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BOOK REVIEW

'What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?' by Kevin Mattson

July 05, 2009|Mark Coleman

Malaise is a disease of the spirit, a crippling affliction often marked by lethargy and despair. For the last 30 years, Jimmy Carter has been branded by the word. In the roiling wake of Watergate and Vietnam, confronted by gasoline shortages and an apathetic or distracted citizenry, President Carter infamously described the doldrums consuming the nation as a malaise during his televised address of July 15, 1979. Historian Kevin Mattson begins his new book by calmly citing an inconvenient truth about this defining moment: The word malaise never appeared in Carter's speech. "Our memory of the speech comes from those who reworked it," Mattson writes, "who twisted its words into a blunt instrument that helped them depose a president."

Carter felt compelled to tell people what they didn't want to hear. Mattson recounts the president witnessing block-long gas lines and informing reporters two months before the speech: "I don't want to mislead you. It's going to get worse. What we need is a massive effort at conservation."

Mattson contrasts that statement with the contemporaneous words of Carter's likely Republican challenger in the 1980 election: "If the government will get the hell out of the way, the oil industry could produce more oil and compete freely in the marketplace." Out on the stump, Ronald Reagan made political hay out of what he perceived as Carter's hand-wringing and pessimism.

After Carter abruptly canceled a speech about the energy crisis scheduled for July 4, 1979, media speculation on his state of mind soared. "What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?" borrows its title from a characteristically barbed New York Post cover line. In many ways, none of them subtle, Mattson's slim, tightly packed narrative is as much a study of burgeoning media power as presidential oratory.

Huddling with his advisors and speechwriters over the holiday, Carter decided to take a different tack on the energy problem, focusing on what his young pollster Patrick Caddell identified as the psychological underpinnings of the crisis. Vice President Walter Mondale was not on board. "To talk to the American people about such a crisis was 'too negative,' Mondale explained. 'You can't castigate the American people or they will turn you off once and for all,' the vice president pleaded, his voice shaking."

Perhaps the term "malaise" is relatively mild compared to what the president really did say. As Mattson emphasizes, the speech more closely resembled a sermon than a political address. "This is not a message of happiness or reassurance," Carter said bluntly in the speech, "but it is the truth and it is a warning." Though Carter was a longtime Southern Baptist and is a Sunday school teacher, his homily was a far cry from the politicized testimony of the televangelists and their nascent Moral Majority. "Religion had entered the public square," Mattson observes, "not in the way Jesse Helms or Jerry Falwell wanted but in a way that might help Americans get through the energy crisis with a sense of higher national purpose."

Remarkably, the initial response to the July 15 speech was positive. Carter's approval ratings shot up 11%. "Certainly many citizens who watched the president on television liked what they saw," Mattson writes. "The phone calls and letters testified to that. But the media had a distinct spin that interrupted the direct communication between president and citizen."

Before the speech had even been delivered, the term "malaise" became journalistic shorthand for Carter's message of tough love.

"[Advisor] Clark Clifford's interview with journalists soon after meeting with the president on July 7th initiated the idea that the speech would be about 'malaise.' On July 15th, before the speech occurred the Washington Post announced that 'the President has made malaise a household word.' "

Mattson presents a dim, if prescient, assessment of the media. "Ironically, Carter was reminding Americans of his own moral seriousness at the same time the press was riffing on his haircut and image."

Carter managed to undermine himself at almost every turn, projecting an awkward cold-fish demeanor and a startling lack of public relations savvy. Mattson reports that he "governed with authoritarianism and stiffness," demanding "absolute loyalty from his cabinet." The proof of this came just days after the "malaise" speech, in what has been referred to as a "purge." Carter asked his entire Cabinet to resign.

"Americans might have been able to take a tough speech about the state of their country and the energy crisis," Mattson writes, "but they couldn't take a complete shakedown of their government at the same time."

Ambitiously, Mattson expands his viewpoint beyond the White House, though his efforts to connect Carter's notion of a national "crisis of confidence" with such disparate cultural phenomena as Blondie's "Heart of Glass" and the Andy Warhol posse hanging out at Studio 54 come across as rote and recycled compared to his detailed unpacking of the speech and the tumultuous events that inspired it. If Mattson's analysis of the speech's after-effects feels a bit hurried after all this careful consideration, then the inclusion of the full text at the end of the book provides a satisfying and provocative coda. Readers of any political persuasion should feel twinges of something akin to malaise when confronted by Carter's stated determination to halt the dependence on foreign oil in the 1980s and his insistence that "[t]here is simply no way to avoid sacrifice." Better late than never.

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Coleman is the author of "Playback: From the Victrola to MP3, 100 Years of Music, Machines, and Money."

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