Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Carter’s Speech Therapy

by Gordon Stewart
The New York Times
July 14, 2009

In the summer of 1979, as millions of Americans idled in creeping gas lines, President Jimmy Carter was preoccupied with matters abroad: first he was in Vienna completing SALT II with Leonid Brezhnev, next pleading for it before Congress, then away in Japan and Korea, hoping to rest in Hawaii afterward.

Instead, a White House reeling from approval numbers lower than Nixon’s urged Mr. Carter to get back home fast and do something. In other words, make a speech that would silence the mobs and revive his presidency. The networks cleared their schedules for July 5, 1979.

We speechwriters hacked together a draft of what was to be the president’s fifth speech on the energy crisis since taking office, and sent it to Camp David, along with word that we didn’t much like it. No one there liked it either, and on the morning of July 5, The Times blared, “President Cancels Address on Energy; No Reason Offered.”

When the White House press secretary, Jody Powell, eventually said the president was listening and thinking and writing, it wasn’t spin. Some 130 V.I.P.’s from Gov. Bill Clinton to Walter Cronkite were shuttled in and out of Camp David to offer their advice on what he should tell the nation. The great and wise talked and talked, and the president took careful notes. For 10 days a country already speechless with rage had a leader who said nothing.

Some of the notables spoke in apocalyptic terms. Others seemed to be stocking up on even more than stories, as stewards feared they could run out of glasses inscribed with “Camp David,” while helicopter crews were far too polite to comment on the clanking jackets of departing dignitaries. Actually, Camp David is a wonderful place when you’re not trying to write your way out of it.

Meanwhile, mostly secluded in a cabin, sometimes working day and night shifts, my colleague Hendrik Hertzberg and I wrote and rewrote what we had no idea would still be known 30 years later as “The Malaise Speech.” Looking out the window of the lodge where we went to eat and avoid nervous glances, I saw Clark Clifford glide by on a bicycle and wondered how such powerful people managed to keep their hair looking so lordly. Later I learned he had fallen off. I worried it might be a metaphor for our unfinished speech.

We were hardly the only ones worrying. The pollster Patrick Caddell filled volumes of memos and hours of conversation with his views: that after Vietnam and Watergate Americans had become inward-looking, obsessed with consumption, fragmented, incapable of collective action and suffering a “crisis of confidence.” It was clear from what the president was writing himself that he wanted these ideas to be at the center of his speech. And they are.

Vice President Walter Mondale and the president’s domestic policy adviser, Stuart E. Eizenstat, were troubled by so much ruminating on the American condition; they were certain that Americans were less concerned with philosophical emptiness than empty gas tanks.

Between visits with staff, memos and, most important, the president’s own drafts, there were plenty of fine minds to work with. But the point of the speech, its overall direction, and how it would deal with Americans’ energy realities remained in deep, often bitter dispute. Eventually, we had to insist that all the principals gather around a very long table until they reached agreement.

Things did not go well, and we writers did not help. Seated at the far end of the table, we goaded both sides, implying that the confidence stuff was too airy and the energy programs too boring.

The two camps engaged in pitched battle and then, amazingly, found agreement: the idea emerged that while America’s afflictions were real, they could not be treated as abstract disorders. I recall scribbling faster than it seemed possible to put legible words on a pad, but the end result was: “On the battlefield of energy we can win for our nation a new confidence, and we can seize control again of our common destiny.” The speech had found its central argument. The policy steps fell into place.

On July 15 — 30 years ago today — at 10 p.m., President Carter and 100 million people finally faced each other across that familiar Oval Office desk. What they saw and heard was unlike any moment they had experienced from their 39th president. Speaking with rare force, with inflections flowing from meanings he felt deeply, Jimmy Carter called for the “most massive peacetime commitment” in our history to develop alternative fuels.

Contrary to later spin, the speech was extremely popular. The White House was flooded with positive calls. Viewers polled while watching found that the speech inspired them as it unfolded.

To this day, I don’t entirely know why the speech came to be derided for a word that was in the air, but never once appeared in the text. Still, the “malaise” label stuck: maybe because President Carter’s cabinet shake-up a few days later wasted the political energy that had been focused on our energy problems; maybe because the administration’s opponents attached it to the speech relentlessly; maybe because it was just too hard to compete with Ronald Reagan and his banner of limitless American consumption.

The real reason is probably that there was never any way the Jimmy Carter we all know would avoid saying: “There is simply no way to avoid sacrifice.” Where the speeches of Reagan and Barack Obama evoke the beauty of dreams, President Carter insisted on the realities of responsibility and the need for radical change. Mr. Carter’s sense of our own accountability, his warnings about the debilitating effects of self-centered divisiveness were the speech’s true heresies. They are also the very elements that keep it relevant today.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

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