What Happens When a President
Really Listens?

Jonathan Alter on Jimmy Carter Ditching Politics for Truth

By spring 1979, energy inflation had driven overall American inflation into double digits, resurrecting grainy images of frantic Germans taking wheelbarrows of cash to the grocery store during the hyperinflation of the Weimar Republic a half century earlier. But gas prices at the pump weren’t high enough to curb consumption. An unwieldy—even absurd—lightly regulated gasoline allocation process meant that rural service stations had plenty, while cities often experienced shortages. Much of the public thought the whole crisis was a hoax perpetrated by greedy oil companies that President Jimmy Carter refused to slap down. One popular sign read: No Gas My Ass.

The first long gas lines appeared in May in California, where motorists hoping to fill up their tanks were told by service stations that they could purchase only a few gallons at a time. By early summer, the shortages had spread across the country. Truckers, idled by crippling shortages of diesel fuel, staged demonstrations in thirty states before launching a strike. They shot out the tires of truckers they viewed as scabs, vandalized fueling stations, and in Levittown, Pennsylvania—a planned community for the middle of the middle class—set off a melee after blocking an intersection where angry suburbanites cheered them on.

After tense meetings, the White House overhauled the gas allocation system and helped settle the truckers’ strike but won almost no credit for its role. Carter appeared in a prime-time NBC News special on the gas lines, offering little beyond hope that decontrolling oil prices would stimulate more production. It was cold comfort.

In June, a month when Carter was mostly out of the country, his poll numbers plummeted into the low 30s. Unlike most other presidents, he had few die-hard supporters outside of the black community to break his fall. After four days in Europe, he returned briefly to Washington before leaving June 23 for a G-7 summit in Tokyo. The highlight of the trip was a meeting with Emperor Hirohito, now an amiable old man who talked easily with the American president about their mutual interest in marine biology and poetry.

Otherwise the summit was most noteworthy for what Carter and his entourage were missing in Washington. “Back home, everything is going down the drain,” Rick Hertzberg, who was traveling with the presidential party, wrote in his journal on June 27. “We are out of touch with the country to a frightening degree. How is it possible that we left on this trip without doing something, anything, any appearance of anything, about the gas lines?”

Congress was asking the same question. When Mondale briefed a bi-partisan group on the Tokyo summit, they told him they were afraid to go home over the Fourth of July recess. That’s how angry their constituents were about the gas lines. “Nothing [has] added so much water to our ship,” Stu Eizenstat, whose portfolio as chief domestic policy adviser included energy, wrote Carter in an impassioned memo delivered to Japan. “Nothing else has so frustrated, confused, angered the American people—or so targeted their distress at you personally.” Eizenstat urged the president to shift the blame to “a clear enemy”: namely, the OPEC cartel.

The Carters were scheduled to stop in Hawaii for a short vacation after the G-7 summit, a chance to revisit their happy navy days there. Over Rafshoon’s objections, the president heeded Eizenstat’s advice and canceled the sojourn. He arrived home on July 2 and went immediately into meetings, barely able to stay awake. Carter was expected to address the nation on July 5 after a day of rest at Camp David. Rafshoon made the mistake of alerting the heads of the three networks, who cleared their prime-time schedules for what they assumed would be a major address about the gas crisis.

The speechwriters realized immediately that for all of Eizenstat’s exhortations, they had nothing fresh to say. Carter had delivered four energy speeches to the nation, each proving less effective than the one before. Rosalynn felt another would be disastrous.

Robert Bellah said the president should forget about politics and tell the American people what he’d promised in his first campaign: The truth.

The president got up early on the Fourth of July and read an updated and much better memo from Caddell with growing excitement. He considered it “one of the most brilliant analyses of sociological and political inter-relationships I have ever seen.”

Caddell’s influence over the Carters had been slowly growing, and by now, he had become “almost a Rasputin,” Jordan recalled. “He was kind of in Carter’s head and in Rosalynn’s head.” At Caddell’s urging, the president decided to cancel his energy speech and let Caddell spend a few days turning his thoughts into the draft of an address. Caddell’s speechwriting technique consisted of ranting aloud and letting a fellow data geek, Wayne Granquist, a talented Office of Management and Budget official, put it in written form.

