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…
38 years ago, President Jimmy Carter spoke to the nation in an effort to reconcile the will of the people with his own agenda. In the years preceding, America had undergone a radical decline in morale thanks to the War in Vietnam, the assassinations of two Kennedys, Watergate, an Energy Crisis, and inflation. The people were agitated on an account of the inference that their lives were getting worse and that Washington, in its bubble, seemed unwilling to help. The same old story tends to repeat itself throughout history. So why revisit this one?
The short and simple answer is that it so emboldens the contrast in leadership values held between two of the most diametrically opposed leaders of recent history. Carter was a morally-minded, peace-seeking, detail-oriented hard worker who never lied to the American people and Trump is a comic-book villain. In tandem to this however, many of the things said in the famous ‘Crisis of Confidence’ speech still garner interest to people today. Indeed, I would go so far as to assert that it is one of the best speeches that was ever delivered by a president, at least in terms of diagnosing what was wrong with American values then.
It was delivered on July 15 under the context of an Energy Speech. Carter understood he wasn’t exactly popular and that this program needed help. In a somewhat prophetic move, he thus retreated to Camp David and let citizens of all walks of life give him their assessment of his presidency. To many today, this would appear a weak and even pathetic move. I would argue however that a little humility can go a long way in evoking an image of thoughtfulness. Confidence certainly has its place but not when misguided and blinded. Carter, a wise man, didn’t have the audacity to just stupendously ignore the people. He listened to them and did his best to understand their concerns.
… [After] listening to the American people, I have been reminded that all the legislation in the world can’t fix what’s wrong with America.
Many things were and still are wrong with America but back in 1979, Carter pinpointed a growing tendency towards greed and self-indulgence that would prevail in the succeeding decade and thereafter (a time in which Trump’s fortunes inflated beyond any sense of reality). It wasn’t purely a commercial, economic, and political triad of change however, it was one weighing on the consciousness of the American spirit which had always bolstered the idea of going from rags to riches through hard work.
In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God, too many of us tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns.
Carter’s most savage critics sneered that he was piously preaching; even blaming the shortcomings of his administration on the hard-working American people. It’s not too difficult to make this case given the realities of the time. The importance of this speech, regardless, rests on the fact that no other president would ever say such things. As blunt as it may seem, they have always appeased the public with undeserved flattery to save their own skin like Goneril and Regan to King Lear… which brings us back to the mad King.
Can he change? Can he inspire? Can he tell the truth? Going by any interview, biography, or fortune cookie, it would be fair to say that he is a lost cause but we must remember, that other leaders will arise, from the smallest towns to the state capitals to Capital Hill and the White House. We must raise the bar for what we expect from them. Trump-level leadership is not acceptable. Paul Ryan-level leadership isn’t either. Not even George W. Bush, as saintly as he may appear these days, is acceptable. We need to be given a hard slap of reality frequently and not just when election cycles go haywire. America may have fallen off the band wagon altogether in 2016 but those wheels have been rocking for a long time. Of course, Carter called it back then:
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 advancement over others…
The other path is presumably somewhere in Canada.