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In 1979, in an effort to right our national malaise, Jimmy Carter delivered a speech that risked his reputation and the future of the Democratic Party, changing the course of American politics for the next twenty-five years. At a critical moment in Jimmy Carter's presidency, he gave a speech that should have changed the country. Instead it led to his downfall and ushered i In 1979, in an effort to right our national malaise, Jimmy Carter delivered a speech that risked his reputation and the future of the Democratic Party, changing the course of American politics for the next twenty-five years. At a critical moment in Jimmy Carter's presidency, he gave a speech that should have changed the country. Instead it led to his downfall and ushered in the rise of the conservative movement in America. In "What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?" Kevin Mattson gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the weeks leading up to Carter's "malaise" speech, a period of great upheaval in the United States: the energy crisis had resulted in mile-long gas lines, inciting suburban riots and violence; the country's morale was low and Carter's ratings were even lower. The administration, wracked by its own crises, was in constant turmoil and conflict. What came of their great internal struggle, which Mattson conveys with the excitement of a political thriller, was a speech that deserves a place alongside L incoln's Gettysburg Address or FDR's First Inaugural. Prominent politicians on both sides of the aisle play important roles, including Carter, Vice President Walter Mondale, speechwriter Hendrik Hertzberg, Ronald Reagan, and Ted Kennedy. Like the best of narrative political writing, Mattson provides great insight into the workings of the Carter White House and the moral crisis that ushered in a new, conservative America.


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In 1979, in an effort to right our national malaise, Jimmy Carter delivered a speech that risked his reputation and the future of the Democratic Party, changing the course of American politics for the next twenty-five years. At a critical moment in Jimmy Carter's presidency, he gave a speech that should have changed the country. Instead it led to his downfall and ushered i In 1979, in an effort to right our national malaise, Jimmy Carter delivered a speech that risked his reputation and the future of the Democratic Party, changing the course of American politics for the next twenty-five years. At a critical moment in Jimmy Carter's presidency, he gave a speech that should have changed the country. Instead it led to his downfall and ushered in the rise of the conservative movement in America. In "What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?" Kevin Mattson gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the weeks leading up to Carter's "malaise" speech, a period of great upheaval in the United States: the energy crisis had resulted in mile-long gas lines, inciting suburban riots and violence; the country's morale was low and Carter's ratings were even lower. The administration, wracked by its own crises, was in constant turmoil and conflict. What came of their great internal struggle, which Mattson conveys with the excitement of a political thriller, was a speech that deserves a place alongside L incoln's Gettysburg Address or FDR's First Inaugural. Prominent politicians on both sides of the aisle play important roles, including Carter, Vice President Walter Mondale, speechwriter Hendrik Hertzberg, Ronald Reagan, and Ted Kennedy. Like the best of narrative political writing, Mattson provides great insight into the workings of the Carter White House and the moral crisis that ushered in a new, conservative America.

30 review for "What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?": Jimmy Carter, America's "Malaise," and the Speech that Should Have Changed the Country

