‘What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?’: Jimmy Carter, America’s ‘Malaise,’ and the Speech that Should Have Changed the Country

By Kevin Mattson | Bloomsbury USA | 272 pages, $25

If there is such thing as a national mood, then 1979 found the United States engaged in a prolonged national gloom. Vietnam had crushed our belief in our collective destiny; Watergate had crushed our trust in our leaders to help us rebuild it. The energy crisis—which led politicians of the era to bemoan our, yes, “dependence on foreign oil” in one breath and to extol the urgent need for, yes, “alternative fuels” in the next—manifested itself in rampant inflation, deep recession, and quasi-Darwinian scenes at the gas pump. The Cold War trudged on. The accident at Three Mile Island in the spring of that year solidified the fear that we were, at every moment, one poorly torqued rivet away from nuclear disaster. Indeed, when Apocalypse Now was put into wide release a few months later, the film resonated not just as an agonized depiction of a war whose wounds remained raw, but as an expansive allegory of America itself. Apocalypse was in the air. Or as the historian Kevin Mattson puts it in his latest book: 1979 was “a good year to pronounce the American century dead.”

‘What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?’—the title comes from a headline printed in the New York Post during the heady summer of ’79—is a chronicle of pessimism, a cultural history of the tumultuous twelve months that capped what Tom Wolfe dubbed the “Me Decade.” This was the year in which Looking Out for Number One was a national bestseller; in which a magazine called Self first hit newsstands; in which Charlie’s Angels and hot tubs and mood rings and the self-proclaimed “Modern Day Gomorrah” that was Studio 54 captivated the national imagination; in which the country’s political anxieties broadly manifested themselves, as such anxieties are wont to do, in a queasy blend of arrogance and apathy. A generation earlier, Americans were heeding a president’s call to ask what they could do for their country. By 1979, Mattson suggests, they had gone beyond asking what their country could do for them—they had stopped assuming their country could do much of anything at all.

Among those who looked upon all the excess and ennui with a sense of alarm was the naval-engineer-turned-peanut-farmer-turned-Sunday-school-teacher-turned-politician who had the responsibility (and, it seems, the misfortune) of piloting the nation through the turbulence. Jimmy Carter was in many ways a perfect storm unto himself. And that summer, Mattson suggests, was a time when the moment met the man—when a president whose mind mingled the moralizing nature of a Baptist minister with the steely optimism of a mechanical engineer surveyed the national state of affairs and concluded two things. First: America was broken. And second: he would fix it.

‘What the Heck’ is, finally, the story of Carter’s pragmatic and prismatic (and ultimately quixotic) attempt at salvation: the address he delivered just over thirty years ago, on the evening of Sunday, July 15, 1979. The one we now know, to the extent that we know it at all, as his “malaise” speech.

The most telling aspect of that speech is that it never used the word “malaise.” To be sure, Carter’s address referred to a “crisis of confidence” among the American people. It alluded to a “growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives.” It suggested that the Americans of the late ’70s—a historical moment that Carter advisor Stuart Eizenstat had recently described, with a telling lack of irony, as “the worst of times”—were losing sight of the country’s founding values, devolving instead into a languor of hedonism, materialism, narcissism. Our psychic state, Carter declared, amounted to “a fundamental threat to American democracy.”

“This is not a message of happiness or reassurance,” the president intoned, “but it is the truth, and it is a warning.”

The address Carter delivered was one whose “depth and sophistication,” Mattson notes, “reflect the seriousness of its intellectual inquiry into the nation’s values.” Its rhetoric was vigorous, its ambitions lofty (the speech was penned primarily by Carter’s chief speechwriter at the time, a young dynamo named Hendrick Hertzberg). “Malaise” came only later. Indeed, as Mattson demonstrates, the gloomy term was retroactively fused to Carter’s speech, quickly transforming itself from a phantom limb into an appendage of a rather more parasitic variety. One that quickly began, as all parasites will, to attack its host.

“Our memory of the speech comes from those who reworked it,” Mattson declares—those “who twisted its words into a blunt instrument that helped them depose a president.”

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.