The Last Honest Speech by a U.S. President

jimmy-carter
Former President Jimmy Carter

W.J. Astore

I was sixteen when President Jimmy Carter gave his so-called Malaise speech in 1979.  Focusing on America’s wasteful energy consumption, Carter vowed to cut America’s dependence on oil imports while pushing alternative energies such as solar.  In crafting his speech, he listened to regular Americans and diagnosed a national peril far worse than America’s wanton consumption of energy.  And for his honesty, Carter got voted out of office in 1980.  The sunny optimism of Ronald Reagan arrived, though the “sunny” part didn’t include the solar panels that Carter had added to the White House.  (Under Reagan, these were quickly removed.)  For Carter’s expertise in science (he was formerly a naval nuclear engineer under Admiral Hyman Rickover) came Reagan’s fossil-fuel-friendly policies and Nancy Reagan’s penchant for astrology.  It was morning again in America in the sense that profit once again took priority over policy and people – and fantasy took precedence over reality.

Let’s take a fresh look at Carter’s speech, one in which he never used the word “malaise.”  Carter told Americans in 1979 that: “We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.”

The second, much to be preferred, path was: “the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our Nation and ourselves.”

Does anyone have any doubt about which path America chose under Reagan and his successors?

The “certain route to failure.”  A route where tens of millions of Americans lose their health care during a pandemic; a route where the government bails out the richest corporations first and the poorest Americans last, if at all; a route where division and fragmentation are the order of the day, embraced by a president who revels in chaos and his own self-interest.  And a route where that same man is likely to be reelected as president in November, despite his colossal mismanagement of a health crisis that he can’t even bring himself to understand, let alone attempt to control.

Jimmy Carter caught the looming dysfunction back in 1979: “What you see too often in Washington and elsewhere around the country is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well-financed and powerful special interests.”

In the four decades since then, Congress has been totally consumed by these “well-financed and powerful special interests,” so much so that, to repeat myself, they get bailed out first during a pandemic, tapping into a slush fund that may rise to $4 trillion, while most Americans are lucky to see a one-time payment of $1200.

Meanwhile, what is the message to regular Americans from President Trump and his handlers?  You must get back to work.  Never mind a deadly pandemic.  We must get the economy humming again.  We must make and consume, just as we always have.  Yet Carter had a warning here as well:

“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.”

Small wonder that he lost, right?  What madness was Carter talking about in 1979?  Material goods aren’t the source of happiness?

Carter made matters worse by calling for energy conservation and gasoline rationing.  He even asked Americans to lower their thermostats in the winter and to reduce their speed on the highway.  That commie!

In 1980, Americans rejected Carter’s call for sacrifice, preferring the fantasy sold by Reagan.  Forget conservation and gas rationing.  I can’t drive fifty-five!  Don’t you know the best way to help the poor is by empowering the rich?  It’s called trickle-down economics (don’t listen to that guy who called it “voodoo economics”).  Might makes right and the Vietnam War was a “noble cause.”

In 1980, it was like the country took a collective journey to “Fantasy Island,” maybe on the “Love Boat,” a TV show where Ronald Reagan could have had a star turn as an ageing, washed up, actor.  Reagan gained the Oval Office instead, and the former pitchman for GE got to work selling a corporate-dominated America as the natural end state of Democracy.  Yay capitalism!

Is it any surprise that real wages for workers in America have basically been flat since the time of Carter?  Reagan instituted Robin Hood in reverse, facilitating an economy where the rich got far richer, mainly by trampling on the backs of the middle class and poor.

So, we collectively bought a cancerous fantasy in 1980, one which has now metastasized with a malignant and sociopathic exploiter, Donald Trump, at the helm.

One thing is certain: you won’t get any honest speeches from Trump.  Nor from his predecessors back to the time of Reagan, as they all did Wall Street’s bidding, Democrats and Republicans alike.  Nor can you expect any future honesty from the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden.

For the last honest speech by an American president, you must go back to Jimmy Carter in 1979.  The malaise came, not from his speech, but from our failure to listen to him.

20 thoughts on “The Last Honest Speech by a U.S. President

  1. Thank you for your astute analysis. I shudder at the state of current affairs and the attitudes of so many of my generation. I keep hoping for renewal with the young scholars.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As usual for you Mr. Astore, you hit the nail precisely on the head in so many ways… And I pretty much totally agree with pretty much every point you make. I believe President Carter was an honorable man…not quite “slick” enough to compete with a slick like Reagan.

