In surfing the internet this evening I ran across this article marking the fact that today is the 30th anniversary of President Carter’s famous “malaise” speech — so-called even though the speech never used the word “malaise.” The article, by one of the writers of the speech, provides an intriguing glimpse into how the speech came to be written as it was.
I was interested in the writer’s statement that the speech was immediately popular. I’m afraid I remember the situation quite differently. In the summer of 1979 I was working for the Cleveland Bureau of the Wall Street Journal. I recall that, when President Carter decided to retreat to Camp David and then was incommunicado for days and days, there was some consternation among the people I knew in Cleveland, including my co-workers. We wondered what the heck the President was doing and why he, as our duly elected Chief Executive, needed to take more than a week and to meet with an enormous variety of religious, political, and other figures to figure out what to say to the American people. It was weird, and everyone I knew thought it was weird. If President Carter needed to poll hundreds of people to decide how to proceed, why did we elect him as our President in the first place? Some people even feared that the President was experiencing some kind of personal crisis of confidence, which was scary for other reasons during those Cold War days.
The day after the speech, I was assigned to go to Public Square in downtown Cleveland and to simply ask passersby for their reactions to the speech. My recollection is that, far from the positive reaction described in the article linked above, the vast majority of people I interviewed were disappointed, angry, and puzzled. They interpreted the speech as blaming the American people for the country’s predicament at the time, when they believed the problem lay not with the people but with their leaders, including President Carter himself. Although Cleveland was then, and still is now, largely a Democratic city, I think a lot of people simply lost confidence in President Carter and his ability to lead the nation, and the speech was part of the reason for that loss of confidence.
The malaise speech was one of a string of incidents that were disastrous for President Carter, including the “killer rabbit” attack, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the taking of American hostages by Iran and the failed rescue mission, and the Boston Globe‘s famous, and apparently unintended, headline that appeared over an editorial on another speech by President Carter: “Mush from the Wimp.” The “malaise speech,” I think, helped to create a certain contempt that many people came to feel for President Carter by the end of his term and contributed to Senator Kennedy’s challenge in the 1980 Democratic primary and ultimately to President Carter’s defeat in the 1980 presidential election. To the people of Cleveland who were in Public Square on that day in July 1979, President Carter’s remarks were anything but popular.