  1. 5 out of 5

    Anthony Bergen

    (Review originally posted on Dead Presidents) "What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?":  Jimmy Carter, America's "Malaise," and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country By Kevin Mattson Paperback. 263 pages. 2009. Bloomsbury USA "I just don't want to bullshit the American people."  That was what President Jimmy Carter told aides and speechwriters as he prepared to give his fifth national speech from the Oval Office about the energy crisis that paralyzed the United States in July 1979.  As (Review originally posted on Dead Presidents) "What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?":  Jimmy Carter, America's "Malaise," and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country By Kevin Mattson Paperback. 263 pages. 2009. Bloomsbury USA "I just don't want to bullshit the American people."  That was what President Jimmy Carter told aides and speechwriters as he prepared to give his fifth national speech from the Oval Office about the energy crisis that paralyzed the United States in July 1979.  As Carter thought about his speech, he realized that the crisis was deeper than gasoline lines and a dependence on foreign oil; there was a "crisis of confidence" in the nation's psyche.  So, President Carter gave a remarkable, candid, honest speech ("This is not a message of happiness or reassurance, but it is the truth and it is a warning.")  Journalists quickly tagged Carter's July 15, 1979 address as the "malaise" speech, even though Carter never once used the word "malaise". Kevin Mattson's "What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?":  Jimmy Carter, America's "Malaise," and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country (2009, Bloomsbury USA) is more than a book with a interminably long title and it is more than a book about a speech.  It is a look at the country and the condition it was in in 1979 which led to the President of the United States making an extraordinary speech in which he basically chastised the American people and challenged them to do better. To be sure, I learned some things from Mattson's book.  I learned that the "crisis of confidence"/"malaise" speech was not unpopular when President Carter gave it.  In fact, Carter's popularity -- which had been cellar-dwelling for quite some time -- shot up 11 points in the immediate aftermath of the speech and messages to the White House reported widespread support.  For a long time, the speech was an infamous misfire for Carter and his Presidency, but it was actually Carter's firing of most of his Cabinet two days later which cost him whatever chances he might have still had of re-election in 1980.  The speech helped the people feel like Carter was finally taking control of his Administration and leading his country, but the Cabinet firings made everyone feel that Carter was aimless in his direction and recklessly blaming of others. My problem with Mattson's book (besides the title) is that it is somewhat reminiscent of the problems with Jimmy Carter's Presidency.  Mattson, like Carter, knows what he is doing and he knows his subject matter.  The problem, however, lies in the fact that the book tends to be all over the place -- something which is actually difficult to do in just 206 pages.  In the book, Mattson quotes a former Carter speechwriter, James Fallows, who wrote that "I came to think that Carter believes fifty things, but no one thing."  To steal that phrase and rework it, I came to think that Mattson's book tried to focus on fifty things, but no one thing.  If this book was just about the speech, the reasons behind the speech, and the country's reaction to the speech, then it is the perfect length.  Unfortunately, the book tries to spotlight numerous incidents, situations and personalities, and because of it's brevity and lack of depth, it accomplishes none of that. Here's what did interest me about "What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?":  Jimmy Carter, America's "Malaise," and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country:  I've criticized Jimmy Carter a lot on Dead Presidents and I don't think that he was a very good President.  However, the most amazing thing about the "crisis of confidence"/"malaise" speech of July 15, 1979 is that Jimmy Carter was right.  What Jimmy Carter said in 1979 would completely fit this country's mood today.  The United States, at that time and presently, faced a perfect storm of American imperfection: self-obsession, greed, materialism, divisive politics, a lack of faith in politicians and government, and, yes, malaise.  Carter warned, as he did throughout most of his Presidency, of the dangers of our dependence on foreign oil and tried to find ways to combat that.  Carter's speech, really, is the highlight of his Presidency.  If you want to learn about that speech, Kevin Mattson can tell you about it.  I just think this is a tough subject to write about and Jimmy Carter isn't exactly a fascinating figure.  Mattson does his best, but it's not a fun subject and it's not a fun read.  Mattson is a distinguished historian and his book taught me numerous things about Jimmy Carter, the times that Carter presided over, and the truth about the "crisis of confidence" speech.  Sadly, though, I have to admit that this 206-page book (with an appendix that includes Carter's speech and extensive end notes which stretches it to 262 pages) took me five days to read.  It wasn't that it was a difficult read; I just felt...well...I felt "malaise". You can find Kevin Mattson's "What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?":  Jimmy Carter, America's "Malaise," and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country at your local bookstore, Amazon, and many other places online. And, let me stress that Kevin Mattson is a very good historian who tackled a difficult subject with this book.  I highly recommend checking out his book Intellectuals In Action: The Origins of the New Left and Radical Liberalism, 1945-1970.  Mattson also has a personal blog and contributes to Dissent Magazine.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Adam

    I like Jimmy Carter. I really like him. I've even been known to describe him as the best American president. So I expected to like Kevin Mattson's new book about Carter's famous "crisis of confidence" speech. It's got all of its credentials in order: an author who publishes widely in journals of public opinion, a blurb from Michael Kazin, and relevance to the current political situation. Unfortunately, What The Heck Are You Up To, Mr President? falls flat in a number of ways. Mattson studied unde I like Jimmy Carter. I really like him. I've even been known to describe him as the best American president. So I expected to like Kevin Mattson's new book about Carter's famous "crisis of confidence" speech. It's got all of its credentials in order: an author who publishes widely in journals of public opinion, a blurb from Michael Kazin, and relevance to the current political situation. Unfortunately, What The Heck Are You Up To, Mr President? falls flat in a number of ways. Mattson studied under Christopher Lasch, one of the intellectuals whom Carter brought to the White House to discuss the mounting problems America faced in 1979, and it shows. Mattson is at his best when outlining the cultural milieu of Carter's speech - gas riots, trucker strikes, Studio 54 and Disco Demolition Night - and does a good job of explaining various administration members' responses to contemporary problems. While he employs a broad range of magazines, newspapers, memoirs, and other sources to explain these particulars, his broader analysis is heavily reliant on secondary literature and, consequently, lacking in nuance. Perhaps the most telling problem in the book is its awkwardness. Mattson employs an affected novelesque narrative style, which seems intended to make for a more engaging read, but is distracting more often than it is enveloping. More important (and more substantial), however, is the clumsiness with which he compares Carter to Reagan - a fumbling treatment that descends both from his use of John Patrick Diggins's work on Reagan and from his own disorientation when dealing with the complex phenomenon of American evangelicalism. Carter, Mattson argues, was a Niebuhrian, convinced of the imperfectibility of humanity; the "crisis of confidence" speech employed (at Robert Bellah's urging) the "American language of covenant" first used by the Puritans. Reagan, in contrast, was a triumphalist who employed the language of ascendant evangelicals; however, much of the evidence Mattson rallies in defense of his portrayal of Reagan echoes the very language Carter used. (At one point, Mattson quotes Reagan's first inaugural address - in which Reagan used a pastiche of the Oath of the Athenian City-State and John Winthrop's "city upon a hill" sermon - as an example of marked difference between the two.) While Mattson's broader claims concerning the differences between Reagan and Carter are probably correct, they are presented in a similarly muddled and imprecise fashion throughout the book. Mattson clearly wants his reader to take two things away from this book: first, parallels between the Carter/Reagan election and contemporary party politics; second, the importance of political savvy and public relations expertise to convincing the American people to take the right course of action. (I lost count of the number of times he referred to Carter as "misunderstanding" or being "unaware" of some phenomenon that would later lead to Reagan's victory.) While the first is relatively innocuous and unsurprising, the second betrays a socio-political perspective uncomfortably close to the most hackneyed Fox News caricatures of liberalism, in which governmental action of some sort is part of the answer to every problem, and northeastern bluebloods are a necessary part of any governmental action. For such a critique to be levelled against a book on Carter, who, after all (as Mattson acknowledges), spent much of his presidency in direct opposition to New England liberal poster-child Ted Kennedy, would be unfortunate, but with Mattson's book, it's likely.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Matthew

