A National Malaise Primary Source eText

Primary Source

President Carter signs his energy proposals in the White House in January 1977. AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. President Carter signs his energy proposals in the White House in January 1977. AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Published by Gale Cengage AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.
The energy crisis that hit the United States during the mid-1970s had significant impact on the nation's economy and the public's faith in its leadership. © OWEN FRANKEN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. The energy crisis that hit the United States during the mid-1970s had significant impact on the nation's economy and the public's faith in its leadership. © OWEN FRANKEN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Published by Gale Cengage © OWEN FRANKEN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.

"The Crisis of Confidence"


By: Jimmy Carter

Date: July 15, 1979

Source: Carter, Jimmy. "The Crisis of Confidence," July 15, 1979, delivered in Washington, D.C. The Program in Presidential Rhetoric, Department of Communication, Texas A&M University. Available online at ; website home page http://www.tamu.edu (accessed May 25, 2003).

Notes About the Author: Jimmy Carter (1924–) entered the 1976 presidential race as a relative underdog. During his campaign, Carter emphasized his integrity and presented himself as a moderate Democrat—who would practice fiscal responsibility, while maintaining his party's commitment to social welfare programs. Carter narrowly won the election over incumbent Gerald R. Ford (served 1974–1977) and served one term as the nation's thirty-eighth president. His term was beset by numerous problems and he was defeated in his reelection bid in 1980. Although his presidency was regarded as one of the less successful of the twentieth century, Carter's numerous philanthropic efforts after leaving office earned him the reputation as one of the country's great statesmen. Carter received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.

"Carter at the Crossroads"

Magazine article

By: Hugh Sidey

Date: July 23, 1979

Source: Sidey, Hugh. "Carter at the Crossroads." Time, July 23, 1979, 20, 23–24, 27.

Notes About the Author: Hugh Sidey (1927–) began working for Time in 1958, and in 1969 became the chief of the magazine's Washington bureau. With his unique political access, Sidey was a close associate of several presidents and other national political figures. The article "Carter at the Crossroads" was one of the most revealing portraits of President Carter (served 1977–1981) while in office.


The election of Jimmy Carter to the presidency in 1976 capped the remarkable political rise of a man who described himself as a peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia. Obviously Carter was a shrewd politician, as he had already served as Georgia's governor from 1971 to 1974. Yet his humble demeanor and sincere references to his religious faith contrasted greatly with the image and rhetoric of most politicians. Impressed by his integrity and forthrightness, enough Americans voted for the man once known as "Jimmy Who?" that Carter won the election over incumbent president Gerald R. Ford, and he became the first Democrat to win the White House since Lyndon Johnson (served 1963–1969) in 1964.

Carter faced a number of challenges as he assumed the presidency in January 1977. The nation's economy had never fully adapted to the wild energy price swings that resulted from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) cartel's 1973 oil embargo. As U.S. industries suffered, unemployment climbed and began to seem like a permanent feature of the U.S. economy. Inflation also was a major concern for consumers; although the biggest price hikes came from the energy sector, the effects of rising prices wiped out most workers' wage gains. Economists even coined a new term, "stagflation," to describe the twin impact of rising prices and a recession to describe the dismal prospects that the U.S. economy faced as Carter took office.

Carter was also hampered by the negative mood that gripped many Americans regarding the political system in the post-Watergate era. As the public learned the full

range of the Nixon administration's illegal activities, some Americans became pessimistic about the integrity and honesty of elected officials in general. Combined with the lingering national divisions over the Vietnam War and conflicts over matters of race, gender, and sexual orientation, the American electorate was still deeply divided on the country's future.


As a man of deep and sincere religious faith who refused to separate his principles from his political career, Carter seemed to be an ideal leader to help the nation reconcile in the post-Watergate era. Yet the president's character alone was not enough to bring the nation together. Perceived by some as indecisive and too detail-oriented, Carter struggled to articulate a broad mission for his presidency. On July 15, 1979, he delivered a televised speech that referred openly to the "crisis of confidence" that had taken hold in the nation. Instead of being inspired to renew their civic commitment, however, many Americans derided the speech as unnecessarily downbeat and critical. When Carter decried the materialism of American life, for example, he stood in direct contrast to the rampant consumerism that was the hallmark of the "Me Decade." Such observations might have been appropriate for a social critic, but for a president they came as a shock.

