Kevin Mattson


On his book What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?”: Jimmy Carter, America’s “Malaise,” and the Speech that Should Have Changed the Country

Cover Interview of February 07, 2010

In a nutshell

I want a reader to enter a truly bizarre world: America in 1979. 

It was a period of disco and disco demolition, cocaine and divorce, an Iranian revolution and oil embargo plus the Three Mile Island nuclear power crisis.  It was a time when intellectuals feared America’s power was in decline to the Middle East and we were becoming a nation of narcissists.  It was a time when Americans murdered one another on gas lines.  It was a time when the Vietnam War had been over for four years but Americans hadn’t really come to terms with the war’s implications.  The first popular movies about Vietnam start to appear at this time—including Coming Home, Deer Hunter, and Apocalypse Now (the latter was actually shown at the White House during 1979, an event I talk about in the book).

I recreate that world of America in 1979 for the reader.  And then I place Jimmy Carter into this context and explain how he decided to give one of the toughest speeches in the history of presidential speeches.  We still erroneously call it the “malaise speech”—the word “malaise,” in fact, never appeared in it.  The speech is at the heart of the book, and it is about the country’s decline, about the energy crisis, and about what Americans can do to pull themselves out of these and to chart a path towards energy independence.

This is a story about one president worrying a great deal about the psychic state of America and wanting to address that problem head-on.  Much of the book deals with how Jimmy Carter, pushed by an array of advisors behind the screens, decided to make the speech.