A Crisis of Confidence, a Heedless Government


Lexington, Kentucky. -- It seems like many more, but only a dozen years have passed since President Carter appeared on national television and gave a remarkable speech.

The subject of Mr. Carter's talk on July 15, 1979, was the nation's oil shortage. His message, however, concerned the spiritual depletion in American political life.

A generous assessment of the speech was that it didn't work. Meant to set the tone for his last year in office -- and to pry a stuck presidency off high center -- the speech failed in every respect. Known as the "malaise speech" (though that word was not in the text) Mr. Carter's discussion of a national lack of faith and resolve was ridiculed by the press, by the Republicans and by detractors in Congress.

It was a measure of how correct he was in his assessment of the political landscape that his speech was so despised. The fact is, if there has been one speech by a national politician that summed up what was missing in American public life, it was the address Jimmy Carter made 12 years ago.

It's important to remember the context of the talk. Inflation, set off by high oil prices, was ripping the economy. The president's legislative program had been trashed. The country was defeated and listless. In early July, Mr. Carter began holding talks at the presidential retreat at Camp David, in the Maryland mountains. He didn't huddle only with consultants and pollsters. He brought in schoolteachers, ministers and small-town mayors to discuss the nation's problems.

The nation's political debate, Mr. Carter began his speech, had "become increasingly narrow, focused more and more on what the isolated world of Washington thinks is important." The people he had talked with, the president said, were deeply dissatisfied with government.

"I feel so far from government," Mr. Carter quoted one woman. "I feel like ordinary people are excluded from political power." Another said: "Don't talk to us about politics or the mechanics of government, but about an understanding of our common good."

Mr. Carter came to certain conclusions, or so he said in his 1979 speech. First, "all the legislation in the world can't fix what's wrong with America." There was a "fundamental threat to American democracy" and it was, Mr. Carter said, "a crisis of confidence. . . . Our people are losing that faith, not only in government itself but in the ability as citizens to serve as the ultimate rulers and shapers of our democracy."

The president went on to scold the country for worshiping "self-indulgence and consumption" and for a "growing disrespect" for government and religion. "This is not a message of happiness or reassurance," Mr. Carter said, "but it is the truth and it is a warning."

Recent history tells us that Mr. Carter's warning was wasted. The 1980s were a decade of "self-indulgence and consumption" for which our children will pay. The scandal of the savings-and-loan industry (a $500 billion due bill), the Wall Street rip-offs, the takeover mania that ruined ongoing businesses -- this is what Mr. Carter was warning of in 1979.

Meanwhile, the "narrow" debate Mr. Carter complained of in 1979 has been reduced to a sliver. Congress' troubles in passing a budget last year and a civil-rights bill this year -- two pieces of compromise legislation with no direction and little meaning -- have convinced citizens the national government is irresponsible when it is not irrelevant.

And the energy crisis has gone around and come around in a terrible and wasteful war in Iraq that is not over now and, it appears, never will be.

Much of the blame for Mr. Carter's defeat in 1980 traces back to this speech. The cock-sureness of Ronald Reagan stood in such high and enviable contrast to the brooding and searching Jimmy Carter. We picked the happy ending of Hollywood over the heat and dust of Plains, Georgia.

The defeat, however, was ours. We ridiculed a man who spoke the truth. We laughed at his piety. And, to our shame, we ignored his prophecy.

Bill Bishop is a columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

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