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  3. I remember that Speech being 24, and a whole lot more as Neil Young sang so well back then. It was a good one too, but even tho. I think it was well received I believe Americans didn’t really like too much being challenged morally on the Energy Crisis. I respect Jimmy Carter as a human being, but as a Statesman & Leader he was somewhat correctly analyzed as Wimpy. His Presidency certainly was a complicated one. I rem. him over-complicating things as always having paperwork in satchels & his briefcases into the wee hrs. of the night that seemed to bog down his Presidency in minutiae. At any rate the unsuccessful attempt at Rescuing the Iran Hostages had the most detrimental effect to him winning a Second Term…

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    1. Yes. He tended to micro-manage. But at least he knew his stuff and made the effort.

      Carter was a good man done in by an establishment that saw him as an impediment to their greed.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Excellent post and reminder of our not-so-distant (for an Old Geezer like myself) past. From the title, I was expecting Ike’s warning about the MIC. I remember Carter’s speech, and I remember the fiasco the Pentagon put him up to in the attempted “hostage rescue” operation. [Enter Gomer Pyle, to say: “Goll-ll-lee, Sgt. Carter, you didn’t tell us there might be a dust storm in the desert!”] And our present day All-American Know-Nothing will smugly say “What Energy Crisis? Look how cheap gasoline is right now!” All the while conveniently ignoring that our one and only planet is being daily ravaged by the snowballing impact of absolutely dreadful–but oh so profitable for some!–Federal energy policies. The latest opinion polls reportedly indicate Biden is in the lead nationally. Uh-huh. Just as the polls in 2016 suggested Trump had no hope of being elected!

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    1. Likewise, I was expecting to hear about Ike’s speech. And yes, Carter was set up to fail with the hostage situation. Evidently, Americans can’t stomach a thinking, compassionate, UN-bought man as leader. More fools we.

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  5. Yes, Ike’s military-industrial complex speech from 1961 was brilliant. It’s too bad he waited so long to give it — at the very end of his presidency. His words would have meant more in 1955, let’s say.

    Give Carter credit. He gave his speech in July of 1979, when he knew he faced a tough reelection the next year. It wasn’t a feel-good, praise America, speech. It was a warning and a call to action. And collectively it was ignored or forgotten or dismissed in the euphoria of “It’s morning again in America.” (I know: the tagline dates from 1984, but it captures the appeal of Reagan in 1980.)

    Here’s that famous — and effective — ad: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EU-IBF8nwSY

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    1. It would indeed have been better if Eisenhower had given the military-industrial complex speech earlier in his presidency. Compare what he did to today’s US political climate though: can you imagine any US president (or politician with a credible shot at the presidency) saying anything that brutally honest now? Obama couldn’t even say anything remotely like what was in that speech (or Carter’s) even at the end of his second term. The only way Biden would ever say anything like it would be if he had a senior moment and plagiarized the wrong person.

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      1. “…plagiarized the wrong person”! Good one!! I think Obama was pretty good with his “speech on race in America” (though my opinion is not as high as that of some who praised it to the skies), and I think he was genuinely sincere speaking after the mass shootings on his watch. This, of course, put a bullseye on his own forehead among the members of Tribe Trump. By the time Obama left office he was a 100% Imperialist Dog, for which I will not forgive him. Biden, obviously, will be no different on questions of “National Security” and the US’s role in the world. Wait, I should say Biden “would be…,” as he is not in the least assured of defeating Trump.

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  6. Carter had an anchor on him (pun intended considering his naval career) when he was elected in 1976. Carter won a majority of the popular and electoral vote. He carried nearly every state in the South while Ford dominated the Western states. Carter remains the only Democratic candidate since 1964 to win a majority of the Southern states.

    Stagflation was the watch word back then. The economy was transforming the Oil Embargo of 1973, exposed the gas guzzling autos as a poor production choice, which impacted Big Steel. American attempts to downsize autos led to the Pintos, Vegas, etc., as the competition to Japanese and European Autos.