On a conference call from Camp David, Carter told his senior staff that he did not want to “bullshit the American people.” When Deputy Press Secretary Rex Granum asked what reason he should offer for the change of plans, Carter, sounding petulant, said, “Don’t give an explanation. Just cancel the damn speech.”

The lead story in the July 5 New York Times—“President Cancels Address on Energy; No Reason Offered”—kicked off a feverish guessing game. “What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?” the New York Post asked in a banner headline. When Carter mysteriously stayed at Camp David after the cancellation, rumors spread that he had suffered a nervous breakdown. “President Carter has reached the low point not only of his administration but perhaps of the postwar presidency,” Times columnist Tom Wicker wrote that week. “Mr. Carter’s celebrated cancellation of his energy speech may well have been the worst public relations blunder since Richard Nixon’s ‘Saturday Night Massacre.’” Polls showed the president’s popularity plummeting even lower than in June, with the New York Times/CBS News poll putting his approval rating at 26 percent—as low as Nixon at the bottom of Watergate.

Carter summoned a half dozen senior aides—plus Pat Caddell—to a July 5 meeting at Camp David to discuss Caddell’s draft. The session turned into a conversation about national narcissism, not policy or plans for what Carter would tell the nation. Eizenstat wrote later that he “almost felt I was at a seance, not a serious meeting with the leader of the free world.” He argued that Caddell’s ideas raised expectations of changing the culture the president could not possibly meet, given how resistant energy and inflation were to easy solutions. Rosalynn reiterated that giving the same old speech on energy would be pointless. The others mostly agreed. “You’ve become part of the Washington system,” Rafshoon told the president. “You were elected to kick ass and haven’t.”

Mondale was having none of this. He was apoplectic, so angry that others worried he might have a heart attack. Behind Carter’s back, the vice president had earlier told Eizenstat that Jimmy and Rosalynn must have drunk Pat Caddell’s Kool-Aid, a reference to the poison-laced beverage Jim Jones had made his followers swallow seven months earlier. As a student, Mondale had read some of the same sociology Caddell referenced. It wasn’t relevant, he told Carter. “We got elected on the grounds that we wanted a government as good as its people,” Mondale reminded the group through gritted teeth. “Now, as I hear it, we want to tell them we need a people as good as the government; I don’t think that’s going to sell.” The idea that endless gas lines and horrendously inflated prices for essential household items were only “psychological” problems appalled him. If we question Americans’ “mental stability,” he said, “I think we’re goners.”

The vice president was astonishingly blunt with Carter, considering that others were in the room. He argued that his boss was fatigued and not thinking straight. Then he hit harder. “You have a style problem,” he told the president. “You can’t uplift people.” He wheeled on Caddell to tell him his speech draft was “the craziest goddamn thing I’ve ever read” and his half-baked proposal for a new constitutional convention “the worst idea I’ve ever heard.” The first lady patted the pollster on the knee to comfort him; Caddell—not yet thirty years old—remembered he was “shaking like a leaf ” because the vice president of the United States had just said he was insane. Carter decided to move forward with a speech that addressed Caddell’s themes. Then he rose to take Mondale for a walk around the compound to cool him down. He found his vice president still “quite distraught.” Carter asked for Mondale’s support but did not get it. To appease him, he threw Caddell out of Camp David for a couple of days.

Carter had entered a period of reflection and self-criticism unlike any in the history of the presidency. Years before ritualistic “listening tours” became standard for politicians, he decided he wanted to “reach out and to listen to the voices of America,” as he explained later. The difference was, later politicians asked voters about their problems; Carter already knew what those were. These meetings would be more about his problems—a largely sincere effort to learn how and why he was messing up. It never seemed to occur to the president that the peculiar process he had set in motion might worsen the very problem it was designed to address.

