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.