TCS Daily

Burying Carterism

By Duane D. Freese - June 9, 2004 12:00 AM

On July 15, 1979, President James Earl Carter delivered a speech to the nation that more than other defined his presidency and perhaps made him ripe for defeat at the hands of a Hollywood actor, ex-California Gov. Ronald Wilson Reagan.

As initially crafted, the speech was to talk about energy policy and the problems with long gas lines. But a truckers' strike in Pennsylvania that turned violent delayed its delivery. And over a 10-day period Carter met with a host of people at Camp David to mull over what the nation should do to face up to the energy crisis.

The conclusion that Carter drew, with the help of his pollster Pat Caddell, wasn't that the nation simply faced an energy crisis but a fundamental threat to its core values.

"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 speech was a shocker, especially as it came from a man who in his first inaugural had spoken of making "a government as good and as competent and as compassionate as the American people." Competent and compassionate, but lacking in confidence?

Carter, though, had always been a bit of a preacher. In his inaugural, he also quoted the prophet Micah: "He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require thee, but do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God."

Carter has demonstrated those qualities well in his work for peace and his special project, Habitat for Humanity. There is no doubt about Carter's character as a person. And his administration showed some intelligence as well as his presidency initiated deregulation of the trucking and airline industries, and bringing forth the antitrust suit that led to an end to the national telecommunications monopoly of AT&T.

But as a leader he mistook his personal virtues for a program, and his administration oftentimes confused bigness with badness -- with attacks upon the cereal industry, IBM and, most of all, the oil industry.

Worst of all, his vision of the problem we faced was that the nation suffered because of a shortage of oil internationally, rather than a supply imbalance that markets eventually would resolve. Even though he had the experience of government's allocation of gasoline nationally producing only long lines at the pump, he nonetheless thought government had to step forward to and reallocate resources.

He had a lot of encouragement from those he called upon for advice. In his "crisis of confidence" speech, he quoted one visitor as telling him: "We can't go on consuming 40 percent more energy than we produce." He quoted another: "There will be other cartels and other shortages. American wisdom and courage right now can set a path to follow in the future." And another: "Some people have wasted energy, but others haven't had anything to waste." And finally "When we enter the moral equivalent of war, Mr. President, don't issue us BB guns."

So, he determined, the national interest had to supplant all those nasty self interested big companies.

"We are at a turning point in our history," he declared in 1980. "There are two paths to choose. One is a path I've warned about tonight, the path that 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. We can take the first steps down that path as we begin to solve our energy problems."

At which point he outlined a plan for financing a whole swath of federal energy boondoggles such as the Synfuels Corp. financed by taxes on "windfall profits" on oil companies and a quota for imports of oil -- a kind of reverse OPEC -- that virtually assured oil and gasoline shortages.

It all backfired.

While initially the speech gave Carter a bounce in the opinion polls, his approval ratings soon dropped dramatically as the public digested it. The press dubbed it the malaise speech, though it didn't have the word malaise in it. And many people began to feel they were being made the fall guy for the administration's failings. As civil rights activist and historian Roger Wilkens noted, "When your leadership is demonstrably weaker than it should be, you don't then point at the people and say, 'It's your problem.' If you want the people to move, you move them the way Roosevelt moved them, or you exhort them the way Kennedy and Johnson exhorted them. You don't say, 'It's your fault.'"

Unfortunately, the administration wouldn't back away. Arthur Blaustein, chairman of the president's National Advisory Commission on Economic Opportunity, went so far as to blame America's "moral malaise" and "selfish" public attitudes for the failure of anti-poverty programs, too.

But if people were feeling bad, they had reason to. The results of the administration's compassion by proxy -- with government seizing property from one set of citizens to distribute to others -- proved dismal. Unemployment topped 7.5 percent in 1980, with inflation over 12 percent. Coupled with a foreign policy that saw the Soviets in Afghanistan and 54 American hostages being held in Iran, and the fate of the Carter presidency was sealed.

At his inauguration in 1981, President Ronald Reagan put a stamp on a new direction for the nation. "We are a nation that has a government -- not the other way around. And this makes us special among the nations of the Earth," he noted. "If we look to the answer as to why, for so many years, we achieved so much, prospered as no other people on Earth, it was because here, in this land, we unleashed the energy and individual genius of man to a greater extent than has ever been done before. Freedom and the dignity of the individual have been more available and assured here than in any other place on Earth. The price for this freedom at times has been high, but we have never been unwilling to pay that price."

And he concluded with a look at the problems of the day by noting the sacrifices Americans in the past were called upon to make, specifically citing Martin Treptow, who as a member of the Rainbow division died in France during World War I: "The crisis we are facing today does not require of us the kind of sacrifice that Martin Treptow and so many thousands of others were called upon to make. It does require, however, our best effort, and our willingness to believe in ourselves and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds; to believe that together, with God's help, we can and will resolve the problems which now confront us."

But then rather than worry that Americans had lost their confidence, he took their willingness to succeed at great tasks for granted: "And, after all, why shouldn't we believe that?" he asked, in conclusion. "We are Americans. God bless you, and thank you."

It wasn't as simple to say "the rest is history." While America's hostages returned home that day, the recession and inflation didn't end overnight. It took his economic program a few years to produce the jobs and growth he promised. It took another decade more to bury "the evil empire" communism.

In the process, Reagan was often mocked as simplistic in his approach to problems.

But he had a bit of wisdom that Carter lacked. He had faith that if left to their own devises; the American people were competent, compassionate and confident enough that they didn't need government to supply any of those three Cs, just the protection of their freedom for themselves and from enemies here and abroad to allow them to flourish.

Reagan's death provides a reminder of his vision -- of an America caring, capable, competent and confident, not because government makes it so, but because people do. And as we face down terrorists and recover from another mild recession, the reason for his faith continues to shine through.


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