by Kevin Mattson on Jul 7, 2009
Thirty years ago, on July 15, 1979, President Jimmy Carter went on national television to give a jolting speech. Billed as an address about the "energy crisis" — the recent cutoff of Iranian fuel that generated long and angry gas lines at home — it wound up lashing out at the American way of life. Carter decried Americans' "self-indulgence and consumption" as well as their "fragmentation and self-interest." This was a "crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will," he asserted.
Today, we should listen to his words again, especially as debates about climate change legislation turn tough and confrontational in the Senate.
Carter, who thought of himself as a moral leader and not just a politician, believed Americans couldn't solve the energy crisis if they didn't move beyond their own self interest and embrace a common good. He called on Americans to unify themselves around a sense of shared purpose, as they did during a war. "Every act of energy conservation is more than just common sense — I tell you it is an act of patriotism."
Since then, Carter's speech has been widely condemned for laying the blame for his own failures on the backs of ordinary citizens. Far from it. For a speech that sounded as if it castigated the American way of life, it won Carter huge amounts of support. Immediately after the speech, Carter's poll numbers shot up, something that rarely happened during his presidency. He got more letters than he ever had before, almost all of them positive. Citizens pledged they would ride a bike to work or cut down on unnecessary trips. The counterintuitive happened: The president criticized his fellow citizens but gained their support.
What better time than now to revisit Carter's speech? The Senate is just about to debate a climate change bill that barely squeaked through the House in late June. Many conservative politicians have complained the bill would wind up taxing citizens for the sake of decreasing our reliance on fossil fuels. Obama's retort has been that the bill would cost less than a postage stamp a day for the average American.
Now's the time for political leaders who support climate change legislation to return to the language Jimmy Carter used and that Obama himself used during his inaugural address. There, Obama warned about economic and environmental crises and then diagnosed "a sapping of confidence across our land." He went on to say: "The challenges we face are real, they are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time." The language here rang with a challenge and with realism and toughness. Obama sounded like a leader who expected something from the American people more than the cost of a postage stamp.
Carter's speech teaches us that this sort of rhetoric can actually work to build political will. Americans are not afraid to hear the tough truths about the problems of unlimited consumerism. They have reservations about how, in Carter's words, "human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns." Good leadership requires tough talk like this; it requires and can succeed if it is honest and realistic.
Unfortunately for us today, we understand Carter's speech as one about "malaise," a word that doesn't appear in the speech. Many historians argue that the president was looking for a way to blame citizens for his own problems. But Carter shared the blame in the speech, admitting to his own faults. "I realize that more than ever as president I need your help," he explained, with a sense of humility.
Remembering Jimmy Carter's "Crisis of Confidence" speech (its actual title) today reminds us of important lessons: Tough rhetoric can actually mobilize citizens to action, and leaders can demand and expect sacrifice from citizens.
Most important of all, though, it reminds us that to solve our energy crisis, we need to examine our way of life and confront a culture of consumerism and self-interest. That Carter spoke honestly and found praise for doing so should give Obama grounds for taking Americans into his confidence and arousing them to follow him on moral grounds. Jimmy Carter tried that. His successors can do so too.
Kevin Mattson, Connor Study Professor of Contemporary History at Ohio University, is the author of "'What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?' Jimmy Carter, America's 'Malaise,' and the Speech that Should Have Changed the Country." He is also a writer for the History News Service.