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June 21, 2018


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Hi David,
There's lots of lessons to be learned from Carter's presidency, but what is interesting to me is that 'we' demand from our leaders that they be perfectly honest with us and show us the world-as-they-see-it? Carter did just that, but failed apparently becaused he wasn't hopeful enough for his 'rational followers'. But is that really what we are? I think Carter tried to reach out to the fears and other irrationalities that dominated society at the time. Kevin Mattson writes in his book on the Malaise Speech that Carter was closer to the zeitgeist than popular memory now assumes. So I can understand Eizenstat's goal to redeem the Carter Presidency and (speaking as a European who wasn't even born at the time) I would like to give the Malaise Speech definitely some more credit.

Jan, I've watched the Malaise Speech many times, and shown it to audiences of speechwriters around the world and had many discussions on it. I think it is remarkable. And full of truth. And mesmerizing.

As a sermon. But not as a presidential speech.

People don't elect presidents to be their pastors, or to challenge their morality. People elect presidents to run the country, and solve its problems—the sort of thing Carter promised to do when he was campaigning. (He didn't promise that when he became president he would make Americans less materialistic.)

He was only the president, and the president is not a pastor, or a columnist, or a community organizer, or a civil rights activist. A president is first and foremost a problem-solver.

Toward the end of the Malaise Speech, Carter says something like, "But I will not do it alone." The humble peanut farmer thought and awful lot of himself—and not very much of the rest of government or society.

Do I believe there is a pastoral dimension to a presidency? Yes. But only a dimension. A president is there to REMIND the nation that elected him of the character of its collective soul. Not to LECTURE that nation (while you're failing to solve its gathering problems) that its soul is sick.

If I hadn't been in fourth grade at the time, I might have voted for Reagan too.

Great point you’re making there, David. Somehow I’ve always loved the pastoral dimensions of presidential/executive leadership, but I agree Carter seems to have thought a lot about himself and got carried away with it in the process. I’m sure it must have felt weird to receive such a lecture from the president at the time. Interestingly, Vaclav Havel almost did the same in his first speech as President of Czechoslovakia, albeit under vastly different (revolutionary) circumstances.

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