On June 30, 1979, a weary Jimmy Carter was looking forward to a few days' vacation in Hawaii, as Air Force One sped him away from a grueling economic summit in Tokyo. He had earned it. Two weeks earlier, Carter had successfully concluded the SALT II arms control negotiations with Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev in Vienna, the latest in a series of foreign policy achievements since the dramatic Camp David summit the previous September.
Aboard the plane, the phone rang. It was Carter's pollster, Patrick Caddell. "I remember getting on the phone and saying, 'You people have got to come home now,'" Caddell recalls. "We were all saying the same thing: 'You have no idea how bad it is here.'"
The Energy Crisis
That week, the energy crisis that Carter had been trying to avoid since taking office had finally erupted. The OPEC oil producers' cartel had recently announced another in a series of oil price increases that sent gasoline prices skyrocketing and led to severe shortages. Long gas-pump lines and short tempers started in California and spread eastward, focusing Americans' outrage over a seemingly endless economic decline. Much of that anger was directed at the White House: Carter's approval rating had dropped to 25%, lower than Richard Nixon's during the Watergate scandal.
The president did come home, canceling his vacation and retreating to Camp David, where he started working on what would be his fifth major speech on energy. But Carter soon realized that Americans had stopped listening to him. "Jimmy had made several speeches on energy... and it just seemed to be going nowhere with the public," recalls Rosalynn Carter. "So he just said, 'I'm not going to make the speech,' and instead went to Camp David and brought in lots of people to talk about what could be done."
For more than a week, a veil of secrecy enveloped the proceedings. Dozens of prominent Americans -- members of Congress, governors, labor leaders, academics and clergy -- were summoned to the mountaintop retreat to confer with the beleaguered president. Sitting on the floor taking notes, Carter listened to criticism, much of it scathing, of him and his White House. Reagan biographer Steven Hayward has aptly described it as "the most remarkable exercise in presidential navel-gazing in American history." At the end of the "domestic summit," the president planned to deliver a nationally-televised address, telling Americans what he had learned and how he planned to lead them out of the current crisis.
Was America in a Crisis of Confidence?
At the heart of the internal debate over the administration's future was a memo by Caddell, Carter's pollster and resident "deep thinker." "What was really disturbing to me," he remembered, "was for the first time, we actually got numbers where people no longer believed that the future of America was going to be as good as it was now. And that really shook me, because it was so at odds with the American character." Caddell argued that after fifteen years filled with assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate, and a declining economy, Americans were suffering from a general "crisis of confidence." Address this fundamental problem, he told the president, inspire the country to overcome it, and you will turn your presidency around.
Others in the administration, led by Vice President Walter Mondale, strongly disagreed. "I argued that there were real problems in America that were not mysterious, that were not rooted in some kind of national psychosis or breakdown, that there were real gas lines, there was real inflation, that people were worried in their real lives about keeping their jobs," Mondale said. "We could engage the nation by addressing those problems and asking for a new level of public support... I also argued that if, having gotten elected on the grounds that we needed a government as good as the people, we now were heard to argue that we needed a people as good as the government, that we would be destroyed."
"[We] had this real division," Caddell recalls. "And then Jimmy Carter ended it by saying... 'I've decided. I'm going to do everything that Pat said in his memo.' I thought the vice president was going to have a heart attack."
On the evening of July 15, 1979, millions of Americans tuned in to hear Jimmy Carter give the most important speech of his presidency. After sharing some of the criticism he had heard at Camp David -- including an unattributed quote from the young governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton -- Carter put his own spin on Caddell's argument. "The solution of our energy crisis can also help us to conquer the crisis of the spirit in our country," the president said, asking Americans to join him in adapting to a new age of limits.
But he also admonished them, "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." Hendrik Hertzberg, who worked on the speech, admits that it "was more like a sermon than a political speech. It had the themes of confession, redemption, and sacrifice. He was bringing the American people into this spiritual process that he had been through, and presenting them with an opportunity for redemption as well as redeeming himself." Though he never used the word -- Caddell had in his memo -- it became known as Carter's "malaise" speech.
Perhaps appreciating the president's astonishing frankness, the public rewarded him with higher approval ratings in the days that followed. But then, as historian Douglas Brinkley notes, "it boomeranged on him. The op-ed pieces started spinning out, 'Why don't you fix something? There's nothing wrong with the American people. We're a great people. Maybe the problem's in the White House, maybe we need new leadership to guide us.'" Historian Roger Wilkins concurs: "When your leadership is demonstrably weaker than it should be, you don't then point at the people and say, 'It's your problem.' If you want the people to move, you move them the way Roosevelt moved them, or you exhort them the way Kennedy or Johnson exhorted them. You don't say, 'It's your fault.'"
Carter didn't help himself by clumsily conducting a shakeup of his government in the week following the speech. On July 17, he asked his entire cabinet for their resignations, ultimately accepting those of five who had clashed with the White House the most, including Energy Secretary James Schlesinger and Health, Education and Welfare chief Joseph Califano. Many others in the administration chafed when newly-named White House chief of staff Hamilton Jordan circulated a "questionnaire" that read more like a loyalty oath. "I think the idea was that they were going to firm up the administration, show that there was real change by these personnel changes, and move on," remembers Mondale. "But the message the American people got was that we were falling apart."
A Prophet, Not a Savior
A little more than a year later, Ronald Reagan defeated Carter by offering Americans a vision that was as optimistic as Carter's was pessimistic. Every four years thereafter, the Republicans' traditional refrain equated Democratic leadership with the notion that America was in decline and needed to reign in its famous appetites. The fact that Caddell and Carter may have been right, in some sense, was almost beside the point. "If you are president and you're going to diagnose a problem, you better have a solution to it," Hertzberg notes. "While he turned out to be a true prophet, he turned out not to be a savior."
My American Experience
Who was your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Kennedy? Reagan? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?