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Imagine this situation: there's no oil. There are no jobs, no hope, and no confidence that things can get better.
Yeah, we know: it sounds like something out of Mad Max. But before you call Imperator Furiosa or reach for a pair of leather chaps and a flamethrower, you should know that this is not a Hollywood screenplay, but an actual historical crisis that threatened the U.S. in the late 1970s.
That's almost as bad as Immortan Joe.
The year is 1979, and President Jimmy Carter is facing a crisis. OPEC, or the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries has increased the price of oil yet again. Soaring prices lead to crippling shortages as Americans find themselves waiting in long lines to fill up their tanks.
And people get angry. Very angry.
Just think how much you hate waiting…and now imagine waiting hours for something as essential as gasoline. And remember, this is 1979—well before the age of smartphones and tablets, so desperate drivers couldn't even kill time by playing Candy Crush or refreshing their Twitter feeds.
These gasoline shortages weaken an already feeble U.S. economy. Feeling the singe of public frustration, Jimmy Carter invites citizens from all walks of life to speak their minds about life in an America burdened by recession, inflation and unemployment. The result of these meetings forms the basis of what is perhaps the defining speech of the president's administration.
The "Crisis of Confidence" speech functions as something of a departure from Carter's usual rhetoric. (Source) Although it outlines the need to reduce America's dependence on foreign oil—something he'd done whopping four times before—it also included something else, something which the President felt to be at the core of the country's problems.
Before launching into specific policy proposals, Carter explained what he saw as a more pressing issue confronting the nation, more pressing than long lines at the gas pump, more pressing even than unemployment or recession: confidence.
Carter expressed his frustration over what he felt to be a lack of confidence among the American people, a lack of commitment to hard work and perseverance, over what he saw as an overall decline in American values. He summarized this sense of overriding pessimism by declaring that:
[…] for the first time in the history of our country a majority of people believe that the next five years will be worse than the past five years. (35)
He concluded the speech with an attempt to instill this missing confidence into the American people, urging them, whenever they have the chance, "to say something good about our country" (75).
The effectiveness of this presidential cheerleading was mixed at best. And much like much like a cheerleader, his approval ratings took a tumble. Unlike with cheerleaders, however, the kind of tumbling we're talking about here drew far fewer cheers.
In fact, the speech drew considerable jeers from many Americans short on cash and down on their luck. To many, the speech sounded like the President was pointing the finger at them for not working hard enough or not conserving gasoline enough. In fact, the speech sounded a lot like blame. Lasting anger over these words, coupled with the Iranian hostage crisis a few months later, would oust Jimmy Carter from the presidency, replacing the Georgian with a charismatic former-actor from California, Ronald Reagan. (Source)
In short, the speech backfired.
Carter was trying to inspire and trying to rally a people behind what he saw as the great moral crisis of a generation. But instead of playing the role of starting quarterback, leading his team to victory, Carter may as well have been a substitute teacher giving a math test on differential equations. His points, according to the American people, just didn't add up.
The speech was branded as a buzz-kill, an exercise in navel-gazing—it was even dubbed the "Malaise Speech." And like those leftovers living in the back of your fridge, Carter's relationship with the American people went bad.
It's happened to all of us, that moment when our friend/girlfriend/boyfriend/person-that-we-have-a-crush-on asks us a seemingly innocent, yet potentially deadly question: "Does this outfit make me look ugly?"
Wherever the truth of the matter lies, we instinctively know to respond to "No," to assert how fit/beautiful/handsome the outfit makes the asker look. The reason for this is simple: the truth, even if it's not that harsh, can be a hard pill to swallow.
And somebody should have told Jimmy Carter that.
In his speech, President Carter doesn't call the American people ugly, but let's just say his "No" response isn't as convincing perhaps as it could have been. He urges the American people to tighten their belts, to make sacrifices in the name of patriotism. And he does so at a time of great hardship and frustration among the American people.
So if you want to know what consequences might come from speaking your mind, read on. If you want to learn what happens when a President leaves the safety of scripted talking points, read on. If you've ever wondered why politicians seem hesitant to "just give it to us straight," read on.
Read on, because the lessons from Jimmy Carter's "Crisis of Confidence" speech offer a fascinating window into the role that truth, honesty, and frankness play in the American political landscape.
And they said it was a failure…
Below is a link to an interesting Washington Post article which contends that Jimmy Carter's so-called "Malaise Speech" was actually more popular than commonly believed.
It's getting hot in here…
Below is an interesting link connecting Carter's warnings in his "Crisis of Confidence" speech to the ongoing discussion about climate change.
Jimmy Carter: Man from the Plains
Here's an interesting film about some of the causes Jimmy Carter has taken up after the presidency, particularly tensions in the Middle East, peace efforts for which earned him the Nobel Prize.
Although not technically about the "Crisis of Confidence" speech, this movie deals directly with the defining event of the Carter presidency: the Iranian revolution and subsequent hostage crisis. Plus, it won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
YOLO: A Life of No Regrets
In an interesting interview with the Huffington Post, an 86-year-old Jimmy Carter looks back on his presidency, the ups and the downs, and reflects on what he might have done (or not done) differently.
Yeah, but what about issues going on today?
In this interesting article, which provides readers a transcript of a one-on-one interview with Jimmy Carter, the former president waxes eloquently about some modern, hot-button topics, including the Confederate flag, same-sex marriage, and racism.
Energy Grudge Match: This Time it's Presidential…
Here's an interesting article, in which former President Jimmy Carter gives some advice to Barack Obama on energy policy, and how to sell the American people on it.
Have "Confidence" in this Video
Below is a link to the full video broadcast of Jimmy Carter's "Crisis of Confidence" speech.
In a Nutshell
Below is an info-packed video analyzing the legacy of Jimmy Carter's political life during and after the presidency. Bonus: it's only three minutes long.
Mr. Rogers' Energy Policy
In a precursor to the "Crisis of Confidence" speech, newly-elected President Carter outlines his legislative goals regarding energy independence. Plus, check out the awesome fireplace and sweet cardigan.
Jimmy Carter: A Smorgasbord of Speeches
Santa Barbara's American Presidency Project has a search function on the bottom of their main page. If you search for Jimmy Carter's oral remarks, you'll find hundreds of Carter's speeches, ranging from topics like energy to the Middle East, arranged chronologically from the start of his presidency to the end.
Jimmy Carter: Second Helpings at the Speech Buffet
Here are clips from a variety of presidential addresses, from interviews and speeches to reports and book promotions.
The Commander Calls out the Crisis
This image shows Jimmy Carter delivering his "Crisis of Confidence" speech.
Commander in Chief Jimmy "Mr. Rogers" Carter
Sporting a sweet cardigan, Jimmy Carter here is delivering one of many speeches to the nation about energy policy.
Out of Gas
Signs like this were commonplace during the oil shortage, as rising prices reduced the amount of oil that could be imported.
Long Lines at the Gas Pump
When there was gas, long lines like this disrupted life as usual in America.