More than a few observers have pointed out that President Obama and the Democrats in Congress seem determined to repeat the errors of the 1970s by returning to inflationary spending, tax increases, auto company bailouts and cuts to the defense budget while coddling dictators who hate America.
So it was inevitable that this recycling effort would get around to attempting the most brazen rehabilitation of all: Jimmy Carter was a visionary president! If only we had listened to him.
It was 30 years ago this month that Mr. Carter reached the nadir of his presidency with his famous “malaise” speech in which he criticized the American people for their materialism and “crisis of confidence.” To be fair, Mr. Carter never used the word malaise in his speech (an aide used “malaise” in characterizing the speech to the media the next day), but the label stuck because it so accurately conveyed the substance of his message. Having run for president in 1976 on a slogan of giving us “a government as good as the people,” Mr. Carter essentially was saying the people were no good.
Today the malaise speech is being revived as a totem of Mr. Carter’s unrecognized greatness and profundity. Writing a few days ago in the New York Times, Gordon Stewart, one of Mr. Carter’s speechwriters responsible for the text, argued that “the speech was extremely popular” at the time, which is not entirely wrong. Initial polls showed positive public response, but it wilted within days.
Mr. Stewart thinks this was because “it was just too hard to compete with Ronald Reagan and his banner of limitless American consumption.” Over in Politico, Princeton professor Julian E. Zelizer also argues that Mr. Carter had it right, 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.”
In the midst of an energy crisis that was largely the result of bad government policy, Mr. Carter embraced the “limits to growth” mentality at the core of modern environmentalism and told Americans they should get used to making do with less. Mr. Carter resisted every change in policy that would have ended the energy crisis (such as decontrolling energy markets) and indeed made the problem worse over the long run by locking up huge oil and gas reserves in Alaska, where they remain closed off even as our oil imports continue to grow, and creating a web of subsidies for “renewable” energy such as wind and solar power that still can’t provide more than a sliver of our energy needs.
Criticisms of American materialism and self-indulgence certainly have merit and are a staple of the American character stretching back to the Puritans in Colonial days. This is one reason Mr. Carter’s speech at first received public favor — the Puritan strain in Americans likes to be scolded, preferably on Sunday by men of the cloth.
But the presidency is not a pulpit, and Americans rightly figured out that they were being blamed for Mr. Carter’s own failings, especially whenthe hypocrisy of the speech was so easy to see. When, a year before, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had made a similar critique of American materialism and spiritual drift in his infamous Harvard commencement address, the Carter White House had joined liberals in denouncing him. First lady Rosalynn Carter had strongly criticized Mr. Solzhenitsyn, saying Americans did not suffer from “unchecked materialism” and adding that “the people of this country are not weak, not cowardly and not spiritually exhausted.” Her remarks were considered to be the administration’s semiofficial response to Mr. Solzhenitsyn. But now her husband was saying much the same thing as Mr. Solzhenitsyn. Americans notice those kind of self-serving inconsistencies.
Mr. Carter didn’t help his case by building up unrealistic expectations for his speech when he disappeared for 10 days to Camp David to gaze at his navel and consult with a Who’s Who of the nation’s most pretentious thinkers on how to solve the nation’s problems. This fateful interregnum gave rise to persistent rumors that Mr. Carter had suffered a nervous breakdown.
We do know for certain that much of the Camp David chatter had little to do with solving the energy crisis and that Mr. Carter actually contemplated calling for a constitutional convention to fix the supposed defects of the American system.
Vice President Walter Mondale was so dismayed at Mr. Carter’s course that he contemplated resigning — the ultimate no-confidence vote. “Everything in me told me that this was wrong,” Mr. Mondale said later. “You can’t castigate the American people,” Mr. Mondale told Mr. Carter directly, “or they will turn you off once and for all.”
Mr. Mondale was right. Another leading figure at the time nailed it: “People who talk about an age of limits are really talking about their own limitations, not America’s.” So said Ronald Reagan, whose first act on entering office 18 months later was to decontrol oil prices by executive order (a step Mr. Carter had refused). Liberals predicted $4-a-gallon gasoline. Instead, oil prices fell for a decade, along with what was left of Mr. Carter’s reputation on energy issues.
Steven F. Hayward is F.K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “The Real Jimmy Carter” and the forthcoming “The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution, 1980-1989.”