    Really fast read. Much of the Carter administration seems like something Americans store in a repressed state in the deepest pits of their mind. The oil crisis accompanied by the Iran hostage situation, the 70s era of disco and self-love, Vietnam's shadow: all of these things add up to a seemingly impossible segment of American history, especially since Americans bend over backwards to accommodate the Reagan brand name. Where the **** did Lyndon Johnson go? I liked the book because it gave a real Really fast read. Much of the Carter administration seems like something Americans store in a repressed state in the deepest pits of their mind. The oil crisis accompanied by the Iran hostage situation, the 70s era of disco and self-love, Vietnam's shadow: all of these things add up to a seemingly impossible segment of American history, especially since Americans bend over backwards to accommodate the Reagan brand name. Where the **** did Lyndon Johnson go? I liked the book because it gave a really nice account of who Carter was and what the speech he was trying to give was directed at. In all honesty it really tempered my view of him, and Mattson is incredibly sympathetic to him. My favorite part had to be a section near the middle when it briefly digressed into a comparison between Carter's appeal to John Wayne and Reagan's appeal to John Wayne. It was incredibly telling, and great thinking. "So Reagan could get on the radio at the end of June and seize Wayne's memory for his own, ensuring listeners that the actor was about what you saw on the screen. Wayne was a tough guy who refused sedatives at the end of his life, Reagan pointed out. Reagan's intention, more than Carter's, was to erase the divide between reality and image." While I am always a fan of living to fulfill one's dreams, I think Carter's sober call to arms in his "crisis of confidence" speech is ten times more important for Americans to hear than Reagan's "everybody get on board the Dream train" attitude. But we have the special privilege today to pick and choose what we hear, and how we hear the things we are forced to hear. While overly moralistic for my taste, Carter really wasn't so bad. A pretty good president, and has done more than you could ever ask of any other citizen.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Mark Taylor