All told, more than 130 leaders from different sectors would chopper to Camp David over the next ten days. The president knew that for political reasons, he would need to make every constituency—labor and business, teachers and preachers—feel heard. The first group, on July 6, consisted of eight governors, followed by “wise men “ John Gardner of the watchdog group Common Cause; Panama negotiator Sol Linowitz; and Clark Clifford, a smarmy fixture of the Washington establishment who appealed to Carter mostly because he had first come to Washington with Truman. Carter sat on the floor of Aspen Lodge, taking notes. “Their criticisms of me were much more severe” than the governors’, he wrote, “including the basic question: Can I govern the country?”

Carter found the meeting with members of Congress unhelpful, and the one with economists “the worst of the week.” In one of the later meetings, he listened attentively to the thirty-two-year-old governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, who struck a characteristically upbeat tone, telling the president, “Don’t just preach sacrifice.” Clinton thought Carter should also remind the American people “that it is an exciting time to be alive.” It was good advice that Carter did not take.

On the evening of July 10, the president—in transition from government engineer to national pastor—finally heard some of the Reinhold Niebuhr–style moral reasoning and spiritual insight that he craved. He gathered clergy from all major denominations to be part of what White House staffers dubbed “the God Squad.” Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum saw Carter as a Moses-like figure returning from the wilderness with a new vision for his people that rejected “unrestrained consumerism” and “mindless self-indulgence.” Robert Bellah, a brilliant sociologist of religion, offered “the covenant model” for creating a sense of mutual obligation on the part of the government and the American people. Others made reference to the long religious tradition of the “jeremiad,” named for the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah, who lambasted his people for worshipping false idols.

They were pushing on an open door. Carter considered this the best meeting of the week. He had grown up with a father who made use of every part of the pig in his stew and punished his children if they didn’t clean their plates. The president loathed shopping and extravagance; he was not a fan of the celebrity worship he felt was typified by People magazine and, in private, he often derided the commercialism and greed he saw throughout corporate America. (This, in an era when CEOs made around fifteen times as much as their average employees; in 2018 they made four hundred times as much.) Carter genuinely believed that Americans should not be let off the hook for the corruption of their values. He told the God Squad that just blaming OPEC for the country’s mood would be “self-righteous,” hypocritical, and ahistorical. In a private preview of the dovish views on foreign policy that would characterize his postpresidency, he informed the group, “We’ve been interfering in OPEC countries’ lives and most other countries’ lives rather heavily for a long time.”

But the president didn’t want to be what Mondale called a “scold” or a “grouch,” either. “How much can the American people take?” he asked Bellah. Now the conversation turned in a direction that Carter found especially helpful. Bellah said the president should forget about politics and tell the American people what he’d promised in his first campaign: The truth. The real truth. The group agreed with Bellah’s advice that Carter become “a teaching president.” Tanenbaum, at Carter’s request, offered a blessing, and the meeting ended with everyone holding hands.

FDR had described the presidency as “preeminently a place of moral leadership,” and this, Carter felt, was the moment for it, the right occasion to “witness” and maybe even redeem.

To meet some of the regular Americans he would ask to make sacrifices, the Carters—with Caddell in tow—ditched the press pool and flew to the Pittsburgh suburb of Carnegie, where they chatted on the porch of William Fisher, a twenty-nine-year-old machinist who had gathered a few friends. Fisher screwed up his courage and told the president the country was on a “downhill spiral.” Carter shocked him by nodding his head in agreement. Back at Camp David, Carter hosted sixteen prominent journalists. Their conflicting reports of his mood—some claimed he seemed emotional, others said he was calm—further heightened the national drama around what was going on with the president.

For ten days, Carter’s team agonized over what should be in the speech. Rafshoon told the president he thought giving Caddell’s version would be “counterproductive, even a disaster.” But Eizenstat’s draft, which stuck mostly to energy policy, was boring. It was up to Rick Hertzberg to take the best of both drafts—plus what he had heard Carter say in the Camp David sessions—and weave them together.

