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Opinion | David Shribman

The meaning of Jimmy Carter’s ‘malaise’ speech

Boston Globe/Staff photo illustration

It was the speech that dared not speak its name.

In fact, Jimmy Carter’s “malaise’’ speech — delivered in a nationally televised address 40 years ago Monday — never did employ the word “malaise.’’ It spoke of a “crisis of confidence,’’ to be sure. It enlisted Americans to battle what the 39th president called “a fundamental threat to American democracy.’’ It urged the public to confront “the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives.’’

But Carter never uttered the mordant two-syllable word that defined this speech and that came to define his presidency. Even so, the president spoke at length — too long for his own good, it turned out — about a national malaise and then, two days later, fired his Cabinet. America had never witnessed such a spectacle, and though Carter’s popularity grew briefly after his remarks, his poll numbers swiftly sank back to low levels that reflected the real malaise in his administration.

Today the malaise speech makes for agonizing listening, perhaps the slowest 33 minutes in the entire YouTube portfolio, with the possible exception of the “Troubleshooting and Repairing Central Air Units’’ video, which is about the same length and at least offers the prospect of some summertime relief.

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In an unusually melancholy presidential address, Carter is at turns lugubrious and laborious. Sometimes he hectors, sometimes he pleads. He puts on display the entire range of emotions on the severe-depression scale. Perhaps only when Bill Clinton argued, in April 1995 — four months after the Republicans took over the House for the first time in four decades — that “the president is relevant,’’ has a modern American chief executive seemed so pitifully powerless. At least Clinton did not whine.

The malaise speech occurred 10 days after Carter decided to junk a planned speech on the energy crisis, withdrew to Camp David, and invited what amounted to a focus group of Americans — governors, thinkers, theologians, union leaders, business executives, and just plain folks — to the Maryland presidential retreat and asked them to help him find the way forward.

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Mostly they told him, respectfully of course, that he was a feckless failure, a conclusion he reluctantly embraced.

A Southern governor implored:“Mr. President, you are not leading this nation — you’re just managing the government.’’ Another visitor told him: “Mr. President, we’re in trouble.’’

In truth, the country’s woes were palpable, and visible in gasoline lines; in shamefully bad relations with his fellow Democrats, including House Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. of Massachusetts; in inflation that soared beyond 11 percent the month he gave this speech. And all this was four months before Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts declared his challenge to Carter for the Democratic presidential nomination and Iranian students seized American diplomats and held them hostage. In an oddly ironic and sad way, the speech — so derided in memory and in history — came in Carter’s good old days.

Much of Carter’s remarks that evening focused on energy and the country’s struggle to become a net exporter of energy, an achievement that finally will occur next year, according to the US Energy Information Administration, four decades after this speech. Carter first broached this notion two years earlier, in an address where he borrowed the notion of the “moral equivalent of war’’ from the late-19th century Harvard psychologist William James. Critics swiftly seized on the acronym created from the phrase, and “MEOW’’ became the leitmotif of the press coverage of the chief executive.

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In his much-mocked July 15, 1979, speech, the president pledged that the nation would not use more oil than it did in 1977, and in the Carter years it didn’t. He set the goal of solar power constituting 20 percent of the country’s energy by the year 2000, but two decades after his deadline, solar still accounts for only 1.6 percent of American energy production. He urged Americans to abandon its “worship’’ or “self-indulgence and consumption.’’ There is no sign that we have. But his remark that the “gap between our citizens and our government has never been so wide’’ seems oddly antiquarian. Would that we had closed that gap.

Carter lost his reelection bid, in 1980, to former governor Ronald Reagan of California, who offered a sunnier disposition, though without any signs of commitment to solar energy; the 32 panels the Carter administration installed with great fanfare at the White House were quietly dismantled in the Reagan years, with one of them shipped to the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum.

Neither Reagan nor any of his successors ever contemplated a reprise of the malaise speech. “We were all about a ‘shining city on a hill’ and optimism,’’ Kenneth M. Duberstein, Reagan’s last White House chief of staff, told me this month. So, in their own ways, have been most of the six presidents who followed Carter.

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“This is not a message of happiness or reassurance,’’ Carter said in his remarks 40 years ago, “but it is the truth and it is a warning.’’ The country heeded the message, on energy at least, though late and reluctantly. In November 2016 it redeemed his warning that the political establishment was in danger if it were preoccupied by “what the isolated world of Washington thinks is important.’’

It is inconceivable that President Trump, who reaped the whirlwind Carter sensed moving across the American landscape, would offer a speech remotely like the Carter address, but that sentiment about Washington’s isolation could have been ripped directly from the 45th president’s greatest hits.

Two weeks ago, Trump used a press conference in Tokyo to describe Carter as “a terrible president,’’ an assessment Carter no doubt believes is applicable to the current occupant of the White House. Carter does, however, have a singular achievement that Trump might acknowledge. For all his limitations in his unhappy and unlucky single term, Carter is the best former president in history, without a trace of malaise in his post-White House good works.


David Shribman, former Washington bureau chief for the Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and scholar in residence at Carnegie Mellon University.