Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Danger of Speaking the Truth

Over at The Plank we are reminded at today is the 30th anniversary of Jimmy Carter's so called "Malaise" speech (in which the word 'malaise' is never mentioned). I, like so many of you, have heard of the speech without actually reading it, and, again, like many of you, know the speech to have been perhaps the proverbial 'nail in the coffin' for Carter administration. Supposedly, this speech was a big downer on the American public, where, in so many words, President Carter told us that we were a bunch of big losers and that our problem was that we were depressed. You would have thought he told us to take a bunch of Zolofts and hit him back at election time. 30 years later this is how Damon Linker explains Carter's speech:

"Thirty years ago today, Jimmy Carter delivered the worst major speech of a modern president. The "Crisis of Confidence" speech (often described as the "Malaise" speech) was by turns mawkish, hectoring, self-pitying, maudlin, self-righteous, undisciplined (the address opened with a string of nineteen quotations from critics of his presidency). It wildly exaggerated the nation's problems (the "erosion of confidence in the future" was "a fundamental threat to American democracy," one that would also "destroy the social and the political fabric of America") and proposed a series of absurdly ambitious policies and goals (according to the president, "20 percent of our energy [would come] from solar power by the year 2000"), not one of which was realized. Carter's delivery was halting, awkward, abrasive, excruciating to watch (see for yourself). The editors of this magazine were quite right to comment shortly after the speech, "The past two weeks will be remembered as the period when President Jimmy Carter packed it in, put the finishing touches on a failed presidency." (And this was still four months before the hostages were taken in Tehran.)

"And yet, one of Carter's speechwriters (Gordon Stewart) would now have us believe that the "Crisis of Confidence" was a success. Don't believe it for a second. The speech was a "kick me" sign Carter affixed to his own back just as Ronald Reagan was coming up behind him. It provided a perfect set-up to what would be Reagan's most potent line of attack against his opponent during the 1980 campaign -- that the Carter administration was one of "weakness, indecision, mediocrity, and incompetence.""

I say to you, don't believe Linker for a second.

Having taken the time to read over the full text of Carter's speech, I can say now that after hearing it, I probably would have followed that president into the brink and beyond. Why? Because Carter, for that moment in American history, dropped a massive amount of raw, unadulterated truth on our heads. Truth that we were not ready then to hear, and, probably still aren't ready to hear. For example:

"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."

And:

"In little more than two decades we've gone from a position of energy independence to one in which almost half the oil we use comes from foreign countries, at prices that are going through the roof. Our excessive dependence on OPEC has already taken a tremendous toll on our economy and our people. This is the direct cause of the long lines which have made millions of you spend aggravating hours waiting for gasoline. It's a cause of the increased inflation and unemployment that we now face. This intolerable dependence on foreign oil threatens our economic independence and the very security of our nation. The energy crisis is real. It is worldwide. It is a clear and present danger to our nation. These are facts and we simply must face them."

Furthermore, for from wallowing in self-pity, Carter offered strong and explicit solutions:

"Point one: I am tonight setting a clear goal for the energy policy of the United States. Beginning this moment, this nation will never use more foreign oil than we did in 1977 -- never. From now on, every new addition to our demand for energy will be met from our own production and our own conservation. The generation-long growth in our dependence on foreign oil will be stopped dead in its tracks right now and then reversed as we move through the 1980s, for I am tonight setting the further goal of cutting our dependence on foreign oil by one-half by the end of the next decade -- a saving of over 4-1/2 million barrels of imported oil per day.

"Just as a similar synthetic rubber corporation helped us win World War II, so will we mobilize American determination and ability to win the energy war. Moreover, I will soon submit legislation to Congress calling for the creation of this nation's first solar bank, which will help us achieve the crucial goal of 20 percent of our energy coming from solar power by the year 2000."

Could these goals have been met? Possibly. We will never know. Why? Because Reagan deconstructed all of these plans and reconstructed it in the form of Star Wars. Because Reagan told us that we were ok. We were better than ok, because we consumed and consumption was great. It was the dawn of the me generation and with the Russians as the embodiment of evil, we forgot that we had responsibilities to ourselves, and to the world. We got drunk on the Kool-Aid and as we see now the party has come to an end. Now, not only to we face the same problems of unemployment and inflation that Carter confronted, but now we have the spectre of terrorism and war that has sprung up due to our dependence to foreign oil, and the lack of industry that we could have created to confront that dependence.

I don't blame it all on us, after all, truth--dare I say, inconvenient truths, the ones that force a person to change, are the hardest to accept. Our first instinct is to run away from them. I don't wonder why we fall for slogans like "drill baby drill" and "Conservation is not prudent energy policy" because they are too tempting, simple. But time and again we learn through, as RFK mentioned, the "awful grace of God" that what is tempting and simple isn't always right. And usually we make a buffoon out of the dude who tries to drop the hard knowledge on your head.

So on the 30 anniversary of his speech I'd like to make a toast to President Carter. Hey, at least he tried, and most of the time, that's the best we can do.


2 comments:

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pedro said...

Jimmy didn't have a good spin doc. If he did, we wouldn't have gotten Ronny.

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