The address the president delivered was actually three speeches in one: he would hold himself accountable for his shortcomings (a section he wrote alone); wrestle with the questions of confidence, community, sacrifice, materialism, and moral obligation first raised by Caddell and turned into moving prose by Hertzberg; and offer a more aggressive plan for confronting the energy crisis, written by speechwriter Gordon Stewart, based on Eizenstat’s policy recommendations.

In the past, Carter often sniped that he would only rehearse speeches as a personal favor to Rafshoon. This one was different. He agreed to be coached by Stewart, a playwright and theater director. The practice sessions took place inside the small Camp David movie theater, which was decked out to resemble the Oval Office, with lights and a teleprompter. Stewart believed Carter’s delivery wasn’t nearly forceful enough to hold an audience. He used an old director’s trick by saying, in essence, “I’m bored. I’m going to get up and start walking toward the door, and I would like to see if you can stop me.” Carter was annoyed at first, but he made his delivery more urgent, adding strong and effective hand gestures.

The president was internalizing the speech, making it his own. FDR had described the presidency as “preeminently a place of moral leadership,” and this, Carter felt, was the moment for it, the right occasion to “witness” and maybe even redeem.

On July 15 the president of the United States addressed an expectant audience of a hundred million Americans in front of a curtain in the Oval Office. The title of the thirty-three-minute speech was “A Crisis of Confidence.” He began by noting that it was exactly three years since he had accepted his party’s nomination and “promised you a president who is not isolated from the people.” But he realized his speeches and press conferences had become “increasingly narrow” and focused on Washington. The country’s problems, he asserted, “are much deeper than gasoline lines or energy shortages, deeper even than inflation or recession.” By this point in the speech, his staff and many viewers noticed his voice modulation and hand movements were much improved. And his lacerating self-criticism—unprecedented from an American president—made for historic television.

“I got a lot of personal advice” at Camp David, he said. “Let me quote a few of the typical comments that I wrote down. This from a southern governor [Richard Riley of South Carolina]: ‘Mr. President, you are not leading this nation—you’re just managing the government.’

“‘You don’t see the people enough anymore.’

“‘Some of your Cabinet members don’t seem loyal. There is not enough discipline among your disciples.’

“‘Don’t talk to us about politics or the mechanics of government, but about an understanding of our common good.’

“‘Mr. President, we’re in trouble. Talk to us about blood and sweat and tears.’

“‘If you lead, Mr. President, we will follow.’”

Carter then read several of the energy-related comments he heard at Camp David and in his visits to the homes of everyday Americans. He ended this unflinchingly honest section with one: “‘When we enter the moral equivalent of war, Mr. President, don’t issue us BB guns.’”

Here Carter moved to the Caddell-inspired part of the speech, which had been revised enough from its original version that Mondale—while still not considering it good—could live with it. After citing the collective American pain of the Kennedy and King assassinations and Watergate, Carter argued that an “invisible” threat—“a crisis of confidence”—“strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will.” The crisis was reflected “in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.”

Here was the president of the United States confronting the American people over their materialism. It was a moment of breathtaking honesty that had no precedent and will almost certainly never be repeated.

It was when the president got to why Americans had lost confidence that he slipped into a sermon from the bully pulpit that was bracing and true but also risky, considering that he was addressing a country full of people who love to shop:

“In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”

Here was the president of the United States confronting the American people over their materialism. It was a moment of breathtaking honesty that had no precedent and will almost certainly never be repeated. Even in tough times, future presidents would stop well short of truly challenging their audiences.

The politics of true candor (as opposed to the mere claim of it) were terrible. Richard Wirthlin, the pollster for Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign, wrote later that when he heard these lines about “self-indulgence” and “consumption,” he knew instantly that Carter had stepped on a “strategic land mine” and that Reagan could beat him. At the moment Carter said, “In a nation that was [Wirthlin’s emphasis] proud of hard work, strong families . . .” the Republican pollster almost fell out of his chair. Even if Carter hadn’t intended to insult Americans, Wirthlin noted, he had succeeded: “How else were voters to feel about a president who spoke about American greatness in the past tense?”

