The National Funk Jimmy and Bill: Carter beaten by 'malaise,' Clinton wants to beat his version


IN THE third year of his presidency, Jimmy Carter went up the mountain to Camp David and for an extraordinary ten days had himself lectured to and analyzed by gurus and plain citizens about what was described in those days as the "national malaise."

With the benefit of hindsight, it can now be seen that the "malaise" was mainly the result of long gas lines -- that the nation's spirit would lift once the gas lines went away and sunny Ronald Reagan invoked American optimism.

Now, in the third year of his presidency, Bill Clinton has also gone introspective. In a late-night airborne seance with reporters, he said the country is in a "funk" -- which might be considered the 1990s equivalent of malaise.

But there was no jeremiad like this from Mr. Carter: "Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. . . Piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose."

Compare Mr. Clinton's less judgmental analysis: "My own belief is that human beings, particularly the American people, are capable of enduring a lot of difficulty and a lot of tumult and upheaval if they understand it. What makes people insecure is when they feel like they're lost in the fun house."

On the basis of his ten days on the mountain top, Mr. Carter told the multitude what faults his interlocutors found in him: acting more as a manager than a leader of government, not seeing enough people outside his inner circle, not insisting on loyalty from Cabinet members. Missing, however, was a self-indictment.

Mr. Clinton, in contrast, did his own self-analysis. He said he had tried to do too much too soon and had failed to convey the "big picture." He wished he had Lincoln's knack of "explaining the time people were living in and putting the issue in terms of choices that had to be made." He described himself as a fellow-victim of information overload, adding "there's a danger that too much stuff cramming in on people's minds is just as bad for them as too little."

For both of these presidents such ruminations were a preliminary to their re-election campaigns. Mr. Carter failed, as did the energy program he described as "the moral equivalent of war." Mr. Clinton's fate has yet to be determined but he is obviously trying to get out of a personal "funk" caused by the Republican takeover of Congress.

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