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How Jimmy Carter Made Me Want to Become a Better Person

His "Malaise" speech about "the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our Nation" remains one of the most powerful presidential speeches ever.
September 10, 2015, 3:45pm

Jimmy Carter in 1980. Photo by Marion S. Trikosko via the Library of Congress

Jimmy Carter's announcement last month that he was battling cancer was widely covered in the media, with most retrospectives of his life hewing to the same line: extraordinary post-presidential career, less-than-stellar time in office, Iranian hostages, cars lined up for gas, etc, etc. But history books cannot convey feelings; politicians are more than the sum of their accomplishments and defeats. I'll say this: Alone among American politicians, Jimmy Carter made me want to be a better person.

This is not to say Carter, Politician, was a rare and delicate bird, beautiful and free of sin; Zbigniew Brzezinski and Hamilton Jordan do not get hired by men without ambition and a rap sheet. It's extraordinary, though, when you trace Carter's life and career, to witness an ambitious American's evolution into a more modest and compassionate man. As his presidential term spun out and came to an end, Carter's growing alienation from the usual mores of American power would produce an extraordinary third act.

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I'm not sure that the governors and senators who run for president ever really want the job; often it seems like they've just wasted their lives scrambling upward, and don't know what else to do. Is it any wonder that once out of office, ex-presidents often appeared baffled by life, lapsing either into greed or senility (or both).

Carter was plainly different. The normal path to the presidency involves carefully saying and doing nothing that could offend anybody, but his speeches reveal a defiant streak, a willingness to swim against the current. No less a figure than Hunter S. Thompson would, in stunned disbelief, record Carter in 1974 delivering the "Law Day" speech at the University of Georgia, telling a roomful of judges and lawyers that they were corrupt cogs in a racist system. He would campaign for president using terms scarcely believable today, admitting "we are ashamed of what our government is as we deal with other nations around the world" and decrying the Cold War as a shell game in which extremism was a two-way street.

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Talk is cheap, but there was something to this. Stinging from Vietnam and Watergate, this was a time when Americans were doing some very fucked-up things—such as electing a lay-preaching peanut farmer and ex-Navy man from Plains, Georgia, to lead the country. The qualities of Carter's uniqueness are evident in many of his administration's achievements—the Camp David Accord between Israel and Egypt, arms control agreements, his prescient alternative energy advocacy, his cutting of defense budgets and military aid to many foreign dictatorships.

These are not small things. But Carter—like, I daresay, Lincoln—seemed to fire some synapses rarely found in a political mind. Disabused of many of the ambitions of the American president, Carter was the kind of person rarely found at the helm of American political power. Indeed, social critic and author Morris Berman identifies Carter's true significance as existing beyond the realm of politics:

Throughout our history we marginalized or ignored the voices that argued against the dominant culture, which is based on hustling, aggrandizement, and economic and technological expansion. This alternative tradition can be traced from John Smith in 1616 to Jimmy Carter in 1979, and included folks such as Emerson, Thoreau, Lewis Mumford, Jane Jacobs, Vance Packard, and John Kenneth Galbraith, among many others… who argued for the need for organic communities with a spiritual purpose, for work that was meaningful rather than mind-numbing.

But perhaps nowhere is this quality of Carter as a dissonant voice more evident than in his July 15, 1979, "Crisis of Confidence" speech, a speech singular among twentieth-century presidential addresses. "Speaking with rare force, with inflections flowing from meanings he felt deeply," as a former Carter speechwriter would write later, the president confronted not merely the political and economic degradation of America, but the spiritual death experienced by so many Americans.

While the immediately preceding inspiration for the speech was America's then-interminable energy crisis at the hands of OPEC, Carter's speech is far more expansive than a mere policy address. I can't recall a presidential speech in my lifetime where I thought the speaker meant a single word. Once you've heard them a few times, it's easy to spot the repertoire of tricks Reagan or Obama employs. The usual dreck makes the "Malaise" speech, as it came to be known, all the more remarkable; the crushing truth of what Carter is saying is too palpable to be rejected as being cynical or contrived.

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Carter speaks genuinely, using the language of the heart, with humility and without embarrassment, to describe "the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our Nation." The speech is a deeply moving meditation on the destruction of community in America, a spiritual death suffered at the hands of unenlightened self-interest and materialism, a struggle waged in the heart of every citizen. It begins with something anathema to any of the candidates currently running for the presidency this year—a confession of American vulnerability and weakness: "I realize more than ever that as President I need your help."

Describing the crisis of confidence then afflicting Americans, weary of stagflation and gas shortages, Carter speaks in prophetic terms:

In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

Carter identified the basest impulses stamped into the American character; he saw, finally, through the chimera that passes for the good life in America, and with a startling urgency begged his countrymen to reject selfishness in favor of sacrifice. The alternative he describes seems all too familiar:

We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I've warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.

Having identified this empty materialism as not only unsatisfying, but ruinous, Carter then asks the unthinkable: that Americans conserve energy, obey the speed limit, try to fucking carpool once a week. In other words, sacrifice so that a tragedy of the commons might be averted. As Carter puts it, "every act of energy conservation like this is more than just common sense—I tell you it is an act of patriotism." The myth of American individualism is just that—it is only through cooperation that America might prosper:

All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our Nation and ourselves. We can take the first steps down that path as we begin to solve our energy problem.

It is hard, in 2015, to read of the loneliness and frustration Carter described in 1979 and imagine it could have perhaps been averted. Carter was rewarded for his candor in demanding Americans lift a finger to avert their own psychic and moral destruction by being swept out of office. He was replaced by a psychotic old liar who won voters over by babbling saccharine myths about "morning in America." Reagan demanded nothing and promised everything; in exchange, Americans (or at least non-rich Americans) got nothing. This pernicious snake oil has been peddled, in one guise or another, by every president since then, and the results have been predictable.

While the office of president looks increasingly threadbare, Carter has devoted the interceding years to eradicating disease, building affordable housing, and monitoring elections. The legalized bribery and non-functioning democracy he has decried, and which will entangle whoever is eventually elected in 2016, are no impediment to living a life of modest devotion and usefulness to others, whether in the community of the world, or in Plains, Georgia, on Sunday mornings. If Carter failed as a president, he did not fail as a leader; he heeded his own warning.

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