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

The wide angle

The book addresses broad questions of American national identity.  Who are we as a nation: selfish individualists or citizens and members of a commonwealth?  Can America be a nation with a sense of humility and “limits” in the face of the emerging crisis in the Middle East—the Iranian revolution and the dawn of Islamic fundamentalism and a resulting oil embargo?

Carter tried to explore these questions by reading numerous social observers from the time.  He read Reinhold Niebuhr as well as the writings of Christopher Lasch and Daniel Bell, two leading social theorists who pondered if consumer capitalism destroyed civic virtue.  He also went to the heart of one of our most pressing problems—one that still exists today: our over-reliance or dependency on fossil fuels imported from abroad, and how this makes us susceptible to a whole range of problems.

To this question Carter offered a solution that we ignored—I believe, to our peril—when we elected Ronald Reagan president in 1980.  Much of the story is about the rise of the conservative revolution during Jimmy Carter’s presidency—the formation of the Moral Majority (Jerry Falwell’s organization), the rise of conservative think tanks, the arguments made by “neoconservatives,” and the increasing popularity of Ronald Reagan.

What led me to want to examine this issue was teaching undergraduates this speech in contemporary history classes.  My students were always amazed by the speech’s tough message.  So I wanted to explain how Carter came to conclude he needed to give a speech that had so much political risk behind it.  I remember quite distinctly one student who said to me, when I taught Carter’s speech during George W. Bush’s presidency: “I wish we had a president who told us difficult truths.”  I remember being shocked by that, and inspired.  The speech’s story deserved to be told.