That was a partisan shot that Reagan was already preparing to take, and his sunny optimism would make him the perfect messenger for it. Carter, by contrast, was working in a different vernacular. His form of inspiration sounded more like the civil rights movement than the familiar patriotic patter of presidents. As he said in one memorable passage of the speech:

“One of the visitors to Camp David last week put it this way: ‘We’ve got to stop crying and start sweating, stop talking and start walking, stop cursing and start praying. The strength we need will not come from the White House, but from every house in America.’”

After explaining that there were “two paths” for America—“fragmentation and self-interest” or “common purpose and the restoration of American values”—Carter came to the “pivot,” to policy the speechwriters had worked on for so long. The seams showed, but it was serviceable: “On the battlefield of energy, we can win for our nation a new confidence, and we can seize control again of our common destiny.”

Carter went on to a vivid description of the energy crisis and what to do about it. His action plan sounded strong at the time but has produced mixed results in the years since.* Carter did not shrink from the implications of his plan—“There is simply no way to avoid sacrifice,” he said—but he tried to end on an upbeat note: “Whenever you have a chance, say something good about our country. Let us commit ourselves together to a rebirth of the American spirit. Working together with our common faith, we cannot fail.”

The journalist Theodore White later summarized the reaction: “No president since Abraham Lincoln has spoken with such sincerity to the American people about matters of spirit.”

When the speech ended, Carter’s top aides, watching on TV down the hall in the Roosevelt Room, erupted in cheers. The commentary on the networks was glowing, but Rafshoon noticed that more than one analyst said the president had addressed the “malaise” in the country. He soon learned that Caddell had gone behind his back to brief the networks and reporters beforehand, employing the word, which Rafshoon and the speechwriters had intentionally avoided. By the next day, it was everywhere, even though Carter himself never used it. Within hours, Carter’s eloquent appeal to traditional American values of self-reliance and patriotic self-sacrifice was being interpreted in some quarters as a humorless downer message that blamed the American people for their own problems.

Public reaction was nonetheless enthusiastic. The president had held an adult conversation with voters, and most responded as adults. The White House mail room reported the most letters and telegrams ever received in peacetime. The vast majority of them were positive. Overnight polls showed strong majorities believed the speech inspired confidence and would generate widespread acts of sacrifice. Carter’s job approval ratings surged 11 points, a huge jump, even if his old numbers were so low that this took him up only to the high 30s.

The journalist Theodore White later summarized the reaction: “No president since Abraham Lincoln has spoken with such sincerity to the American people about matters of spirit.” The next day, Carter spoke to thousands of county officials in Kansas City and union members in Detroit, where he won the most rousing ovations of his presidency.

Even habitually skeptical senators like Daniel Patrick Moynihan were impressed. Business and labor leaders across the spectrum backed both Carter’s sense of urgency and his various proposals for energy independence. He even got credit for being positive. “The president’s comments on the mood of America were indeed welcome,” wrote Reginald H. Jones, chairman of General Electric. “As a nation, we’ve had too much negativism.” The heads of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Southern Baptist Convention, and dozens of other churches signed a letter applauding the president’s “call to action” and his willingness to advocate “a return in part to the simplicity that distinguished earlier generations.”

The New York Daily News, the largest-circulation newspaper in the country, called the speech “by far the best formal address [Carter] has delivered as president,” and the Baltimore Sun editorialized, “Suddenly last night, the nation saw an old friend, the man who had won the presidency by appealing to the decency, the faith, and the selfless patriotism of his fellow citizens.” The “sermon” could be historic, the paper said, “if the president uses this moment to bring to the country the sustained leadership that so far has been beyond his grasp.”

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his very best

From His Very Best by Jonathan Alter. Used with the permission of Simon & Schuster. Copyright © 2020 by Jonathan Alter.

Jonathan Alter
Jonathan Alter
Jonathan Alter is an award-winning historian, columnist and documentary filmmaker. An MSNBC political analyst and former senior editor at Newsweek, he is the author of three New York Times bestsellers: The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies; The Promise: President Obama, Year One; and The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope.





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