” (in the words of Pat Caddell) that only turned out badly for the president because he fired half his cabinet a few days later.

I’m not buying it. Mr Caddell and others who want us to look at the speech again were themselves instrumental in writing it, and persuading Mr Carter to give it — or in some cases trying to persuade him not to give it — so they have an interest in seeing either themselves or the man they served vindicated by history. They also tend to draw parallels to today. As Julian E. Zelizer writes in Politico:

While the speech did not accomplish its goals, the president touched on a vital point that resonates today. He reminded Americans that our nation’s obsession with consumption, an obsession shared by the left and the right, has made it extraordinarily difficult to actually resolve the energy crisis we face. While there are many causes behind our chronic energy problems — from a dependency on the Middle Eastern oil to the failure to invest in alternative fuel sources — Carter was right in that many Americans, especially those in the middle and upper income brackets, live in homes, drive cars, and consume resources in ways that are not environmentally sustainable. Until we really deal with the conservation issues that President Carter put on the table 30 years ago we’ll keep running in circles as we keep scrambling for new energy resources to facilitate our addiction to consumption.

But “the energy crisis we face” is as bogus as the “crisis of confidence” that Mr Carter thought we faced in 1979. The real crisis of confidence was his own, and that showed through to a lot of people even at the time. Though his poll numbers went up in the immediate aftermath of the speech, this was a sympathy vote — the poor man was obviously flailing — and was bound to fade quickly, even without the cabinet firings. It was clear that the President had lost his grip on events and, according to the wisdom of the therapeutic culture, that he was telling us so in the hope of being rewarded for his frankness. “Never apologize. It’s a sign of weakness,” said John Wayne in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949). That ought to be the lesson in leadership for President Obama, who came out of the gate apologizing, and not the example of the weakest president of modern times.

More importantly, Jimmy Carter’s focusing on “the energy crisis” of the 1970s as — ridiculously — “the moral equivalent of war” must have demonstrated to a lot of people that the president was not only weak but a fool to boot. Presidents and presidential candidates ever since his time have similarly tried to make “our dependence on foreign oil” a “crisis” only less exigent than Carter’s and with no more success than he did in inducing people to “sacrifice” for the sake of national autarky. Now, of course, they also have “global warming” to justify the importance of reducing consumption, but I don’t thing the ordinary people of America are any more likely to buy that than they were the apocalyptic consequences of the OPEC cartel. What President Carter was doing then with energy was what President Obama is trying to do now with health care, which is to force a sense of crisis solely by rhetorical means. And, like his predecessor, I’m afraid that the latter will only succeed in casting doubts on his own leadership.

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