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Godspeed, President Carter
James Earl Carter was born nearly 100 years ago. He was elected the 39th president of the United States nearly 50 years ago.
Many people have labeled the 39th president the ‘greatest former president’ in American history because of his commitment to peace, reconciliation and charitable causes. Implicit in the praise is a premise that President Carter’s presidency was a failure, overwhelmed by inflation, interest rates and the Iranian hostage crisis.
During a difficult political time President Carter delivered a speech to the country from the Oval Office that would be regarded as an epic political disaster that helped ensure he was a one-term president. The speech angered Senator Ted Kennedy, and it helped trigger his decision to primary Carter from the left. Ironically, Carter had been advised to talk about America through the prism of the pilgrims and John Winthrop’s alliterations towards the “city on a hill” that would become a mainstay of Ronald Reagan’s campaign that defeated him.
President Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech was delivered in 1979, and came to be known as the “malaise” speech, though he never said the word.
President Carter’s speech is interesting to read from the perspective of 2023 and the grave crisis facing American society that he clearly saw coming. Jimmy Carter talked to the nation in a way no president before — or since — has. He asked something of the American people in the speech that has not been asked since. He asked for national introspection. His words were important and deserve consideration nearly 50 years later because much of what he warned about has come to pass.
Jimmy Carter is an idealist who reached the White House after a single term as Georgia governor, promising never to lie to the country. America in 1976 had endured 13 consecutive years of trauma that included the murders of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the trauma and division of the Vietnam War, Watergate, and economic crisis. Jimmy Carter represented profound change in a country that was exhausted and worn down. He was a man of deep faith from the Deep South, who graduated from Annapolis and served in the early days of the nuclear navy. When he became president and spoke to the country at his inauguration he made his commitment to human rights and dignity crystal clear. He was an American president who connected our past to our future, and observed that America didn’t invent human rights, but rather, human rights invented America. He returned to this theme over and over again during his presidency.
Jimmy Carter’s entire life of service can be understood from a remarkable speech that became a millstone, but it was real, authentic, searching and illuminating for our present troubles. Consider the opening of the speech from nearly 45 years ago:
Good evening. This is a special night for me. Exactly three years ago, on July 15, 1976, I accepted the nomination of my party to run for president of the United States.
I promised you a president who is not isolated from the people, who feels your pain, and who shares your dreams and who draws his strength and his wisdom from you.
During the past three years I've spoken to you on many occasions about national concerns, the energy crisis, reorganizing the government, our nation's economy, and issues of war and especially peace. But over those years the subjects of the speeches, the talks, and the press conferences have become increasingly narrow, focused more and more on what the isolated world of Washington thinks is important. Gradually, you've heard more and more about what the government thinks or what the government should be doing and less and less about our nation's hopes, our dreams, and our vision of the future.
Ten days ago I had planned to speak to you again about a very important subject -- energy. For the fifth time I would have described the urgency of the problem and laid out a series of legislative recommendations to the Congress. But as I was preparing to speak, I began to ask myself the same question that I now know has been troubling many of you. Why have we not been able to get together as a nation to resolve our serious energy problem?
It's clear that the true problems of our Nation are much deeper -- deeper than gasoline lines or energy shortages, deeper even than inflation or recession. And I realize more than ever that as president I need your help. So I decided to reach out and listen to the voices of America.
I invited to Camp David people from almost every segment of our society -- business and labor, teachers and preachers, governors, mayors, and private citizens. And then I left Camp David to listen to other Americans, men and women like you.
It has been an extraordinary ten days, and I want to share with you what I've heard. First of all, I got a lot of personal advice. 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 any more."
"Some of your Cabinet members don't seem loyal. There is not enough discipline among your disciples."
"Don't talk to us about politics or the mechanics of government, but about an understanding of our common good."
"Mr. President, we're in trouble. Talk to us about blood and sweat and tears."
"If you lead, Mr. President, we will follow."
Many people talked about themselves and about the condition of our nation.
This from a young woman in Pennsylvania: "I feel so far from government. I feel like ordinary people are excluded from political power."
And this from a young Chicano: "Some of us have suffered from recession all our lives."
"Some people have wasted energy, but others haven't had anything to waste."
And this from a religious leader: "No material shortage can touch the important things like God's love for us or our love for one another."
And I like this one particularly from a black woman who happens to be the mayor of a small Mississippi town: "The big-shots are not the only ones who are important. Remember, you can't sell anything on Wall Street unless someone digs it up somewhere else first."
This kind of summarized a lot of other statements: "Mr. President, we are confronted with a moral and a spiritual crisis."
The opening of the speech is a remarkable testament to President Carter’s humility. It is simply beyond comprehension that any president since would ever be open to articulating honest criticism from well-meaning people. The issue of the day was energy, but it is remarkable how little has changed between 1979 and now. There is a great intransigence towards dealing with complex issues by our politicians. What Carter was describing has only worsened. It can be applied to immigration, guns, debt, or a hundred other pressing problems that remain unsolved and unaddressed in a way that saps faith and belief in the system.
There is another aspect of the speech that is remarkable. President Carter asserts that all the legislation in the world can’t fix a broken society or men’s hearts. It was true then, and it is true now. Jimmy Carter refused to engage in ‘happy talk.’ Read his words. What was he wrong about?
