I remember 1979 well. I was in the first year of my first job as a librarian. Though my salary was low enough that I would have qualified for public housing, I was quite optimistic about the future. Double-digit inflation and OPAC prices for oil did not worry me. I agreed with President Carter that it was time to conserve, develop alternative energy sources, and reassess our consumer expectations. I did not want lots of stuff or a big house to put it in. I was even hoping to get rid of my car. I thought it was a great time to be alive, to be at the beginning of a social and political transformation. In What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President? Jimmy Carter, America's "Malaise," and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country, author Kevin Mattson describes that turbulent year and why an opportunities for change were lost.
In reading a book like What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?, I have to confront how my value system is so different from that of many other Americans. Many people want big houses, big cars, and lots of stuff. And they want it all at discount prices. Jimmy Carter was as out of the mainstream as I was (and am). He was also not in control of his staff and cabinet, who were sabotaging his message frequently. His popularity ratings had fallen below that of Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal. People were fighting in long lines to get scarce gasoline for their cars and talking about invading the Middle East. The stage was well set for Ronald Reagan to promise the world on a platter to every one who would vote for him.
Trying to reverse the slide of his presidency into stagnation, Jimmy Carter spent ten days at Camp David, meeting many advisers, experts, and regular citizens. With the comments he gathered, he shaped a speech to the American public calling for a new vision and resolve to build an efficient and just country. According to Mattson, the speech was initially praised, but neoconservatives quickly began attacking it. Soon, many people remembered Carter saying things that he hadn't actually said, including the word "malaise." Carter then insured the failure of his initiatives by firing his entire cabinet.
At the end of his book, Mattson reprints the speech that Carter delivered on July 15, 1979. I was struck by how well it describes 2009. We still are relying heavily on foreign oil, using up the earth's resources, and wasting our incomes on self-indulgent consumer goods. There is an even larger gulf between white collar and blue collar incomes. The rich are richer, and the poor are poorer. Perhaps, as Mattson suggests, the American people have made many terrible political and personal choices in last thirty years, but as he points out in his very readable history, blaming the people never helps.
Mattson, Kevin. What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President? Jimmy Carter, America's "Malaise," and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country. Bloomsbury, 2009. ISBN 9781596915213