Speaking of disasters….my favourite political speech is widely believed to have been a catastrophic mistake. On July 15th 1979 a beleaguered President Carter used a television address to the nation to deliver what is now known as the ‘malaise’ speech.
There were obvious message options for a President speaking to a nation battered by economic and energy crises. He could have opted for lofty rhetoric calling on people to replace despair with hope. He could have directed anger to an external enemy, maybe the Arab nations, or an internal one, such as his Republican critics. Instead Carter, in defiance of most his advisors, chose to hold a mirror up to the American people and, in the most heartfelt terms, describe the crisis he saw unfolding across the nation.
The President had been supposed to give the speech on July 4th but instead had spent ten days speaking privately with a cross section of American people either on the road or invited to Camp David. Near the start of the speech he quotes these people directly. Immediately you can get a sense of how this speech is exceptional.
Let me quote a few of the typical comments that I wrote down. This from a southern governor:
"Mr President, you are not leading this nation – you’re just managing the government’
"You don't see the people enough anymore.
‘Don't talk to us about politics or the mechanics of government, but about an understanding of our common good.’”
Carter goes on to say that his conversations have confirmed to him that the country is facing a crisis:
It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.
The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.
The confidence that we have always had as a people is not simply some romantic dream or a proverb in a dusty book that we read just on the Fourth of July.
Confidence in the future has supported everything else -- public institutions and private enterprise, our own families, and the very Constitution of the United States. Confidence has defined our course and has served as a link between generations. We've always believed in something called progress. We've always had a faith that the days of our children would be better than our own.
Our people are losing that faith, not only in government itself but in the ability as citizens to serve as the ultimate rulers and shapers of our democracy.
Moving to his conclusion Carter uses the time honoured trope of two paths but his choice feels authentic and urgent.
We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One… leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.
All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our nation and ourselves.
A few days after the speech Carter sacked several members of his Cabinet and his government lurched into a crisis from which it never recovered. In 1980 Carter was beaten by Ronald Reagan with his promise of ‘morning in America’. Indeed Reagan’s breezy pitch was seen as a direct repost to Carter’s portentousness.
Given Carter’s eventual defeat, it is too easily forgotten that in the days immediately after its delivery the public response to Carter was overwhelmingly positive. The White House switchboards were jammed with approving feedback. As Kevin Matson the author of a book about the speech tellingly entitled ‘What the heck are you up to Mister President’ says:
the original success that the speech had symbolizes the fact that Americans will listen when they're being criticized and when they're being called out to their better selves.
As we watch President elect Donald Trump offer praise to Hillary Clinton days after he was calling for her to be arrested and promise to unite a nation many of whose citizens he has bitterly attacked over recent months, we have to ask what has led the world’s most powerful country into this collective act of self–harm.
We can understand America’s problems through many lenses. There is the issue of race. My sons, both at university in the US but educated in South London state schools, were shocked by the casual racism they encountered among middle class American college students. There are the divisions in this federal nation between the east and the west, the progressive periphery and angry heartland. There is the challenge of solving problems at home while also being the increasingly uncertain leader of the free world. But for me the greatest fault line is the one between American myth and American reality.
This is a country where most people espouse the idea of equal opportunity and dignity as defined in the Declaration of Independence as the bedrock of the nation’s identity and exceptionalism:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness
Yet this is in reality a nation scarred by staggering inequality and weak social mobility. It is in this yawning gap between rhetoric and reality that festers the delusion and rage which we have watched over these last grisly months.
Donald Trump takes office more personally unpopular than any new President in American history. He will almost certainly have to abandon many of his high profile campaign pledges along with an economic plan based on a growth rate virtually no one thinks possible. The time will come when he will have to choose between doubling down on delusion or using to good purpose his self-proclaimed status as a teller of hard truths.
When that moment comes I hope someone reminds him of Jimmy Carter and of how, had the times been different, his speech might have helped America steer away from the path which has now reached its bleak and frightening conclusion.