There is the age-old question regarding leadership: Were the times right for the man or was the man right for the times? Jimmy Carter, the oldest living president and a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, promised to heal some of the country’s wounds following the assassination of John Kennedy, Vietnam, and Watergate. The late 1970s were a tough time marked by stagflation, an energy crisis, and the further rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran and other parts of the Middle East. There is no mistaking President Carter led with character. Steeped in the Southern Baptist tradition, Carter promised not to lie to the American people and not to fire a bullet in anger. He accomplished both, yet, people still debate the success and the failures of his presidency.
40 years ago this month, Carter delivered one of the greatest speeches any president has given. There is no question it continues to have meaning in our present and it almost never happened.
In the midst of the energy crisis, with his approval rating plundering in the mid-20s and some in his own party arguing for his replacement in the upcoming 1980 election, Carter decided to give a speech on his energy proposals. Gas prices had risen 55% and the administration was searching for answers to the embargo which oil producing countries placed on the country. He was not quite sure how to proceed. Even his wife suggested he not give another policy speech, but directly speak to the American people about issues facing the country.
He cancelled the speech slated for the week of July 4 and retreated to Camp David for 10 days. He invited American leaders from across the country to talk about his leadership and the challenges facing the country. Small town mayors and state governors were invited. Carter came into the meetings with a legal pad and simply sat down and asked them, “Tell me what I’m doing wrong?”
Out of those discussions evolved the “Crisis of Confidence” speech delivered on July 15th. 60 million Americans listened to what the president had to say. Carter spoke with authority, often planting his fist on the Oval Office desk, “But ... all the legislation in the world can’t fix what’s wrong with America. So, I want to speak to you tonight about a subject even more serious than energy or inflation. I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy.” In his view, there were two paths for Americans to follow: one of consumption and indulgence and the other a collective mission involving common purposes to solve the country’s problems. He explained the two paths, one marked by fragmentation and self-interest and the other which involved the restoration of common and essential American values.
A great line from the speech connecting the two paths read, “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.” He then addressed the energy crisis as a way of helping Americans improve their confidence in a decade described by many as ‘an age of limits.’
The speech affected the people. Carter’s approval rating jumped 12 points. In an effort to restart his administration, he asked for the resignation of his cabinet leaders and other officials a few days later. His apparent pragmatism backfired. Some journalists began calling this time period a ‘malaise’ and began calling the speech ‘The Malaise Speech’ or simply ‘The speech.’ Carter’s last year in office was marred ty the Iran Hostage Crisis and other failures which ended up sapping some of the good which came out of the speech. Carter worked tirelessly to bring each hostage home alive, but they were not released until the new president, Ronald Reagan, was being inaugurated. A humiliating moment for the outgoing president.
Carter, like President John Quincy Adams before, lived much better ‘after presidency.’ He’s written widely, monitored elections, traveled the world, and continues to teach Sunday school at his home church in Georgia.
One historian likens the ‘Crisis of Confidence’ speech to a sermon comparable to Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Both were given at a time of great trial and anguish, political and economic.
And it’s true, if one removed the date of Carter’s speech and printed it as a modern op-ed piece in any major newspaper, the words stand the test of time. The two paths he mentioned are ones Americans are still living. The choice remains.
The times were not always fair to Carter - then or now. He hurt himself politically, but his presidency was original, honest, real, and full of integrity. He was not afraid to be vulnerable and to give the American people a message for the ages.
Tomberlin is a social studies teacher at South Caldwell High School.