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.”
His book, Mattson states in a moment of melodrama, is thus not merely a work of history, but also a “presidential murder mystery.” It is an attempt to discover how Carter, whom Hunter Thompson called “one of the most intelligent politicians I’ve ever met,” could end his first and only term in the White House as a political punch line. (And a cruelly enduring one: in a recent episode of The Simpsons, Mattson notes, the citizens of Springfield unveil a statue of a four-fingered President Carter. The words emblazoned upon his likeness? “Malaise Forever.”)
Considering the many parallels Mattson posits between the political realities of 1979 and the political realities of 2009, it will perhaps come as little surprise that chief among the persons of interest the author’s investigation singles out for censure are the members of the national press corps. Sure, Mattson notes, Carter himself shares culpability for the speech’s final failure. Mere days after delivering it, the president asked his entire Cabinet to resign—”the purge,” this was dubbed—causing both economic panic and questions about his mental health. And sure, Republicans and their allies were waiting to pounce on and amplify the president’s every weakness. (Ronald Reagan: “I find no national malaise. I find nothing wrong with the American people.”) But in Mattson’s view, “malaise” owes most of its stubborn stickiness to the press, whose hasty packaging of the political present guides, in turn, the political future.
Summarizing the speech on July 16, the Los Angeles Times declared that Carter had outlined “the moral malaise into which the country had descended.” The über-columnists Evans and Novak suggested that the speech was a “warning of ‘malaise’ in the land.” In The Washington Post, David Broder predicted that the president would continue to address “what he sees as malaise in the country.” All this in light of the fact that, immediately following the speech, White House switchboard operators found themselves overwhelmed by thousands of incoming calls—some 84 percent of them praising the speech, Mattson notes. And that, immediately following the speech, Carter’s approval ratings shot up 11 percent.
While the evidence in Mattson’s “murder mystery” is clear, less so are its means and motive. And perhaps that’s inevitable. Perhaps the conclusions here are obvious, neither requiring nor deserving the dignity of detail. They filter, after all, back to the familiar press pathologies—groupthink, cynicism, a sweet tooth for spectacle—that journalists are accused of so often we risk numbness to their deeper causes through the anesthetic of cliché itself.
About these pathologies, Mattson has little to say beyond the usual bromides. He diagnoses a “lens of cynicism and jadedness” and leaves the matter at that. Still, his book does suggest the danger presented by a press corps that fails to fulfill the pact it makes with history—a failure which amounts to its own “fundamental threat to American democracy.” We are, after all, a nation of words. From Winthrop’s sermons to the Declaration’s summons, from “I Have a Dream” to “Yes, We Can,” we have defined who we are not just according to what we do, but according to what we say. We have known each other—which is to say, we have known ourselves—through language.