Carter also faced an endless round of political battles during his term in office. His hard work in the Democratic primaries had secured him the presidential nomination in 1976, but his success also deepened some divisions within the party. Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy, one of the most powerful and liberal members of Congress, remained a bitter foe of Carter's and threatened to run against the president in the 1980 primaries. Republicans also painted Carter as a "tax-and-spend" Democrat who failed to mend the economy. Foreign policy conservatives were also disturbed over Carter's agreement to return the Panama Canal back to the Panamanian people, which they saw as a sign of the United States' diminishing reputation around the world.

By the end of his term, Carter's popularity had not recovered sufficiently to win him a second term in office. He lost the 1980 election to Ronald Reagan (served 1981–1989), whose relentlessly optimistic and far-ranging vision of the American nation stood in stark contrast to Carter's "crisis of confidence."

Primary Source: "The Crisis of Confidence"

SYNOPSIS: President Carter delivered this speech in the hope that he would reconnect with the American people and inspire them to shake off the feelings of pessimism that engulfed the country during a time of economic uncertainty and unsettled international relations. Some critics mocked Carter's humility in addressing the American people in such pessimistic terms, and, indeed, his tone contrasted greatly with the opponent he faced in his race for re-election, Ronald Reagan.

Ten days ago I had planned to speak to you again about a very important subject—energy. For the fifth time I would have described the urgency of the problem and laid out a series of legislative recommendations to the Congress. But as I was preparing to speak, I began to ask myself the same question that I now know has been troubling many of you. Why have we not been able to get together as a nation to resolve our serious energy problem?

It's clear that the true problems of our Nation are much deeper—deeper than gasoline lines or energy shortages, deeper even than inflation or recession. And I realize more than ever that as President I need your help. So, I decided to reach out and listen to the voices of America.

I invited to Camp David people from almost every segment of our society—business and labor, teachers and preachers, Governors, mayors, and private citizens. And then I left Camp David to listen to other Americans, men and women like you.

It has been an extraordinary 10 days, and I want to share with you what I've heard. First of all, I got a lot of personal advice. Let me quote a few of the typical comments that I wrote down.…

"Mr. President, we're in trouble. Talk to us about blood and sweat and tears." …

Many people talked about themselves and about the condition of our Nation.…

This kind of summarized a lot of other statements: "Mr. President, we are confronted with a moral and a spiritual crisis." …

I know, of course, being President, that government actions and legislation can be very important. That's why I've worked hard to put my campaign promises into law—and I have to admit, with just mixed success. But after listening to the American people I have been reminded again that all the legislation in the world can't fix what's wrong with America. So, I want to speak to you first tonight about a subject even more serious than energy or inflation. I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy.

I do not mean our political and civil liberties. They will endure. And I do not refer to the outward strength of America, a nation that is at peace tonight everywhere in the world, with unmatched economic power and military might.

The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our Nation.

The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.…

The symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us. For the first time in the history of our country a majority of our people believe that the next 5 years will be worse than the past 5 years. Two-thirds of our people do not even vote. The productivity of American workers is actually dropping, and the willingness of Americans to save for the future has fallen below that of all other people in the Western world.

As you know, there is a growing disrespect for government and for churches and for schools, the news media, and other institutions. This is not a message of happiness or reassurance, but it is the truth and it is a warning.…

Energy will be the immediate test of our ability to unite this Nation, and it can also be the standard around which we rally. On the battlefield of energy we can win for our Nation a new confidence, and we can seize control again of our common destiny.

In little more than two decades we've gone from a position of energy independence to one in which almost half the oil we use comes from foreign countries, at prices that are going through the roof. Our excessive dependence on OPEC has already taken a tremendous toll on our economy and our people. This is the direct cause of the long lines which have made millions of you spend aggravating hours waiting for gasoline. It's a cause of the increased inflation and unemployment that we now face. This intolerable dependence on foreign oil threatens our economic independence and the very security of our Nation. The energy crisis is real. It is worldwide. It is a clear and present danger to our Nation. These are facts and we simply must face them.