    Jimmy Carter had a difficult presidency. During his four years in office, he battled rising unemployment and rising inflation at the same time, an economic oddity called stagflation. He suffered through the Iran hostage crisis, and while he was ultimately able to secure the release of the hostages, they weren’t freed until minutes after Ronald Reagan had taken the oath of office, as a final “fuck you” from Iran to Carter. He had to deal with the 1979 energy crisis, which caused long lines at the Jimmy Carter had a difficult presidency. During his four years in office, he battled rising unemployment and rising inflation at the same time, an economic oddity called stagflation. He suffered through the Iran hostage crisis, and while he was ultimately able to secure the release of the hostages, they weren’t freed until minutes after Ronald Reagan had taken the oath of office, as a final “fuck you” from Iran to Carter. He had to deal with the 1979 energy crisis, which caused long lines at the gas pump for many Americans. To top it all off, he once collapsed while jogging, and was attacked by a vicious swimming rabbit. Historian Kevin Mattson takes us back to those difficult days during the summer of 1979 in his 2009 book, “What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?” Jimmy Carter, America’s “Malaise,” and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country. In the book, Mattson chronicles one of the many odd events of the Carter presidency, Carter’s famous “crisis of confidence” speech of July 15, 1979. The July 15th speech would forever after be branded the “malaise” speech by the press, even though Carter never used the word “malaise” in the speech. Malaise is a general feeling of being unwell, often as a first sign of illness. It can also mean “a vague sense of mental or moral ill-being,” according to Webster’s. The days leading up to Carter’s “crisis of confidence” speech were highly unusual in the annals of the presidency. After returning from a global summit in Tokyo, Carter canceled a speech on energy that was scheduled for July 5th, and holed up at Camp David with his closest advisors for ten days. While at Camp David, Carter invited many prominent Americans to visit with him and figure out how he could get the country back on track. When Carter re-emerged, he delivered the “crisis of confidence” speech in a nationwide address on July 15th. Carter’s speech was a remarkably honest assessment of the United States at the time. Carter spoke of a “crisis of confidence” in America. In one of the best moments of the speech, Carter said, “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.” Carter also spoke honestly about how the nation still hadn’t healed from the shock of Vietnam and Watergate. “We were taught that our armies were always invincible and our causes were always just, only to suffer the agony of Vietnam. We respected the presidency as a place of honor until the shock of Watergate.” In the second half of the speech, Carter laid out an ambitious energy agenda to combat the growing energy crisis. Carter said, “There are no short-term solutions to our long-range problems. There is simply no way to avoid sacrifice.” Although today Carter’s speech is remembered as a flop, at the time it was very positively reviewed by the press and the public. The good news for Carter was that his approval rating went up 11 points overnight. The bad news was that his approval rating went from 26% to 37%. Carter’s mistake wasn’t in giving the speech; his mistake was following it up two days later with demanding the resignation of his entire cabinet. That shook people’s confidence in the Carter presidency and made people forget the speech. Carter’s presidency looked like a mess. In his book, Mattson focuses only on the few months leading up to Carter’s July 15th speech. Mattson paints a vivid portrait of the Carter White House and America during the summer of 1979. He brings little-known incidents to the forefront to show how the gas crisis seriously affected parts of America. Mattson gives us a glimpse of the varied personalities operating inside the Carter White House, and shows how Carter was pulled in different directions by different staffers. Mattson also tells of Vice President Walter Mondale’s existential crisis during May of 1979, as Mondale briefly considered resigning. Mondale realized that his resignation would only be more fodder for the press to attack Carter’s presidency, and so he stayed on. Mattson’s writing style is for the most part clear and easy to read, but it occasionally becomes awkward and in need of a better editor. Here’s one example: “It was especially eerie to note how Ted Kennedy’s life followed that of his brother Robert: They had both been mediocre undergraduates at Harvard and law students at the University of Virginia.” (p.77) So Bobby and Ted going to the same colleges 8 years apart is eerie? Not really, especially when you consider that the Kennedy brothers were pre-ordained from birth to go to Harvard. It’s an example of sloppy writing that should have been fixed. Jimmy Carter is a great man, and his post-presidential career has easily been the most successful of any former president. During his presidency, Carter worked relentlessly to solve intractable problems to which there were no easy solutions. He was a smart and gifted man who very well could have been a successful president under different circumstances. Carter’s genuine humility is always on display in Kevin Mattson’s book, and Mattson shows us why Jimmy Carter was such a unique president, if not a very successful one.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Margot Friedman

    Can Any President Unite Us? I picked up “’What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?’: Jimmy Carter, America’s ‘Malaise,’ and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country” by Kevin Mattson because I wanted to be reminded that I had lived through times as bad as the current ones. I was 16 years old when President Carter made his “malaise” speech. My first experience of driving included waking up at 5 a.m. to get in the gas lines. After 9-11, President Bush missed the opportunity to call for sh Can Any President Unite Us? I picked up “’What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?’: Jimmy Carter, America’s ‘Malaise,’ and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country” by Kevin Mattson because I wanted to be reminded that I had lived through times as bad as the current ones. I was 16 years old when President Carter made his “malaise” speech. My first experience of driving included waking up at 5 a.m. to get in the gas lines. After 9-11, President Bush missed the opportunity to call for shared sacrifice in service to a larger goal. Instead, he famously told Americans to go shopping. When President Obama announced that he was sending an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, he assured us that we wouldn’t have to contribute to the effort. No tax to pay for the war. No draft. Not even a call for volunteers to relieve soldiers of their fourth or fifth tours of duty. When voters elected Barack Obama, many were counting on his pledge to unite the country. Like Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame, America enjoyed its 15 minutes of unity. Today, the country is as polarized as ever. If modern presidents are afraid to call upon the better angels of our natures, they have learned the wrong lessons of history. In July, 1979, President Carter delivered a brilliant speech that: 1) laid out a prescient point-by-point plan to break the country’s dependence on foreign oil; and 2) called Americans to come together to achieve that shared vision. He never used the word “malaise,” but the President correctly diagnosed the problem: “You often see a balanced and fair approach that demands sacrifice, a little sacrifice from everyone, abandoned like an orphan without support and without friends.” He knew we were better than self-indulgence and consumerism: “We are the heirs of generations who survived threats much more powerful and awesome than those that challenge us now. Our fathers and mothers were strong men and women who shaped a new society during the Great Depression, who fought world wars, and who carved out a new charter of peace for the world … And we are the generation that will win the war on the energy problem and in that process rebuild the unity and confidence of America.” As Professor Mattson reports, after President Carter finished the speech, thousands of Americans called the White House. Eighty-four percent of them supported what the President said. His approval ratings rose 11 percent overnight. In the weeks that followed, mail poured into the White House, and 85 percent of it was positive. Unlike the way history remembers the speech, Americans actually embraced the President’s message and were ready to change under his leadership. So what happened? The communications department did its job, but President Carter sabotaged himself, lost the goodwill he had gained, and set the stage for Ronald Reagan’s rise. Two days after the speech, President Carter asked for the resignations of his entire cabinet. The President’s domestic critics questioned his mental health and rumors spread around the globe that the American government had collapsed. As “Time” summed it up: “The President basked in the applause for a day and then … he set in motion his astounding purge, undoing much of the good he had done himself.” The lesson for American presidents is not to back down from challenging us to sacrifice in furtherance of our common good. The lesson is to follow up speeches with action. ###

