Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Thoughts on 'Malaise'

Today is the 30th anniversary of the so–called "Malaise Speech" given by President Carter on July 15, 1979.

With unemployment approaching double digits nationally, there is probably no better time to revisit that speech.

It was ridiculed at the time by the Republicans, many of whom were still bitter over the justifiable impeachment proceedings that had forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency five years earlier. They dubbed it the "Malaise Speech," even though Carter never used the word "malaise." He spoke of a "crisis of confidence."

Gordon Stewart, Carter's deputy chief speechwriter at the time, reflects on that speech in today's New York Times.

He speaks from a perspective that Carter's critics never had, and he speaks the truth when he writes, "Speaking with rare force, with inflections flowing from meanings he felt deeply, Jimmy Carter called for the 'most massive peacetime commitment' in our history to develop alternative fuels."

I have to wonder — if the American people had listened to what he had to say, that the American way of life was setting us up for severe energy problems in the future and that we needed to start conserving and developing alternative energy sources, is there any doubt that we would be in a better position today?

Stewart writes that "[c]ontrary to later spin, the speech was extremely popular. The White House was flooded with positive calls. Viewers polled while watching found that the speech inspired them as it unfolded."

Yet, a year later, Carter had to fight Ted Kennedy for his party's nomination, then fought a losing battle with Ronald Reagan for the presidency itself.

"To this day, I don't entirely know why the speech came to be derided for a word that was in the air, but never once appeared in the text," Stewart writes. "Still, the 'malaise' label stuck: maybe because President Carter's cabinet shake–up a few days later wasted the political energy that had been focused on our energy problems; maybe because the administration's opponents attached it to the speech relentlessly; maybe because it was just too hard to compete with Ronald Reagan and his banner of limitless American consumption."

The years have proven President Carter to be correct. Instead of driving fuel–efficient vehicles, Americans started buying gas guzzlers again under Reagan and didn't stop until gas reached the $4/gallon level last summer. It wasn't entirely their fault. They went for "limitless American consumption" when it was offered as an alternative to sacrifice. They chose what appeared to be the easy way over the hard way.

American automakers saw a lot of easy profit potential in SUVs and monster trucks whereas fuel efficiency required a lot of long–term investment and deferred profits. So they promoted the sales of the SUVs and the monster trucks and treated fuel efficiency as an option instead of a necessity.

Now, if American automakers want to survive, they must double, triple, quadruple their research and development efforts. They must put fuel efficiency at the top of their list — ahead of creature comforts, oversized tires and cup holders.

And today, Americans really do face malaise — and it is far more severe than anything that was imagined by Carter's critics.

Astonishingly, there are people who still do not get it. They seem to feel that there is a limitless supply of fossil fuels beneath our feet or off our shores. And, if it isn't limitless, there is enough to last for their lifetimes, and that is all they care about.

Perhaps Jimmy Carter was the only one who foresaw the tragedy that awaited the American economy three decades later. More's the pity.

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