I’ve been reading and listening to Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech to the nation, delivered a week after the president abruptly canceled an Independence Day talk on the energy crisis. There was no same-day television where I was at the time, so I only picked up on what Carter was saying after the fact.
“It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will,” Carter said. He moved beyond increasing calls for energy frugality to the many ways in which we’d become a selfish nation, mesmerized by our wants. “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.”
Speaking in platitudes, the president eschewed his famously awkward smile for a grim recitation of the many ways we’d drifted from a nation “proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God,” to a place where “too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.”
“This is not a message of happiness or reassurance, but it is the truth and it is a warning,” Carter started to conclude. “We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.”
The alternative, the president added, was a far-reaching series of conservationist promises tied to energy, a weaning of the nation from oil, and a renewed sense of national sacrifice. Such moves, and the work involved, would serve to lift the American spirit.
The speech startled people, yet was swept into a pile of negatives that included Carter’s “swamp rabbit incident” of that same year, the Iranian hostage mess, an attack from the left by Camelot heir Teddy Kennedy, and the rise of Ronald Reagan’s simplistic sunniness to make for a single-term presidency.
I hear it all now from a personal place. I, too, sometimes run out of steam. My soul dips and dives toward melancholy. Any question becomes a threat. All edits and criticisms feel like shiv thrusts. The pandemic is a crisis only because we don’t know how to address death. If only everything could change…
But then I realize it does or doesn’t change, largely dependent on elements beyond all control.
Which makes ex-president Carter’s speech of 41 years ago that much rarer. And oddly inspiring in the ways by which recognition can always become cathartic.
Read more installments of Village Voices by Paul Smart.