Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Book Review: "What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?" Jimmy Carter, America's "Malaise," and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country by Kevin Mattson (2009)

Cover of "What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?" by Kevin Mattson, 2009.

President Jimmy Carter.

Ted Kennedy and Jimmy Carter in the Oval Office. As you can see in this photo, they had an awkward relationship. When asked about the possibility of Kennedy running against him in 1980, Carter said, "If Kennedy runs, I'll whip his ass."
Jimmy Carter had a difficult presidency. During his four years in office, he battled rising unemployment and rising inflation at the same time, an economic oddity called stagflation. He suffered through the Iran hostage crisis, and while he was ultimately able to secure the release of the hostages, they weren’t freed until minutes after Ronald Reagan had taken the oath of office, as a final “fuck you” from Iran to Carter. He had to deal with the 1979 energy crisis, which caused long lines at the gas pump for many Americans. To top it all off, he once collapsed while jogging, and was attacked by a vicious swimming rabbit

Historian Kevin Mattson takes us back to those difficult days during the summer of 1979 in his 2009 book, “What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?” Jimmy Carter, America’s “Malaise,” and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country. In the book, Mattson chronicles one of the many odd events of the Carter presidency, Carter’s famous “crisis of confidence” speech of July 15, 1979. The July 15th speech would forever after be branded the “malaise” speech by the press, even though Carter never used the word “malaise” in the speech. Malaise is a general feeling of being unwell, often as a first sign of illness. It can also mean “a vague sense of mental or moral ill-being,” according to Webster’s.

The days leading up to Carter’s “crisis of confidence” speech were highly unusual in the annals of the presidency. After returning from a global summit in Tokyo, Carter canceled a speech on energy that was scheduled for July 5th, and holed up at Camp David with his closest advisors for ten days. While at Camp David, Carter invited many prominent Americans to visit with him and figure out how he could get the country back on track. When Carter re-emerged, he delivered the “crisis of confidence” speech in a nationwide address on July 15th.

Carter’s speech was a remarkably honest assessment of the United States at the time. Carter spoke of a “crisis of confidence” in America. In one of the best moments of the speech, Carter said, “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.” Carter also spoke honestly about how the nation still hadn’t healed from the shock of Vietnam and Watergate. “We were taught that our armies were always invincible and our causes were always just, only to suffer the agony of Vietnam. We respected the presidency as a place of honor until the shock of Watergate.” In the second half of the speech, Carter laid out an ambitious energy agenda to combat the growing energy crisis. Carter said, “There are no short-term solutions to our long-range problems. There is simply no way to avoid sacrifice.” 

Although today Carter’s speech is remembered as a flop, at the time it was very positively reviewed by the press and the public. The good news for Carter was that his approval rating went up 11 points overnight. The bad news was that his approval rating went from 26% to 37%. Carter’s mistake wasn’t in giving the speech; his mistake was following it up two days later with demanding the resignation of his entire cabinet. That shook people’s confidence in the Carter presidency and made people forget the speech. Carter’s presidency looked like a mess. 

While the “crisis of confidence” speech was indeed a great speech, it ultimately wasn’t what people wanted to hear from their president. Carter’s speech forced Americans to reexamine their way of life and it didn’t give them any easy answers as to how they could fix the crisis in America. The American public was much happier with Ronald Reagan’s shallow, confident patriotism. There was no crisis of confidence within Ronald Reagan’s soul. 

Another reason that Carter’s speech isn’t as well remembered today is that the gas crisis of 1979 ended soon after Carter’s speech. Most of the policy recommendations that Carter made never had to be put into place because gas and oil were abundant once again.

In his book, Mattson focuses only on the few months leading up to Carter’s July 15th speech. Mattson paints a vivid portrait of the Carter White House and America during the summer of 1979. He brings little-known incidents to the forefront to show how the gas crisis seriously affected parts of America. Mattson gives us a glimpse of the varied personalities operating inside the Carter White House, and shows how Carter was pulled in different directions by different staffers. Mattson also tells of Vice President Walter Mondale’s existential crisis during May of 1979, as Mondale briefly considered resigning. Mondale realized that his resignation would only be more fodder for the press to attack Carter’s presidency, and so he stayed on. 

Mattson’s writing style is for the most part clear and easy to read, but it occasionally becomes awkward and in need of a better editor. Here’s one example: “It was especially eerie to note how Ted Kennedy’s life followed that of his brother Robert: They had both been mediocre undergraduates at Harvard and law students at the University of Virginia.” (p.77) So Bobby and Ted going to the same colleges 8 years apart is eerie? Not really, especially when you consider that the Kennedy brothers were pre-ordained from birth to go to Harvard. It’s an example of sloppy writing that should have been fixed.

Speaking of Ted Kennedy, he was another headache for Jimmy Carter during 1979, as it became evident that Kennedy was going to challenge Carter for the 1980 Democratic nomination. Another challenge that Carter faced during his presidency was that he didn’t really understand how Congress worked. One of the reasons that Carter was elected in 1976 was that he was a Washington outsider. Which was an advantage during the campaign, but once he was president it became a problem as he tried to get legislation through Congress. And even though Carter had Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress during his presidency, some liberals like Ted Kennedy thought Carter was too much of a centrist, and much of Carter’s legislative agenda was blocked in Congress. When asked in 1979 if he was worried about Kennedy running against him, Carter replied, "If Kennedy runs, I'll whip his ass." Well, at least Carter was confident about something.

Kennedy’s campaign against Carter in the 1980 Democratic primaries is probably best described as pointless. Kennedy didn’t have a real chance of wresting the nominated away from Carter, but he didn’t concede until the Democratic convention, and even then he tried to change the rules of the convention to allow delegates to break away from their chosen candidate after the first ballot. Kennedy’s campaign suffered from a lack of clarity, as even Ted himself didn’t seem to know why he was running, besides the fact that everyone expected him to run for president at some point. 

Carter was hurt by Kennedy’s campaign and the split within the Democratic party, but he was hurt more by the sluggish economy, and the ongoing Iranian hostage crisis. The United States turned away from Carter and towards the muscular vision of Ronald Reagan, a man who had unlimited optimism in America’s future, and an unlimited storage of Hollywood anecdotes. Carter was both smarter and a harder worker than Reagan, and yet as president Reagan was able to press more of his agenda through Congress.

Jimmy Carter is a great man, and his post-presidential career has easily been the most successful of any former president. During his presidency, Carter worked relentlessly to solve intractable problems to which there were no easy solutions. He was a smart and gifted man who very well could have been a successful president under different circumstances. Carter’s genuine humility is always on display in Kevin Mattson’s book, and Mattson shows us why Jimmy Carter was such a unique president, if not a very successful one.

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