My Most Exciting Presidential Election Night

My most exciting presidential election night was the only election night where I worked as a professional reporter.

It was the election of 1980, and I was working for the Toledo Blade.  There were a bunch of races that year, topped by the contest between Ronald Reagan and President Jimmy Carter.  Polling was primitive by modern standards, and many people were confident that President Carter would win his race against an aging Republican whom many reporters considered a bit of a buffoon.  But Reagan won, and won big.  It was an exciting night because it was a huge surprise.

I remember sitting in the Blade newsroom, watching a cheap black-and-white TV as the networks reported the national results.  The reporters gaped at the results, slack-jawed and stunned.  It wasn’t so much Reagan’s victory — nobody cared much for Jimmy Carter — but his coattails that were a stunner.  Many liberal lions in the United States Senate went down to a surprising defeat, and Toledo’s long-time Democratic Congressman lost, astonishingly, to an upstart Republican.

Our world was turned on its axis, and suddenly a candidate whom many people had confidently dismissed was the President-elect, coming in to office with a slew of new Senators and Representatives ready to shake things up in Washington.  America had decided to change direction, abruptly and amazingly.

Not About Race (II)

As the chorus of people claiming that racism is behind the opposition to President Obama’s health care reform proposals grows — including, most recently, former President Carter — it is gratifying to see that the White House is saying that President Obama disagrees with that sentiment. I think the President correctly understands that his proposals, if adopted, would make significant changes to how Americans pay for and use health care and therefore are bound to provoke some strong reactions and disagreements, regardless of the race of the individual who is advocating for those proposals. I very much respect the fact that President Obama is willing to accept the opposition in good faith and at face value and to defend his proposals on their merits, without impugning the opponents as ignorant racists.

As for former President Carter, I think he continues to demonstrate why he was rejected by American voters after serving only one term almost 30 years ago. President Carter was out of touch with the American public when he was President and he has become, if anything, more out of touch in the decades since he left the office. Has President Carter recently spent time with average Americans during breaks in his efforts to mediate various international disputes? What possible factual basis could he have for contending that millions of Americans who now oppose President Obama’s health care reform proposals — including many people who voted for President Obama less than a year ago — are motivated to do so by racial hatred and bigotry?

Comments like those of former President Carter not only harm America’s reputation abroad, they also are terribly destructive of civil political discourse in this country because they demonize, and do not allow for legitimate disagreement on significant issues where there obviously is ample room for legitimate disagreement. Even if President Carter sincerely holds the beliefs he has expressed, and is not merely engaging in cheap political tactics to try to intimidate or embarrass opponents of the President’s health care reforms, he would do the country an enormous service by keeping those beliefs to himself.

More On “Malaise”

Here’s another article on the 30th anniversary of President Carter’s so-called “malaise” speech, and apparent efforts by some to “rehabilitate” President Carter’s historical reputation. Good luck on that front! President Carter seemed like a decent man who was doing his best, but he was just grossly overmatched in the job. His presidency was marked by significant failures in the economy (inflation, unemployment, interest rates, gas prices) and in foreign policy (Iran, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan). To be sure, President Carter helped to negotiate a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, but I think that accomplishment, noteworthy though it is, is overwhelmed by the many serious problems that the country experienced during his presidency. In 1980, when I graduated into a dismal job market and a failing economy, the country clearly needed a change.

President Carter himself seems to realize that his reputation is poor, and he has been working hard to try to improve it through public service and efforts to broker additional peace agreements. Unfortunately for him, his effort is probably doomed to failure. There already seems to be a consensus among historians that Presidents Carter and Nixon are the two worst presidents of the second half of the 20th century, and by a wide margin. I think that consensus will only grow as time passes.

The “Malaise Speech,” Jimmy Carter, And The People Of Public Square

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.

President Carter during the malaise speech

President Carter during the "malaise speech"

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.