  6. 4 out of 5

    David Bales

    An excellent retelling of the events of 1979 built around President Carter's so-called "malaise speech" of July 15th in that year that has been remembered somewhat differently than it was then. Carter's "disaster year" is chronicled month by month, (oil shortages, gaslines, inflation, unemployment, Nicaragua and then Iran) as the president's administration seems to unravel from within, beset by anger on both left and right. Jimmy Carter was a fiscal conservative who enraged the left wing of the An excellent retelling of the events of 1979 built around President Carter's so-called "malaise speech" of July 15th in that year that has been remembered somewhat differently than it was then. Carter's "disaster year" is chronicled month by month, (oil shortages, gaslines, inflation, unemployment, Nicaragua and then Iran) as the president's administration seems to unravel from within, beset by anger on both left and right. Jimmy Carter was a fiscal conservative who enraged the left wing of the Democratic party and yet was rejected by the right for his foreign policy and willingness to negotiate with the Soviet Union. I lived through it but enjoyed reading about it again. Carter was an unconventional, strange, taciturn, difficult to read and almost mystical president, part preacher and hardly a politician, (which is perhaps why he failed). One thing is for sure: his presidency--particularly in 1979--has been used since as a template for what NOT to do in many situations.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Benjy

    I realized reading through this book how little I know about the Carter era -- Reaqan gets a ton of coverage these days and I've always been fascinated by Nixon, but it feels like Carter has kind of been lost to history as a lousy transitional president that no one remembers too fondly. Mattson's book is technically about the famous "malaise" speech, but is more about the horrifying moment that was 1979, when the economy was being destroyed by a gas crisis and, by Mattson's account, society had I realized reading through this book how little I know about the Carter era -- Reaqan gets a ton of coverage these days and I've always been fascinated by Nixon, but it feels like Carter has kind of been lost to history as a lousy transitional president that no one remembers too fondly. Mattson's book is technically about the famous "malaise" speech, but is more about the horrifying moment that was 1979, when the economy was being destroyed by a gas crisis and, by Mattson's account, society had devolved into vapid narcissism and disco-dancing. It's pretty fascinating, if somewhat depressing, to get caught up on the time period and goes a long way in explaining how Reagan was so appealing when he ran in 1980 and how his popularity has endured for so long among the generation that came of age then.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Bruce Thomas

    This book did a great job of returning me to the late 1970's in many ways. Very good and in-depth story of the Carter speech that many call the "Malaise" speech, even though that word was not even used in his address. Showed Jimmy Carter at his most un-political behavior with his consultation of multiple people of various professions and religions in attempting to define the nation and the road ahead. The book could have had some pictures and the actual speech should have been placed in the main This book did a great job of returning me to the late 1970's in many ways. Very good and in-depth story of the Carter speech that many call the "Malaise" speech, even though that word was not even used in his address. Showed Jimmy Carter at his most un-political behavior with his consultation of multiple people of various professions and religions in attempting to define the nation and the road ahead. The book could have had some pictures and the actual speech should have been placed in the main text, not in the appendix - but otherwise, I liked it.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Christopher Mcdermott

    Balanced view of Carter Interesting and fair take on the Carter presidency focused on a defining speech. While this doesn’t summarize all the issues that were part of that time period it is a fair historical take on a interesting president who was a good, clever man but didn’t have the ultimate success as president.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jacob Frank

    A window into the late 70's. For me the most interesting bit of trivia was that Carter had a viewing of 'Apocalypse Now' at the White House, with Francis Ford Coppola present, prior to the movies release in theaters. Coppola asked Carter and other guests to help him figure out the ending.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Daniel Silliman

    I'd highly recommend this book just for a different look at what it can mean to have a religious president. The way that Carter's faith shaped his thinking is really interesting. Beyond that, this book is a fascinating cultural history and close look at a hinge point in recent US history.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Jeffrey W.

