"Crisis of Confidence: Energy and National Goals"

James Earl ("Jimmy") Carter, Jr. (b. 1924) was thirty-ninth president of the United States, 1977-1981. Carter ascended to the presidency from humble beginnings as a peanut farmer in Plains, Georgia. After two years of college, he attended the U.S. Naval Academy, after which he was assigned as a nuclear engineering specialist to a submarine program. On the death of his father, he returned to Plains and, building the family business, moved into a career in state politics, eventually achieving the governorship in 1970. During his term, the Watergate scandal broke and Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace from office. Carter declared as a candidate for the presidency and defeated Gerald Ford - Nixon's handpicked successor - in 1976.

As president, Carter is remembered for his emphasis on human rights and for brokering a peace between Egypt and Israel. A hostage crisis in Iran, along with high unemployment and inflation at home, led to his reelection defeat to Ronald Reagan, As an ex-president, however, Carter has gained enormous respect. He remains a highly regarded statesman who has the ear of leaders worldwide and who has traveled to Central America as an observer of elections (to verify their honesty); he also has worked with international experts on problems as various as starvation, immunization, and human rights; and he has helped in this country to build housing for the poor. Since 1975, Carter has published over two dozen books, including his presidential papers. Two books - Why Not the Best? (1975) and (with wife Rosalynn) Everything to Gain (1987) - earned especially high praise. In reviewing Turning Point (1992), Carter's recollections of his first political campaign as a candidate for the Georgia state senate, Robert Dallek for the Los Angeles Times wrote of Carter "no Chief Executive in his presidential and post-presidential careers has been a greater moral conscience of the nation." Carter has received dozens of awards for his humanitarian efforts, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.

The following excerpts are from a 3623-word speech [source] delivered to the American people on the evening of July 15, 1979. While titled "Crisis of Confidence: Energy and National Goals," it is likely still best remembered as "The Malaise Speech." An excellent description of the speech and its political context - and its fallout - are found at this PBS American Expierience webpage.

1437 words

I want to speak to you 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 - the 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 which 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 their 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 have 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 that 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 of 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 10 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.

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. One of the visitors to Camp David last week put it this way: We've got to stop crying and start sweating; stop talking and start walking; stop cursing and start praying. The strength we need will not come from the White House but from every house in America.

We know the strength of America. We are strong, We can regain our unity. We can regain our confidence. We are the heirs of generations who survived threats much more powerful and awesome than those that challenge us now.

Our fathers and mothers were strong men and women who shaped the new society during the Great Depression, who fought world wars and who carved out a new charter of peace for the world. We ourselves are the same Americans who just 10 years ago put a man on the moon.

We are the generation that dedicated our society to the pursuit of human rights and equality.

And we are the generation that will win the war on the energy problem, and in that process rebuild the unity and confidence of America. We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is the 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.

Little by little we can and we must rebuild our confidence. We can spend until we empty our treasuries, and we may summon all the wonders of science. But we can succeed only if we tap our greatest resources - America's people, America's values, and America's confidence.

I have seen the strength of America in the inexhaustible resources of our people. In the days to come, let us renew that strength in the struggle for an energy secure nation.

In closing, let me say this: I will do my best, but I will not do it alone. Let your voice be heard. Whenever you have a chance, say something good about our country. With God's help and for the sake of our Nation, it is time for us to join hands in America. Let us commit ourselves together to a rebirth of the American spirit. Working together with our common faith we cannot fail.

Thank you and good night.

Review Questions

  1. President Carter says Americans (in 1979) were losing confidence in the future. Of what attitudes did this confidence consist?
  2. To what traditional values does Carter exhort Americans to remember and rededicate themselves? What values have taken the place of these traditional ones?
  3. How does the crisis of confidence affect Americans' belief in their government?
  4. What events in our nation's history have helped to shake Americans' confidence in their country?
  5. Carter claims that Americans can choose one of two paths concerning their future and national character. What are these paths?

Discussion and Writing Suggestions

  1. Carter offered his assessment of the nation's crisis of confidence in 1979. In your view, to what extent do his words apply today? Do Americans now suffer a crisis of confidence? Do you? Do you believe your life will be better than that of your parents? (To paraphrase Carter, do you believe the next five years will be better or worse than the last five years?) In responding, identify particular sentences from the speech and develop your answer from these sentences.
  2. Carter believed the American spirit was ailing, and he spoke (in paragraphs 8-9) of a "longing for meaning." What does he mean?
  3. How might your SLWP agency be useful in mending that "ailing American spirit"?
  4. How have you responded on a personal, emotional level to this speech? When this speech was delivered, many Americans felt themselves being lectured to. Can you explain this response?

    The Camp David visitor to whom this quote was attributed was the young Governor of Arkansas, W.J. Clinton. [back]