I know, of course, being president, that government actions and legislation can be very important. That's why I've worked hard to put my campaign promises into law -- and I have to admit, with just mixed success. But after listening to the American people I have been reminded again that all the legislation in the world can't fix what's wrong with America. So, I want to speak to you first 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.
I do not mean our political and civil liberties. They will endure. And I do not refer to the outward strength of America, a nation that is at peace tonight everywhere in the world, with unmatched economic power and military might.
The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. 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.
It is the idea which founded our nation and has guided our development as a people. 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. As a people we know our past and we are proud of it. Our progress has been part of the living history of America, even the world. We always believed that we were part of a great movement of humanity itself called democracy, involved in the search for freedom, and that belief has always strengthened us in our purpose. But just as we are losing our confidence in the future, we are also beginning to close the door on our past.
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. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.
The symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us. For the first time in the history of our country a majority of our people believe that the next five years will be worse than the past five years. Two-thirds of our people do not even vote. The productivity of American workers is actually dropping, and the willingness of Americans to save for the future has fallen below that of all other people in the Western world.
As you know, there is a growing disrespect for government and for churches and for schools, the news media, and other institutions. This is not a message of happiness or reassurance, but it is the truth and it is a warning.
These changes did not happen overnight. They've come upon us gradually over the last generation, years that were filled with shocks and tragedy.
We were sure that ours was a nation of the ballot, not the bullet, until the murders of John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. We were taught that our armies were always invincible and our causes were always just, only to suffer the agony of Vietnam. We respected the presidency as a place of honor until the shock of Watergate.
We remember when the phrase "sound as a dollar" was an expression of absolute dependability, until ten years of inflation began to shrink our dollar and our savings. We believed that our nation's resources were limitless until 1973, when we had to face a growing dependence on foreign oil.
These wounds are still very deep. They have never been healed. Looking for a way out of this crisis, our people have turned to the Federal government and found it isolated from the mainstream of our nation's life. Washington, D.C., has become an island. The gap between our citizens and our government has never been so wide. The people are looking for honest answers, not easy answers; clear leadership, not false claims and evasiveness and politics as usual.
What you see too often in Washington and elsewhere around the country is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well-financed and powerful special interests. You see every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath by one unyielding group or another. You often see a balanced and a fair approach that demands sacrifice, a little sacrifice from everyone, abandoned like an orphan without support and without friends.
Often you see paralysis and stagnation and drift. You don't like it, and neither do I. What can we do?
First of all, we must face the truth, and then we can change our course. We simply must have faith in each other, faith in our ability to govern ourselves, and faith in the future of this nation. Restoring that faith and that confidence to America is now the most important task we face. It is a true challenge of this generation of Americans.
The challenge was not met. Every aspect of what President Carter talked about is worse in 2023, and is worsening. The crisis has been made horrendously worse by the advent of social media and technology that have further isolated, inflamed and narrowed the horizons of the American people.
America is beset by a mental health crisis, a suicide crisis, a loneliness and disconnection crisis and a mass shooting epidemic that evidence rot, decay and immorality at an epic scale.
President Carter was one of the six presidents who was born in the first 25 years of the 20th century. Those six presidents led America between 1960 and 1992, before the first baby boomer was elected. During this speech President Carter talked about the trauma faced by that generation specifically and the country in general. He talked about the loss of faith, trust and belief in the future that was taking hold and was being driven by many factors. He painted a picture of the road that would lead to Donald Trump 37 years later.
Jimmy Carter reached out to the American people, and spoke a truth that hurt him politically, but this speech was among the most profound an American president has ever given about the American spirit. He diagnosed a growing lassitude that was driven by consumerism and emptiness.
His entire life has been a living devotional towards resisting the temptations of a meaningless life for a principled one. He never cashed in, and never changed anything that he believed in. His convictions were backed by deeds. His wisdom should be better known.
There has never been an American president that has lived as long as Jimmy Carter, and no American citizen lived longer as a former president than Jimmy Carter. His life is coming to its end, and all of the politics and recriminations, judgements, actions and decisions of a life that has endured for almost 100 years are gone now.
What is left is the full record of an American icon, global statesman, Navy submariner, Sunday school teacher and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. He has been married to his wife Rosalynn for almost 77 years. Every person who knows him says the same thing. They all say that the Jimmy Carter who became the most powerful man in the world came home as the same Jimmy Carter who left. He lead a life of service and integrity.
He was a peacemaker who loved his country, and served it long and well. He is the last surviving member of the generation that fought and won the Second World War and kept the peace in the dangerous hours of the Cold War. Wherever there was suffering and injustice in the world the oppressed peoples knew of Jimmy Carter and what he stood for because he stood for them. He stood for the American idea and ideal all through his noble life.
The Carter family is reportedly gathered in Plains, Georgia, with the president as he prepares to depart from this life. The American people should take a moment and say a prayer for Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn. It should be a prayer of gratitude. Whatever ails America, it still produces people like Jimmy Carter.
Godspeed, Mr. President, on your last journey of an epic life. May you have fair winds and following seas.
Thank you for all of your service to America and all of humanity.