    Excellent quick read. Disturbingly relevant in 2017.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Brennan

    Wow, the late 1970s sucked

  14. 4 out of 5

    matt

    My knowledge of Carter's presidency before reading this book was spotty (peanut farmer who wore cardigans) so a great deal of the information that I found interesting here could be a retreaded analysis to those in the know. Mattson takes a sociocultural lens to help understand and explain the events that led to Carter's "malaise" speech which is defended here as a remarkably unique milestone for presidential speeches in that it showed Carter as both remarkably vulnerable while challenging the My knowledge of Carter's presidency before reading this book was spotty (peanut farmer who wore cardigans) so a great deal of the information that I found interesting here could be a retreaded analysis to those in the know. Mattson takes a sociocultural lens to help understand and explain the events that led to Carter's "malaise" speech which is defended here as a remarkably unique milestone for presidential speeches in that it showed Carter as both remarkably vulnerable while challenging the American people to band together to combat the energy crisis. Mattson organized the book to read like a novel, a counterproductive device since we all know how the story ends. But as someone who knows more about pop culture than presidential politics, I was constantly turned on and off by Mattson's examination of culture in the context of the psychic discontent that Carter wanted to combat with his speech. But it's a strange approach for the author to take since he never hides his disdain for the vapidity of the era's music (more on that later) and the hollowness of celebrities (even with films/directors he admires he get described as either self-involved or a megalomaniac) But while parsing out the distinction between "The Deer Hunter" and "Apocalypse Now" makes for an interesting post-hoc arm chair philosophy, having lived through a few culturally significant epochs myself, I get wary of using the popularity of films or Academy Award wins as a means of understanding the country. Mattson's knowledge of music is particularly damning in establishing his credibility, especially in his blithe Puritanical judgment of anyone who ever stepped foot in Studio 54. If I was alive at the time I probably wouldn't have indulged either but his analysis of Blondie's "Heart of Glass" is pretty embarrassing. Mattson's insistence that disco was rejected because of its perceived falseness opens himself up to an authenticity debate to which Mattson knows nothing about and blithely dismisses the ideas that the rejection of disco came from the lower/middle classes' barely masked homophobia. At a scant 220 pages, "What the Heck" gives you both sides of an argument but never gives you a feel for what the President actually stood for. A few other things that I've read about the Carter presidency have focused on the massive inflation and interest rates which Mattson never adequately details. One interesting topical aside was the direct mailing phenomenon used by the religious right to assert the "moral majority," a supposedly democratic technique that led to a disproportionate and skewed vision of public opinion on issues. Some things never change.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Gary

    Book gives a good over view of Carter's presidency but not much outside of his 4 years in the White house. I should have read a more extensive biography of Carter but was anxious to finish this book, since it marked my final book I have read on the 44 U.S. presidents. The book does not come across defensive, but does try to give Carter the benefit of the doubt on his famous July 15, 1979 Malaise speech.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Benjamin

    The author does a good job of describing how Carter's so-called "malaise" speech has been misinterpreted, for primarily what seem to be political reasons, in the history books and America's collective social memory. In fact, the public's reaction to the speech was overwhelmingly positive, and Carter's ratings increased dramatically overnight. I wish more time had been spent on analyzing how the country so quickly dis-remembered or perhaps ignored the speech, given its huge popularity. The author The author does a good job of describing how Carter's so-called "malaise" speech has been misinterpreted, for primarily what seem to be political reasons, in the history books and America's collective social memory. In fact, the public's reaction to the speech was overwhelmingly positive, and Carter's ratings increased dramatically overnight. I wish more time had been spent on analyzing how the country so quickly dis-remembered or perhaps ignored the speech, given its huge popularity. The author spends a lot of time recounting the rise of the fundamental, religious right, suggesting that these neoconservatives sold Americans a dream in which everything was possible without any sacrifice (either by the individual or for the common good). Unfortunately, it wasn't so easy to understand quite how America gave up on Carter. Of course, Carter's mass firing of his cabinet a few days after giving his speech didn't help. But, the people did not turn their backs on Carter for that episode alone. The book seems to blame history's misinterpretation of the speech on Carter's own actions, the rise of neoconservatism, and the impact of public selfishness coming from the "me decade". But, it never sufficiently finds or describes a nexus among those. The book also doesn't exactly say how the speech should have changed the country. In fact, it recounts how confounded Carter and his own staff appeared to have been in going forward after the speech. Although Carter outlined policy proposals in the speech, the book painted a picture of a rudderless White House that wasn't sure even where to turn next. The book is well written and provides a wonderful and intricate background to the development of the speech, both in terms of the actual mechanics of preparing for the speech, but also the psychological changes that the major figures had to go through in order to get to such a dramatic and uncommon speech. The psychological development of Carter and his White House team in the months before the speech is really what this book is about and is where the book shines.

