In the steamy summer of July 1979, President Jimmy Carter made a televised speech to the nation that did much to define his legacy and finish off his presidency. Although he never used the word "malaise," the address became known as the "malaise speech," perhaps the most famous address of Carter’s tenure. It was dark and scary.
"Our people are losing faith, not only in government itself but in the ability as citizens to serve as the ultimate rulers and shapers of our democracy," Carter declared. "We always believed that we were part of a great movement of humanity itself called democracy, involved in the search for freedom, and that belief has always strengthened us in our purpose. But just as we are losing our confidence in the future, we are also beginning to close the door on our past."
The address came at a time in his presidency when Americans were dispirited and dissatisfied. High energy prices and a credit crunch caused by high interest rates fueled an economic recession. Carter’s approval rating declined to 25 percent, as low as Nixon’s during the Watergate scandal.
In his speech Carter bluntly confronted his fellow citizens telling them that the United States was entering a new age, one of limits rather than unbridled growth and consumption. He complained that our people were becoming identified by what they owned rather than what they did. He acknowledged that Americans were losing faith in government to solve problems, and that there was an erosion of confidence in our leaders.
The media and political critics savaged Carter for his pessimistic tone and failure to offer solutions to many of the problems he identified. Many dismissed his speech as "preachy" and a tacit admission of his failure as a leader. History, of course, has been kinder to Carter. The speech may have been dumb politics, but Carter’s view of the future was on the money. We are now paying the price for not addressing the problems he laid out for us in 1979. The fact is, in the hot summer of ‘79, the people did not want to deal with tough choices or even hear whining about them. Just over a year later, Carter was defeated by a candidate who stressed optimism over reality. Remember "It’s Morning in America"? It wasn’t.
Surveying our present predicament, the summer of 2007 seems a clear echo of the "malaise days" 28 years ago. We have an unpopular president. There is a palpable and justified lack of confidence in our government to solve the big problems - health care, immigration, runaway spending, energy independence and a seemingly endless war. Our government has even lost the competence to respond to emergencies such as Katrina not to mention carrying out such routine tasks as delivering passports.Energy prices are high, and the financial markets, where many have tucked away their retirement assets, are unstable to say the least.
Why does this erosion of confidence and lack of hope manifest itself in malaise? Why would the national mood not motivate the citizenry to sign-waving outrage and hit-the-pavement activism?
Could it be that our national lethargy, in the face of colossal challenges, is simply a product of prolonged dog days? No one likes to raise hell when the weather is getting hotter and dryer by the day.
Like many Southerners, I grew up accepting dog days as part of life. The hottest, most humid, most uncomfortable and oppressive days of the year would settle across the land in July and continue through August. We endured them with the knowledge that the cool days of October would soon come. While waiting for autumn and football, we consumed as little energy as possible. They were days of porch rocking and, in the country, watching the crops grow. Reading a book, drinking sweet tea and fanning one’s self was the hardest work done. Even with omnipresent air conditioning, our bodies may still be wired for the once-inescapable heat. In this season the last thing you want to do is get agitated over big issues or be bothered with heavy thoughts.
In retrospect, a Southerner like Carter should have known better than to broach in midsummer matters requiring thought and energy.
Let Jimmy Carter’s experience be a lesson. Gov. Sonny Perdue apparently understands the summer doldrums. You don’t hear the governor advancing any ideas during dog days, which for Perdue seem to extend throughout the year.
On the other hand, Georgia House Speaker Glenn Richardson is running around the state when the temperatures are in three digits, proposing revolutionary changes in state government and taxes.
Richardson has forgotten the Carter rule: Beware the fate of a leader who tries to lead during dog days.
You can reach Bill Shipp at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30160, or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.