I have always had a little thing for Jimmy Carter.
Which, let's face it, is pretty much the only reason I picked up Kevin Mattson's new book "What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr President?" Jimmy Carter, America's "Malaise," and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country. For one thing, I'm not a big history reader (unless it's about British history, or labor history, or the holy grail of my history nonfiction reading, British labor history); for another, that's not really a title that inspires a whole lot of "wow, I've got to read this one!"*
But I do find it interesting that there's actually a growing little subgenre of nonfiction books in which authors look at history and presidents through specific speeches**; I'm somewhat interested in speeches and rhetoric (as only the nerdy author of a public speaking handbook for librarians can be); and what the heck, it was only 217 pages long.
The book takes as its subject the summer of 1979, primarily its gas shortages and cultural ennui, and examines how President Carter sought to address the energy crisis and what he described as America's crisis of confidence. One of the most interesting things (to me) about the story is how Carter sought to hear a variety of viewpoints, and duly invited groups of people (people other than politicians and lobbyists, note) to the White House to talk these issues over. When he was done, he charged his speechwriters with creating (with his input) the speech he would give on July 15, 1979. The entire text of the speech is also provided as an appendix, so you can read it for yourself, and I would do so:
"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...
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 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." (p. 212-213.)
I won't lie to you; although it's not obnoxious, this is not an author who is being very critical of Carter, although he does point out his many and obvious missteps. But he's also an author who has managed to weave a compelling slice of history out of a speech that has been largely misremembered by an entire nation. If nothing else, he also does a good job of placing the speech and Carter's presidency in historical perspective as the one that paved the way for Reagan (and the Cult of Reagan and all that went with it), as evidenced in this quote:
"I remember the exact moment I knew Ronald Reagan could beat Jimmy Carter. The date was July 15, 1979." (Richard Wirthlin, Ronald Reagan's pollster.)
It's an interesting book. If you're up for a historical stroll through the late 1970s, this might be a good place to start. Now off with you, and have a good weekend.
*Or is it? I think it's kind of a clunky title, myself. I might have chosen How to Lose the White House: Endeavor to be Decent and Intelligent.
**David Maraniss's The Clinton Enigma is also a fabulous little book.
***I would guess that most atheists are probably not Carter fans.