  17. 5 out of 5

    David

    This book really caught me off guard, I thought it would be some hokey book that tried to look back at pop culture and connect it to politics, to make for a more interesting read. Mattson doesn't go too deep in pop culture, he uses specific examples that actually shows the mood of the nation. The book covers a very interesting economic period in American history. My view on this time period is that it was one of the worst economic times since the depression (even compared to the great recession This book really caught me off guard, I thought it would be some hokey book that tried to look back at pop culture and connect it to politics, to make for a more interesting read. Mattson doesn't go too deep in pop culture, he uses specific examples that actually shows the mood of the nation. The book covers a very interesting economic period in American history. My view on this time period is that it was one of the worst economic times since the depression (even compared to the great recession we currently face today, I believe the late seventies through the early eighties were a lot tougher). The book shows the creation of the religious right and their power as a voting group. Shows the rising star of Ronald Reagan before the 1980 election. It also shows the inner workings of a White House staff, the role of advisers and the influence they have on the President. The only complaints I have with the book is I wish Mattson would went into more detail about the resignation of Carter's staff and the forward in the book written by Hertzberg is horrible. I think Hertzberg is really in love with himself, his forward has several mistakes (such as Carter's political record, he never lost the Georgia State Senate seat) and is based more on opinion instead of fact. The speech by Carter is very interesting and I believe a lot of what it states rings true today. The book also shows how a moderate politician was destroyed. As a moderate the other side already hates and then some of your own base starts to turn against you. I would recommend this book to anyone that enjoys politics or history.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Brian Ayres

    Jimmy Carter gets a lot of slack for being an absent or ineffective leader. After reading Kevin Mattson's account, I can now see why. During the trying summer of 1979, Carter was MIA as the United States dealt with the effects OPEC and the energy crisis. However, Carter's much-maligned "malaise" speech deserves a second look for Carter's prescient ability, with the help of his pollsters, to tap America's "crisis in confidence" and demand that we could do better by desiring less and helping other Jimmy Carter gets a lot of slack for being an absent or ineffective leader. After reading Kevin Mattson's account, I can now see why. During the trying summer of 1979, Carter was MIA as the United States dealt with the effects OPEC and the energy crisis. However, Carter's much-maligned "malaise" speech deserves a second look for Carter's prescient ability, with the help of his pollsters, to tap America's "crisis in confidence" and demand that we could do better by desiring less and helping others. Known for disco and stimulants, the 1970s certainly earned the moniker the "me" decade. But who wants to be preached to? This, of course, led to Carter's defeat to Ronald Reagan (a.k.a., John Wayne wannabe) in 1980. In America, we hate politicians who level with us but love the ones who allow us to wax poetic about American myth and nostalgia or offer "hope." But it was in the mid 1980s that we saw the beginning of 27 years of legalized gambling (financial speculation) and self-indulgence rewarded and now taken away. Carter's speech, as the subtitle of this book says, should have changed the country. Maybe this time, with unemployment (working none or part-time) unofficially at about 19 percent, we should listen to those who tell us we cannot have it all. Unfortunately, even our current president, doesn't use that language. Maybe he should re-read Carter's speech, as well. We are once again in a course correction economically that will be very painful to recover.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Bob

    I was working at my dad's service station during this time. I remember us parking school buses across the lot to prevent people from pulling up to the pumps when we ran out of fuel. But people still found ways around them then got mad when we told them we were out of gas. I don't remember the shootings or the riots but do remember the trucker strike: that's a 10-4, rubber ducky... But I didn't pay much attention to the news back then, instead I would retreat to my room and read after getting hom I was working at my dad's service station during this time. I remember us parking school buses across the lot to prevent people from pulling up to the pumps when we ran out of fuel. But people still found ways around them then got mad when we told them we were out of gas. I don't remember the shootings or the riots but do remember the trucker strike: that's a 10-4, rubber ducky... But I didn't pay much attention to the news back then, instead I would retreat to my room and read after getting home from work - usually closing early when we had no gasoline. True that Carter handled some things badly, quickly squandering the good will and support developed by the "malaise" speech itself, which eventually fed his demise. But he also spoke the truth laying out two options for the country's path. In hindsight it is quite prophetic. Perhaps he should have framed the paths in reference to Star Wars, which came out a few years earlier, calling the path we ultimately took as the Dark Side? This book focuses on the speech itself and how it was developed, not drifting off into all the other turmoils going on during that time, chiefly the Iran hostage issue. That would be another book entirely considering what we now know about the GOP stealing Carter's debate notes for Reagan and the secret meetings with the Iranians to hold the hostages until after the election, etc, ad nauseam.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Mark

    In the summer of 1979, Jimmy Carter delivered the fateful “Malaise” speech to a seemingly crippled nation. The US economy was handicapped by an endless oil embargo and high inflation coupled with increasing unemployment and cynicism. The term malaise was misapplied to the speech, but it seemed to encapsulate the feeling of the nation on the verge of the 1980s. The speech deserves a place of honor among the Gettysburg Address, but due to political miscalculations in the wake of its delivery, it i In the summer of 1979, Jimmy Carter delivered the fateful “Malaise” speech to a seemingly crippled nation. The US economy was handicapped by an endless oil embargo and high inflation coupled with increasing unemployment and cynicism. The term malaise was misapplied to the speech, but it seemed to encapsulate the feeling of the nation on the verge of the 1980s. The speech deserves a place of honor among the Gettysburg Address, but due to political miscalculations in the wake of its delivery, it is remembered as a footnote to a disappointing era with harsh limits on the American Experience. This book gives insight into the rising Moral Majority and harsh cynicism of the New Right. Our current era is in a very similar scenario and the speech still speaks to our “Crisis of Confidence” that has been our hallmark since the Vietnam War. The author wrote an accessible and interesting history of Carter’s desire to remake Americans’ concept of our role and place in the world. Even though Carter will be remembered as a failed president, he had the right idea in the summer of 1979.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Jennyb

