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.

There is pathos, then, in the failure of a speech. There is pathos when a president’s rhetoric proves unable, by its own standards, to take us somewhere better than we were before. And that pathos extends to the press—who in this case, Mattson suggests, served not merely as first-draft historians, but also, in their failure to see beyond the vagaries of the political moment, as agents of stagnation.

In that regard, ‘What the Heck’ is haunted by the specter of its own conditionality. It is the story of a speech that, to downgrade the moralism of Mattson’s title to mere realism, could have changed the country. “Are we so certain that the turn taken was the right one?” Mattson asks. “To remember Jimmy Carter’s speech today allows us to ask that question with the sort of moral import it deserves.”

Indeed, it is that moral space—the space not only between promise and reality, but between the inspiring and obstructive capacity of words themselves—that the press must navigate every day. Journalists must have split loyalties if they are to discharge their duties fairly and well. They must answer both to the present moment and to history—and to both at the same time. ‘What the Heck’ is, in the end, a sober reminder of all that is at stake in that paradox, and of what can go wrong when the press surrenders itself to the caprice of the instant. Mattson’s is not a message of happiness or reassurance. But it is the truth, and it is a warning.

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