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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Why Kick Carter?

Yesterday, The New Republic featured both Marty Peretz and Damon Linker dumping on Jimmy Carter's nortorious "Crisis of Confidence" speech (better known as the "Malaise" speech). It's an easy speech to pick on--just reading it, or watching it--makes it clear that Damon is only exaggerating slightly when he calls it "mawkish, hectoring, self-pitying, maudlin, self-righteous, undisciplined." So fine--he was a crummy speaker, with poor body language and a sermonizing mentality that never did, and probably never will, come across well for American television audiences. But why the insistence that said speech was Carter's "most pathetic moment"? Despite Peretz's and Linker's mocking of attempts to defend the speech by those who helped write it, the assessment of the speech by those who heard it actually received seems to counter their essential claims. Polls showed that majorities of the American people considered it a strong and brave speech, not a weak one. (The historical record makes it pretty clear, I think, that when pundits at the time started to write their epitaphs for the Carter presidency, they did it because Carter was--as ever--disorganized and judgmental in the wake of speech, asking his entire Cabinet to resign and issuing a barely concealed "loyalty oath" to those that remained, not because of the message of the speech itself.) Peretz seems particularly concerned that the speech--with its willingness to talk about crises, struggles, and the need for sacrifice--did nothing to arm America against the reign of ayatollahs which came to confront our foreign policy in the late 1970s (and still confront us today); while for Damon, the problem really just boils down to Carter making himself look dour and serious and Eeyore-ish, just in time for Reagan to come along to kick his butt. They're both talking about political power and influence, in other words--the ability to confront and sway political opponents and enemies, the ability to win political elections. President Carter gave a speech that wasn't about power and influence, but rather was about the "realities of responsibility, "the need for radical change," and a condemnation of "the debilitating effects of self-centered divisiveness," in former speechwriter Gordon Stewart's words. It was, in other words, as I've written before (in contrast to Obama's rhetoric), humble. And as humility rarely wins elections or brings one's adversaries pliantly to the negotiating table, what good is it for a president? Ergo, the speech was a terrible, joke-worthy failure. Carter's Sunday school moralism has brought out Damon's and Peretz's inner Machiavellis, that's all.

Well, they aren't alone, and I suppose they aren't necessarily wrong either, depending on how you look at it. Presidents are supposed to be effective leaders, not inspired prophets, and while I wouldn't necessarily claim Carter was entirely the later, he certainly wasn't the former. He shouldn't have run for president; he probably shouldn't have gone the political route at all, at least not beyond the smaller regional and cultural environment where his moralistic tendencies were better accepted. But like Rod Dreher and a few others whose conservatism is so radical that they're actually on the left rather than the right (whether they realize it or not), not to mention open-minded liberals like Ezra Klein, I think Carter, and this speech, can both be best understood in light of the effort to get Americans to think about thrift, conservation, and sacrifice--principles that we'll always need, even if we shouldn't be in the habit of expecting presidents to be able to give them to us.

1 comment:

MH said...

He tried to hit my rabbit with a paddle. That why I went for Reagan.