A president who talked his way out of office
June 20, 2018
President Carter's "downer" speeches left him defenseless against Ronald Reagan's optimism.
Most former presidential speechwriters speak well of their old bosses. Not President Carter’s, by and large.
A clue as to why comes in a new biography, President Carter: The White House Years, by Stewart Eizenstat, who was Carter's admiring domestic policy advisor and who has set unapologetically out to "redeem [Carter's] presidency."
The presidency needs redeeming partly because of the sorts of speeches Carter gave, according to Peter Baker's New York Times review: "He was a downer for a country whose spirits needed lifting":
His inaugural address was “a tone poem, but with a downbeat note.” He opened an energy speech to the nation by saying, “Tonight I want to have an unpleasant talk with you about a problem that is unprecedented in our history.” In celebrating the creation of the Department of Education, he told a joyful crowd, ‘This thing won't work as well as you think it will.’”
Overall, “Carter’s message was sacrifice and pain,” Eizenstat writes. “When he faced Reagan’s message of hope and optimism amid soaring inflation and interest rates, the very contrast itself was painful.”
Indeed, his fatal flaw was captured in his infamous “malaise speech,” in which Carter lectured the nation on its poor morale.
Yes, good speeches can help a leader win. And bad ones can contribute to a leader’s downfall. —DM