The Perils of Preaching
It is still, officially, the "Crisis of Confidence" speech. But it's remembered by one word: "Malaise." The label is not meant to be a compliment.
The funny thing is how much of this sounds like 2016, not 1979:
I invited to Camp David people from almost every segment of our society -- business and labor, teachers and preachers, governors, mayors, and private citizens. And then I left Camp David to listen to other Americans, men and women like you.
It has been an extraordinary ten days, and I want to share with you what I've heard. First of all, I got a lot of personal advice. Let me quote a few of the typical comments that I wrote down.
This from a southern governor: "Mr. President, you are not leading this nation -- you're just managing the government."
"You don't see the people enough any more."
"Some of your Cabinet members don't seem loyal. There is not enough discipline among your disciples."
"Don't talk to us about politics or the mechanics of government, but about an understanding of our common good."
"Mr. President, we're in trouble. Talk to us about blood and sweat and tears."
"If you lead, Mr. President, we will follow."
Many people talked about themselves and about the condition of our nation.
This from a young woman in Pennsylvania: "I feel so far from government. I feel like ordinary people are excluded from political power."
And this from a young Chicano: "Some of us have suffered from recession all our lives."
"Some people have wasted energy, but others haven't had anything to waste."
And this from a religious leader: "No material shortage can touch the important things like God's love
for us or our love for one another."
And I like this one particularly from a black woman who happens to be the mayor of a small Mississippi town: "The big-shots are not the only ones who are important. Remember, you can't sell anything on Wall Street unless someone digs it up somewhere else first."
All of which led President Carter to this conclusion:
This kind of summarized a lot of other statements: "Mr. President, we are confronted with a moral and a spiritual crisis."
Several of our discussions were on energy, and I have a notebook full of comments and advice. I'll read just a few.
"We can't go on consuming 40 percent more energy than we produce. When we import oil we are also importing inflation plus unemployment."
"We've got to use what we have. The Middle East has only five percent of the world's energy, but the United States has 24 percent."
And this is one of the most vivid statements: "Our neck is stretched over the fence and OPEC has a knife."
"There will be other cartels and other shortages. American wisdom and courage right now can set a path to follow in the future."
This was a good one: "Be bold, Mr. President. We may make mistakes, but we are ready to experiment."
And there it is: the "moral equivalent of war," which Russell Baker would immediately turn into an acronym: "MEOW."* Baker taught Maureen Dowd everything she knows. Truly there is nothing new under the sun.
And in 37 years the one constant is not the politicians in office; it is the American people. We are the ones who demand changes; as long as we, the people, don't have to change.
Carter blamed the crisis on a failing confidence in the future. I've never thought that was such a strong basis for such a sweeping claim, but his own argument doesn't really support it. He trots out the anachronistic platitude that every generation of Americans expected the next generation to be better off than they were (not remotely true, especially considering the number of economic reversals and "panics" in American history which culminated in the Great Depression, an economic merry-go-round we stepped off of with the New Deal, and have returned to thanks to repeal of most what of made the New Deal save us from ourselves), but then he points to the real cause of the problem:
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.And again: how much has that picture changed in 37 years? Except that today Donald Trump is running on a platform that this growing disrespect is a good thing for him; oh, and he alone can fix it. No, it doesn't quite make sense: "America is great, America sux, and I will make it great again!" But you don't win people over by telling them the truth.
The symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us. For the first time in the history of our country a majority of our people believe that the next five years will be worse than the past five years. Two-thirds of our people do not even vote. The productivity of American workers is actually dropping, and the willingness of Americans to save for the future has fallen below that of all other people in the Western world.
As you know, there is a growing disrespect for government and for churches and for schools, the news media, and other institutions. This is not a message of happiness or reassurance, but it is the truth and it is a warning.
The more things change, continues:
These wounds are still very deep. They have never been healed. Looking for a way out of this crisis, our people have turned to the Federal government and found it isolated from the mainstream of our nation's life. Washington, D.C., has become an island. The gap between our citizens and our government has never been so wide. The people are looking for honest answers, not easy answers; clear leadership, not false claims and evasiveness and politics as usual.
What you see too often in Washington and elsewhere around the country is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well-financed and powerful special interests. You see every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath by one unyielding group or another. You often see a balanced and a fair approach that demands sacrifice, a little sacrifice from everyone, abandoned like an orphan without support and without friends.
The "wounds" he refers to are Watergate, Vietnam, the assassinations of the Kennedys and King; but you could replace all of that with Trayvon Martin or Black Lives Matter or 9/11 or Iraq and Libya, and reach pretty much the same conclusion. And as for that last paragraph: didn't our divisions start after Gingrich and Clinton, or at least with the Tea Party?
