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


I hope the book helps us re-explore what were the 1970s.

The Carter presidency should not be dismissed as a blip in time before Ronald Reagan assumed power in the 1980s.  Carter had a unique vision for America’s role at home and abroad, one worth remembering as our country comes out of a very conservative period in our more recent past.  Jimmy Carter’s sense that America must have a sense of humility, a realization that its power is real but also evanescent, is crucial to rethinking what we should be today.  So a speech from 1979 becomes, in a way, a chance to reassess a path that we didn’t take but that we can take today.

Clearly the language that Carter used in the speech and the themes that resonated throughout it are still important today.  In fact, President Obama’s inaugural address had many similar lines.  Obama spoke of a “crisis of confidence” existing in America.  He talked about the need to learn some hard truths about the state of our democracy.  Like Carter, Obama has a deep interest in the theological teachings of Reinhold Niebuhr—who emphasized that humans are sinful and naturally self-interested.  Niebuhr believed that only humility and self-inquisition could potentially prevent us from doing bad things in the world—and even still we’d likely do bad things.

Whereas Ronald Reagan used the language of America as the chosen land—something he shared with the Christian right of Jerry Falwell, and that today Sarah Palin consistently references—Carter projected a vision of America that was humble.  Carter thought that America should never think of itself in terms of “chosen” or “blessed” (the oil crisis itself showed that we weren’t).  So too does Obama.  And I think that a vision of America as humbled by the complexities of the world is a vision that we’re rediscovering today.  As a historian, I have tried to write a book that recollects how we once had a leader with that language and how he came to decide to use that language.

© 2010 Kevin Mattson