Recently, some misguided Republicans caucused and advised us all to "get over our nostalgia for Ronald Reagan." Is that what they think it is? With such confusion all around, it's no wonder that some liberals are poised to bring back Jimmy Carter's "malaise."
No kidding. This past weekend, the Washington Post's Carlos Lozada favored us with a long book review in the paper's Outlook section. Lozada finds much to praise in Prof. Kevin Mattson's new book, What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President? It's a lengthy study of President Jimmy Carter's famous-or infamous-speech of July 15, 1979. That's the address to the nation that came to be characterized as "the Malaise Speech" even though Carter never used that word. Prof. Mattson's view is that Carter was right, the country was wrong, and that we really were suffering from malaise. We should have listened to Jimmy, Prof. Mattson maintains.
In 1979, Carter was having more than his share of mid-term and mid-life crises. The economy was in shambles. The Soviets were moving aggressively in Africa and Latin America. A revolution in Iran brought the murderous Mullahs to power.
This was not at all what the young Georgia peanut farmer with the fabulous grin had anticipated when he ran for President in 1976. Then he promised to lead a government "as good as the American people." Coming after the dark period of Lyndon Johnson's credibility gap and Richard Nixon's Watergate resignation, a thoroughly decent President Jerry Ford tripped over his tongue in a crucial debate. Poor Ford said: "There is no Soviet domination in Eastern Europe never will be in a Ford administration." Eastern Europe was not under Soviet domination? No, it was under Soviet tanks! Carter squeaked past the hapless Ford in the Bicentennial Election.
But by summer of 1979, nothing seemed to be going right for the embattled Carter. His approval rating was sinking as the "Misery Index" he'd used so effectively against Ford was turned against him. The Misery Index was a combination of inflation plus unemployment. It was 12.5 under Ford. Candidate Carter, who had invented the Misery Index, charged that no man who had a Misery Index that high had a right to ask for re-election.
That summer of `79, Jimmy Carter's Misery Index was north of 20. Even when Carter went on vacation, troubles stalked him. His press secretary informed the world that the President had had a brush with an "attack rabbit" while white-water rafting in Idaho. Attack rabbit? The world laughed at Carter. Even worse, the world laughed at America.
President Carter went up to Camp David, where he had scored his greatest diplomatic success, and contemplated his plight. He invited scores of leading Americans to come up to the mountain and commune with nature-and with a deeply perplexed President.
When he came down from the mountain, he fired almost his entire Cabinet but kept his young White House aides. "Good grief," cried one senior Democratic Congressman, "he's cut down the tall trees but he's left the monkeys!"
Carter delivered his Malaise Speech on a Saturday night. He warned of a "crisis of confidence" that constituted "a fundamental threat to democracy." Soon, Americans concluded that Carter was simply not up to the job.
When the Iranians took 52 Americans hostage in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, even Walter Cronkite began closing each nightly news broadcast with "the 44th [or 55th or 155th] day of captivity" for our hostages. Ted Koppel's late night news special was titled "America Held Hostage." That's how we felt.
Carter presided over a nation with inflation rampant, with unemployment rising, interest rates were at 19 percent. Young Americans could not buy a home. Older Americans saw their life savings and their fixed incomes evaporating. And everybody cursed the "odd-even" system of gasoline rationing Carter had shackled us with.
This, my fellow Americans, is what academics and the Washington Post want us to appreciate. But they are wrong. The July 15, 1979 speech of Jimmy Carter was no high point in American history. It was a pathetic cry of the heart from a weak and feckless President trying desperately to elect a new people.
Ronald Reagan announced for President that summer. "People who talk about an age of limits are really talking about their own limitations, not America's," he said. If Carter wanted to elect a new people, the people wanted to elect a new President. I thank God they chose Ronald Reagan.
Any Republicans who today call on us to forget about Reagan "nostalgia" miss the point. We must learn from our history. Should we forget what Washington, Jefferson or Lincoln did, or the leadership lessons we can learn from studying Theodore Roosevelt? Liberals certainly have not forgotten the past. The smarter, shrewder liberals are clever enough to invoke FDR or JFK, rather than wax nostalgic over the clear and present danger we faced for four years under Jimmy Carter.
Ken Blackwell is a former US Ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and a senior fellow at the Family Research Council.