Primary Source: "Carter at the Crossroads" [excerpt]

SYNOPSIS: Hugh Sidney wrote this article after spending time with President Carter at Camp David, the country retreat of U.S. presidents. The portrait emphasized Carter's fundamental decency and integrity, but did not shy away from outlining the challenges that confronted his presidency.

In the whole history of American politics, there had never been anything quite like it. As theater, it offered mystery, an aura of crisis, a high moral purpose and a dash of comedy. For six days an eclectic

representation of the American Establishment—Governors, Cabinet members, bankers, insurance executives, professors of sociology, obscure local politicians and even a Greek Orthodox archbishop—gathered in groups in Washington. Marine helicopters ferried them to the mountaintop presidential retreat at Camp David. There Jimmy Carter, outfitted sometimes in blue jeans, at other times in snappy sport coats, pressed them for their ideas about energy, the economy, his own Administration, the national mood—and himself. Toward week's end, while aides were drafting the Sunday-night TV speech that he hoped would rally the nation, the President lent confusion to the proceedings by twice vanishing from his mountain by helicopter to confer with ordinary citizens. Thursday night he descended on the Carnegie, Pa., home of Machinist William Fisher and his wife Bette, and sipped lemonade with their friends on the back porch for 90 minutes. Friday morning he swooped into Martinsburg, W. Va., where he called on Marvin Porterfield, a retired Marine major and disabled veteran of World War II, his wife Ginny and 17 friends and neighbors.

Carter's declared purpose was to renew his contact with the American people, to discover their anxieties and to reassure them of the concern of their chosen leaders. "There has been a lost sense of trust," he told aides, "a loss of confidence in the future." Part of that concern, he inevitably learned, involved the President himself. For some time past, but more sharply this summer, the U.S. has been slipping into a morass of interrelated problems. One is the energy crisis, marked by its gas lines and soaring prices. One is the painful combination of inflation and economic stagnation. One is the widespread perception that Jimmy Carter has seemed unable to make a strong attack on either of the first two.

While the President was at Camp David, his economic advisers made it official: the U.S. is in an inflationary recession. National output, they predicted, will shrink 0.5% this year; prices nonetheless will climb 10.6%, and the number of jobless may grow by 1.3 million, to around 7 million late next year. The inflation is being fanned and the recession worsened by large OPEC oil price boosts that underscore the debilitating U.S. dependence on imported petroleum. Carter was earnestly aware, if the people of the U.S. were not yet, that the nation must find some way to start breaking that dependence if it is to have any chance for long-term, noninflationary economic growth.

But to make headway against these problems, the President realized he also must start overcoming his chief political weakness, his reputation for hesitancy and indecision. Two weeks ago, returning from the Tokyo summit to a nation exasperated by a siege of gas lines, he compounded his difficulties by first scheduling a major policy speech on energy, then abruptly canceling it without a word of explanation. The Camp David summit, which began 48 hours later, represented above all an attempt to start rebuilding an image of purposeful leadership.

In one way it succeeded; many guests came away with new respect and sympathy for Carter. In another it probably would prove unsuccessful: it was unlikely that any Carter speech could live up to the expectations that surrounded his appearance on Sunday night. Ironically, on CBS-TV, the speech preempted a segment of Moses—The Lawgiver, a series that depicts Moses descending from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments.

Carter's Sunday-night goal was to appeal to the national sense of purpose and express confidence that the traditions of self-discipline and determination could solve even the most intractable problems.

Further Resources


Brinkley, Douglas. The Unfinished Presidency: Jimmy Carter's Journey Beyond the White House. New York: Viking, 1998.

Carter, Jimmy. A Government as Good as Its People. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1977.

——. Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President. New York: Bantam Books, 1982.

Carter, Jimmy, with Rosalynn Carter. Everything to Gain: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life. New York: Ballantine Books, 1987.

Drew, Elizabeth. Portrait of an Election: The 1980 Presidential Election Campaign. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981.

Jordan, Hamilton. Crisis: The Last Year of the Carter Presidency. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1982.


"Selected Speeches of Jimmy Carter." Available online at http://carterlibrary.galileo.peachnet.edu/documents/speeche... ; website home page http://carterlibrary.galileo.peachnet.edu (accessed May 25, 2003).