Often you see paralysis and stagnation and drift. You don't like it, and neither do I. What can we do?
First of all, we must face the truth, and then we can change our course. We simply must have faith in each other, faith in our ability to govern ourselves, and faith in the future of this nation. Restoring that faith and that confidence to America is now the most important task we face. It is a true challenge of this generation of Americans.
One of the visitors to Camp David last week put it this way: "We've got to stop crying and start sweating, stop talking and start walking, stop cursing and start praying. The strength we need will not come from the White House, but from every house in America."
Sadly, the response to that challenge is usually: "You go first!" And when you don't, I will complain about you. Why, after all, is Trump still in this race at all? Why are GOP Senate candidates talking about blocking Clinton's Supreme Court nominees, or impeachment? The only GOP candidate I know of who thinks the impeachment talk is insane is a guy in a very tight race for re-election. Otherwise it's red meat for the base, who wants you to stop talking and crying and cursing, and get in line behind them.
Same as it ever was.
That, however, is democracy. Appealing to the angels of our better nature doesn't fail because we don't have such angels, it fails because we each have our own definitions of what "better nature" means. And "honest answer" almost always means "easy answers," because "honest" is always what you should be, and that will make things easy for me. Democracy, in other words, is not a Sunday school lesson about how we can all get along.
The Presidency is a bully pulpit; but it's not a pulpit. The fact is, in a democracy we don't decide things by agreeing; we decide things by losing. That is putting it plainly, but it is true. We don't decide things by compromise, we decide things by accepting the will of the majority; and, simply from the example of this speech from 37 years ago, we don't do that quietly or even willingly. The Civil War looks contentious because the evil racists didn't accept the inevitability of equality among the races; but we still haven't accepted that today. We didn't accept it when the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were passed; we didn't accept it when the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 or 1964 were passed, or the Voting Rights Act, or even when Dr. King had a dream. We don't even accept the outcome of the Civil War now. We are still fighting the battles of Reconstruction, a century later. But that's what democracy does: the winners prevail, the losers protest.
Donald Trump doesn't understand this: "I said, let me tell you, if I don't win, I will consider it a tremendous waste of time, energy, and money," He doesn't understand that democracy means somebody loses, accepts the will of the majority, and yet remains contentious. Trump won't lead a movement, or challenge the outcome, or destroy our republic. But Carter didn't understand democracy, either.
His speech reveals his motivation. He was inspired by the comments he received; undoubtedly he thought that, if the American public just heard them, they too would be inspired. Instead, though he never used the word, his speech is remembered as the "malaise" speech; the whole thing was reduced to "MEOW." He appealed to the angels of our better nature by calling on us to the less selfish and more caring, and we responded with: "You talkin' to me? You need to talk to THAT other guy!" Precisely the appeal, ironically, of Donald Trump. Trump's appeal is, there's nothing wrong with you, the problems are all caused by those other guys. Carter was appealing to an ideal of democracy; Trump's appeal is based on the idea that democracy is for losers.
There is a reason politicians don't speak more specifically, more definitely, on issues of national concern. Senators and Representatives can throw red meat to their base, because they have a defined constituency; but we still expect them to put national interest above partisan interest when it comes to, say, actually allowing a vote on a Supreme Court (or any Federal court!) nominee. If they spoke more specifically they would do just what Trump has done: they would insult whole groups of voters. That isn't to say they have to lie, or that they should hide their bigotry and chauvinism until they take office, where they can display it privately and in their actions, if not in their public words. But if they speak honestly and bluntly, if they "tell the truth," most people won't like it; won't be motivated by it; may well be motivated against it; and will turn their backs on the speaker.
Or just belittle him, ridicule him, and dismiss him; which is just as bad. The country would have been better off had they taken President Carter's advice to heart; but that was never gonna happen. This is not to say we can't have our moments:
"I'm betting that America will reject a politics of resentment, a politics of blame, and choose a politics that says we are stronger together. I'm betting you will reject fear and choose hope. I'm betting that the wisdom, the decency and generosity of the American people will once again win the day. And that's a bet that I've never, ever lost."Or that we don't need them. But that was a sitting President addressing a partisan crowd, not the entire nation; and telling them they were good, not that they needed to be better.
And, at that moment, I swear to on high, over the tumult of the crowd, the bells in the tower of Independence Hall began to ring. That was quite a thing.
You can lead a horse to water; but you can't make the horse take stock of himself.
*Actually, that acronym was applied to Carter's speech on energy conservation, given two years earlier. That's probably where the person writing the comment got the phrase, and it's a biting irony that Carter would choose to repeat it. As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.