    A quick little book about a speech Carter gave at the height of the 1979 gas crisis -- thought-provoking out of all proportion to its fairly narrow subject. It is also quite disheartening when you realize that, despite 30 years of political blathering and promises promises, just about nothing has changed in all that time. We are still yammering about energy independence without having done a thing about it, we are all cynical and disengaged from the political process (and why wouldn't we be?), w A quick little book about a speech Carter gave at the height of the 1979 gas crisis -- thought-provoking out of all proportion to its fairly narrow subject. It is also quite disheartening when you realize that, despite 30 years of political blathering and promises promises, just about nothing has changed in all that time. We are still yammering about energy independence without having done a thing about it, we are all cynical and disengaged from the political process (and why wouldn't we be?), we are all entitled self-interested materialists, consuming far more than our share. Although this didn't exactly leave me with a proud-to-be-American rosy glow, it really did make me think about some big, important topics. I only wish I could feel better about our collective national prospects in successfully addressing them.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Howard Spinner

    Very good read! Pres. Carter gave one of the most important Presidential speeches on our energy policy, self-sacrifice and a citizen's covenant with the government. It was received very well, with citizens asking what they could do to help! However, two days later, Pres Carter accepted the resignations of four Cabinet Secretaries, plunging the stock markets with the nation feeling that the country was adrift, this led to the inevitable election of Ronald Reagan, who dreamt of individual achievem Very good read! Pres. Carter gave one of the most important Presidential speeches on our energy policy, self-sacrifice and a citizen's covenant with the government. It was received very well, with citizens asking what they could do to help! However, two days later, Pres Carter accepted the resignations of four Cabinet Secretaries, plunging the stock markets with the nation feeling that the country was adrift, this led to the inevitable election of Ronald Reagan, who dreamt of individual achievement and possibilities in his optimistic speeches. This is a really good history of the late seventies in all of its excess, disco, bad clothing, gas lines and truck strikes.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Lee

    Rather interesting. I was 11 that summer, and I remember bits and pieces of these things from the news. I really do not remember gas lines, maybe Ohio dodged that bullet? This was something unusual for me, but the title jumped out at me from the library's "new" shelf. The author did a good job, IMO, looking at Carter and his advisers in June and July, 1979. He also went over the media spin of the speech that wanted to encourage Americans and bring them to a unified effort against the energy crise Rather interesting. I was 11 that summer, and I remember bits and pieces of these things from the news. I really do not remember gas lines, maybe Ohio dodged that bullet? This was something unusual for me, but the title jumped out at me from the library's "new" shelf. The author did a good job, IMO, looking at Carter and his advisers in June and July, 1979. He also went over the media spin of the speech that wanted to encourage Americans and bring them to a unified effort against the energy crises. He also covered the political fallout, this became one of the nails in the coffin of Carter's presidency, used by Reagan (as well as Ted Kennedy) to defeat him the following November.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading Professor Mattson's book. I was born after President Jimmy Carter's 15 July 1979 "Crisis of Confidence" speech so unfortunately most of what I have heard about the speech has been negative. Professor Mattson does an excellent job of providing a fresh perspective on the third year of President Carter's term of office and the events surrounding his "Crisis of Confidence" speech. Supporters and critics of President Carter should read 'What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. Pr I thoroughly enjoyed reading Professor Mattson's book. I was born after President Jimmy Carter's 15 July 1979 "Crisis of Confidence" speech so unfortunately most of what I have heard about the speech has been negative. Professor Mattson does an excellent job of providing a fresh perspective on the third year of President Carter's term of office and the events surrounding his "Crisis of Confidence" speech. Supporters and critics of President Carter should read 'What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?': Jimmy Carter, America's 'Malaise', and the Speech that Should Have Change the Country.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Ian Plenderleith

    “This is not a message of happiness or reassurance, but it is the truth and it is a warning,” President Jimmy Carter told the US in July 1979. Although Carter’s remarkably honest speech about the need for an enlightened energy policy resonated with the public, the media and the Moral Majority savaged the President for the “malaise” he supposedly believed was afflicting America (he never used that word). A fine book about the brave speech that sounded the death-knell of the 70s.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Mark

    Didn't finish, but really liked what I read of it. Will try to get it form the library again later.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Jonathan Brandis

    Tone was snide, flip and cynical through most of the first half, but got a little better later on. I got the basic outline of why the public turned on Carter, which was what I was looking for.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Laura

    Didn't finish. I wondered how you could write an entire book about a speech, I still do.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Wes Bishop

    Excellent book by a OU professor about Carter's Malaise Speech. It was extremely well written and engaging. Another reason why I want to do my graduate work at OU.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Pabgo

    great take on the history of the last generation. Predicted us being where we are today, by ignoring Carter's warnings.

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