On July 15, 1979, 65 million Americans tuned in to watch as President Jimmy Carter delivered the most famous speech of his presidency. The speech later came to be known as the “Malaise Speech,” despite the fact that the word “malaise” was not used. It addressed the crisis of confidence that Carter felt was pervading the nation. The speech addressed the barrage of tragic events that were causing the American spirit to suffer; the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., John F Kennedy and Robert F Kennedy, the war in Vietnam, and the Watergate Scandal. America was slowly losing pride in its identity; the people were beginning to feel that our time as a great nation had finally ended.
Originally, Carter was planning on delivering his fifth speech on energy. But according to Rosalynn Carter, the president felt that people just were not listening anymore. Mrs. Carter recalls: “Jimmy had made several speeches on energy… and it just seemed to be going nowhere with the public. So he just said, ‘I’m not going to make the speech,’ and instead went to Camp David and brought in lots of people to talk about what could be done.”
In his “Crisis of Confidence” speech, Carter spent the majority of his time discussing the nation’s problems – the energy crisis, the gas lines, among others. Carter even reported the criticisms of average American citizens and various political figures, whom he spoke to during his stay at Camp David. One quote came from an uncredited young governor, Bill Clinton, who said “Mr. President, you are not leading this Nation— you’re just managing the Government.” The overall message was one of disappointment, in both Jimmy Carter and the government. During these meetings Carter faced scathing criticism, and he in turn faced the nation with brutal honesty. He told them how the problems with America were not only due to the economy, and inflation; the problems were intrinsic as well.
The nation’s immediate reaction seemed positive – it was reported that Carter’s approval rating went up 37% in the weeks immediately following his speech. Stuart Eizenstat recalled that the speech “was initially quite well-received.” But soon enough, the American eye began to tear its message apart, seeing the speech in a more critical light. One commentator even cited it as “One of the most ineffective pieces of political rhetoric in history.”
Hendrik Hertzberg worked on the speech, and later would admit that “was more like a sermon than a political speech. It had the themes of confession, redemption, and sacrifice. He was bringing the American people into this spiritual process that he had been through, and presenting them with an opportunity for redemption as well as redeeming himself.”
If Carter was trying to raise the American spirit, a pessimistic speech about America’s flaws might have not been the best route. People interpreted it as Carter blaming the American people for the county’s issues. He chided them on their lifestyle, saying “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.” He spelled out the problem, but was unable to offer a solution.
The “Crisis of Confidence” speech proved that rhetoric was one of the most valuable skills that a leader can possess. During his campaign for a second term, his staff recommended “what we need is a presidential rhetoric that describes and defines the world as Jimmy Carter sees it.” But it was too late. Carter was not re-elected, while Ronald Reagan – a man often cited for his phenomenal grasp of inspiring rhetoric – was chosen as his successor. This can partly be attributed to the fact that Reagan’s speeches inspired the people – he made them proud to be American rather than ashamed.