    From WIKI:
    In 1919, John Maynard Keynes described the inflation and economic stagnation gripping Europe in his book The Economic Consequences of the Peace. Keynes wrote:

    Lenin is said to have declared that the best way to destroy the Capitalist System was to debauch the currency. By a continuing process of inflation, governments can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens. By this method they not only confiscate, but they confiscate arbitrarily; and, while the process impoverishes many, it actually enriches some. […] Lenin was certainly right. There is no subtler, no surer means of overturning the existing basis of society than to debauch the currency.
    ===============

    The Iranian Revolution, which saw the over throw of the Shah and the American Hostages, was viewed as a weakness on the part of Carter. The failed hostage rescue added another anchor to Carter. Later, Iraq attacked Iran further adding an element of turmoil to the Middle East which Carter seemed totally unable to address let alone control.

    Carter’s calm, likeable thoughtful personality had no chance when confronted by the actor Reagan. America wanted a “Strongman” a good old fashioned Cowboy as President.

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    1. A few observations: Lenin was not prescribing debauching currencies as a tool for revolutionists. He was adding to Marx’s observations on capitalist economics and harkening back to ancient times when the Emperor’s Royal Treasury would “clip coins” before returning them to circulation–a little bit of gold chipped out of each coin would add up over time. When the coins got back in the hands of consumers, their purchasing power had been reduced. Today, when the Federal Gov’t has arrogated to itself the ability to print an unlimited number of currency units–called dollars–they will lose purchasing power at an accelerating pace, with the National Debt soaring as it is, going forward. You ain’t gonna believe the mess the USA is gonna be in! (Well, okay, maybe you will believe me.) A longwinded way to point out Lenin was speaking of capitalism’s own implosion. One of the “proud” accomplishments of Reaganism, the Sunny Optimism spun by that corporate pitchman, was to persuade Americans to feel good about embracing SUVs and big-ass pickup trucks. ‘Cuz, you know, Ronnie didn’t accept air pollution as a scientifically valid health issue! (Indeed, he said trees were a major cause of pollution!) The late Gil Scott-Heron described Reagan in one of his spoken-word pieces as “John-Wayne tough. Hollyweird! John Wayne was no longer available, so America went for Ronnie” (somewhat paraphrased). President Carter also launched the “Camp David Middle East Peace Accords” process. I think he sincerely desired peace in that region, but he didn’t understand the intransigence of Israel. Nothing, I mean nothing, useful/helpful to the Palestinians has come from these talks, going on for decades now off and on. I find it greatly to Carter’s credit that he came to realize the farcical process of what he helped launch, and has openly criticized Israeli policies, earning him the enmity of all the Usual Suspects in that situation.

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      1. Final word on Reagan, from none other than Waylon Jennings, when asked by journalist Peter Guralnick what he thought of the (then current) President and former host of “Death Valley Days” (brought to you by 20-mule team Boraxo): “He’s full of sh*t, ain’t he?”
        A President for all those who wanted to pretend the 60s and at least half of the 70s were just a very long and bad dream, and that it was still 1957, when cars had fins. Not that things have changed much since …. that’s still the prevailing mindset. And I still haven’t rec’d my “stimulus” check, direct deposit or – coming soon! – pre-paid debit card.

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        1. Ah yes, 1957! “Leave It to Beaver”! (Let us bow our heads briefly in remembrance of the late Ken Osmond, a.k.a. ‘Eddie Haskell.’) Pres. Eisenhower reluctantly sent Federal troops to Little Rock, AR so that little black kids could enter public schools there without being torn to shreds by mobs of howling racists. Yep, those were the days. (John Steinbeck, BTW, wrote an essay about the mob scenes down there.) I’m sorry you haven’t received a “stimulus” payment, because it means you won’t have received the letter Trump has sent to recipients in which–brace for a shock!–he praises to the skies his own and his administration’s stupendously great handling of the economic crisis the pandemic has unleashed. I could quote from it for your benefit had I not torn it to shreds and sent it for paper recycling. I suggest you look into the situation, though you shouldn’t expect a quick response from the IRS. I had given up hope of receiving the funds, personally, as my sole income is a meager monthly Social Security disbursement (I don’t mind making this info public, don’t think I’m putting myself at risk). But by golly, one day the funds showed up in my checking account as if by magic! Keep the faith?

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        2. Bill Astore–Forgive me for using this forum for a personal matter, but I have no other means to communicate with ‘butsudanbill.’ I had a WordPress website which should have been “taken down” (discontinued at my request), but somehow ‘butsudanbill’ signed up to follow it. My actual CURRENT personal website is http://www.gregorylaxer.com There’s no mechanism on that site to sign up for notification of new posts, but there is a means to email me and “manually” request email notification when I update the site. Thank you for your forbearance in this matter!

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