"The symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us. For the first time in the history of our country a majority of our people believe that the next five years will be worse than the past five years. Two-thirds of our people do not even vote. The productivity of American workers is actually dropping, and the willingness of Americans to save for the future has fallen below that of all other people in the Western world."
-- President Jimmy Carter, national television address, July 15, 1979
When Jimmy Carter delivered that astonishing bit of national navel-gazing -- which would later be termed his "malaise speech" -- I reacted pretty much as most Americans. I gave him points for honesty.
If you dust off the microfiche you will discover that the speech was Topic A in the July 16 newspapers, crowding out other news items like the continued fallout from Disco Demolition Night three days earlier, and the election of a young up-and-comer as president of Iraq. The editorial reviews were largely positive, and Carter enjoyed a moderate bump in his public approval rating.
What, after all, could you argue with? In 1979 the country was running low on future, and the first step to wellness is to recognize you have a problem. That shiny Tomorrowland promise of postwar America had become an unintentional joke, as laughable as a 1952 Sex Ed film. The New Frontier increasingly looked like a vain effort to collect a few moon rocks. The National Spirit had bloated and OD'd on the toilet like Elvis in a bicentennial jumpsuit.
So no, I didn't fault Jimmy Carter when he bemoaned our empty addiction to consumption. The stuff we consumed was pretty shabby; vinyl roof Ford Granadas and Scooby Doo, CB anthems and Quiana shirts. Our taste in leaders was even worse; when you elect four straight failures into the White House, the problem isn't them, it's us. Although Carter was one of those failures, at least he had the courage to call us on it.
Maybe he was right. We needed to buck up, work together, psychologically adjust to the new realities. We needed a careful 6-point federal plan to manage our dwindling reserves of future. Less is more, small is beautiful. Some parts are edible. It was disappointing, but thank God we didn't elect that senile right wing Dr. Strangelove B-movie actor from California, whazzisname, in '76.
I was 18 at the time, a staunch Democrat like Dad and Grampa, and I sincerely believed all of it. I was riveting livestock trailers together for $4.75 an hour; after taxes and Machinist Union dues, six hours' wages might fill the tank on my Nova SS. At the end of the week, maybe a dime bag or a Ramones LP. I was to begin college in 40 days; why, I wasn't quite sure. It seemed pointless to dwell on things four or five years out.
Today I am twenty five years closer to my death, and yet the future seem a thousand times bigger and grander and more glorious than it did to me in July 1979. And I credit a washed-up B movie actor who naively insisted, against all available data, that the future wasn't limited.
It took until 1984, but I eventually came to accept the simple lesson that Ronald Reagan knew all along: the future doens't just happen. We can create it.
Thanks Teach, and Godspeed.