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'What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?': Jimmy Carter, America's "Malaise," and the Speech that Should Have Changed the Country Hardcover – June 23, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The 1979 national malaise speech that defined Jimmy Carter's presidency—though he never used the word malaise—gets its due in this contrarian homage. Ohio University historian Mattson (When America Was Great) considers the speech—which expressed Carter's own crisis of confidence, bemoaned Americans' loss of faith in government and deplored the country's selfishness and consumerism—to be a thoughtful response to the problems of the day that initially won public acclaim, before political opponents caricatured it as a gloomy scolding. Following the speech from its bizarre provenance in an apocalyptic memo by pollster Pat Cadell through its honing during a messianic domestic summit, the author sets his colorful study against a recap of the gasoline shortages, inflation and Me Decade angst that provoked it. He interprets it as a tantalizing road not taken: with its prescient focus on energy, limits and sacrifice, its humility and honesty, it was, the author says, the antithesis of the Reagan era's sunny optimism. Mattson makes Carter's maligned speech a touchstone for a rich retrospective and backhanded appreciation of the soul-searching '70s. (July)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


“Excellent... a cautionary tale and a great read... Those of us who were around back in the day will be ruefully reminded of those bygone times. And those who weren't will be scratching their heads in disbelief at this fascinating and frequently improbable history.” ―Wall Street Journal

“That Mr. Carter felt he had to deliver such a risky speech says a great deal about the political fix he was in at the time. It says plenty, too, about where the wobbling American psyche stood during the weird, unnerving summer of 1979... In his new book, "What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?", Kevin Mattson... lays out the events of that summer like a big, rolling banquet... the historical ingredients are fascinating and first-rate…Mr. Mattson writes well about Mr. Carter's staff and the intense jockeying that led up to the malaise speech.” ―Dwight Garner, New York Times

“[A] detailed unpacking of the speech and the tumultuous events that inspired it.” ―LA Times

“Despite a brief bump in the president's approval ratings, the address became forever disparaged as the "malaise" speech, and it doomed Carter's reelection chances. That speech, history has concluded, was a huge mistake. Ohio University historian Kevin Mattson challenges that conclusion in his feisty new book…Chronicling the mood inside the White House and across the nation in the months surrounding the speech -- months when gas lines and Three Mile Island monopolized the news while "The Deer Hunter" and "disco sucks!" dominated the zeitgeist -- Mattson offers a radically different reading.” ―Carlos Lozada, Washington Post

“[In] the summer of 1979, the country seemed to be imploding in the face of a gas crisis, resulting in long lines at the pump, trucker strikes and violence. The nation's confidence plummeted and calls for "inspirational and innovative leadership" remained unheeded. Starting on July 4, Carter holed up at Camp David for ten days, emerging with a legendary address... that would both galvanize and deeply cleave the country. Mattson... sifts through the varied media coverage of the event to isolate this crucial moment in America's recognition of itself... A galloping history full of interesting characters and significant moments.” ―Kirkus

“This book becomes a page-turner for those interested in the decadent disco decade, Jimmy Carter himself, and the modern presidency.” ―Library Journal

“In ‘What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?' Kevin Mattson revisits Jimmy Carter's speech delivered to a national audience on July 15, 1979. That address came to be known as the ‘malaise' speech, though Carter never used the word. The President did mention ‘paralysis and stagnation and drift,' but he also spoke of ‘strength' and ‘a rebirth of the American spirit.' Mattson offers a deep reading of the speech, placing it in the cultural and political contexts of the late 1970s. The result is an eye-opening inquiry into the power of words at a pivotal moment in history.” ―Louis P. Masur, author of The Soiling of Old Glory

“Boldly and with great style, Kevin Mattson captures the political, social, and cultural events that shaped Jimmy Carter's ‘Malaise' speech of July 15 1979. He reveals how events abroad and at home--in the White House, at gas stations, on TV, and in learned books--shaped an opportunity to confront the energy problem, which the nation avoided at its own peril.” ―Daniel Horowitz, professor of American Studies at Smith College and author of The Anxieties of Affluence


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA (June 23, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1596915218
  • ISBN-13: 978-1596915213
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,367,033 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

23 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on July 7, 2009
Format: Hardcover
This is a fantastic book, reporting events of 30 years hence which resonate to the present day, e.g.: energy, Iran, Afghanistan, even gay marriage.

I was in my late twenties at the time, and present at least at one of the reported events - "the disco riot" at Comiskey Park - but the author evokes far more detail than I am able to recall myself, and it rings true.

He also does good work in publishing the transcript of the Carter speech as an appendix. This is well worth reading, whether one agrees with it or not. It shows how many of our present concerns are linked to the past, and also how many things in this country have changed.

While it is clear that the author is broadly sympathetic to the Carter administration, this book seems to me to be a balanced and insightful account of the late 1970s - and also engaging and entertaining.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Jeff Peirce on September 13, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I could not have enjoyed this book more. I am no fan of Jimmy Carter, and I was wary in approaching the book.
But I am glad I did. Like or loathe Carter, this book is balanced and impartial. If you like Carter, there are things to
like, and if you dislike Carter, there are things to confirm your opinion. What a remarkable thing a balanced book really is.

This book is fun reading on many levels. What appealed to me the most was the review of the popular culture of the 70s-----from movies, to books, to disco. I had forgotten a great deal of what happened, including the incredible gas riot in Pennsylvania, and the disco riot. Both riots are described well, and make fascinating reading. You find yourself wondering how in the world it happened.

I had forgotten just how serious the gas shortage was, and how long it went on. Some of the things that went on in
the gas lines were truly bizarre----like the woman who put pillows in dress to make people think she was pregnant .
There are other strange tales of gas lines---including the liquor store which gave free beer to those who were waiting to gas their cars. All of it is fascinating reading.

I recall the famous "malaise speech," even though Carter did not use the word "malaise." I recall the backlash as well, and the story of the rabid rabbit attacking Jimmy in his boat. How it all came together to harm his image and chances for re-election is amazing.

Like or loathe Carter, this book is a must. What a wonderful reading experience it was. Many thanks to the author for his balanced and fascinating book.
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24 of 32 people found the following review helpful By The Rogue on July 5, 2009
Format: Hardcover
This is a fine exemplar of political and cultural analysis. In 1979, the United States was suffering an energy crisis and about to engage in full scale political realignment. Both were probably unavoidable, but nonetheless the product of decisions and realities long in the making. Mattson's focal point of the so-called "Malaise" speech by Jimmy Carter allows him to recreate the pressures of the time in an expert and compelling tale.

And pressure is what this book is about. Pressure from inside and outside of the White House, both real and imagined. The strongest aspect of this very strong book is how Mattson writes about emerging New Right and the Kennedy championed liberal left clamped onto the Carter Administration and squeezed from both sides -- only to show how the internal decision-making within the White House finished off the Administration.

Mattson builds out from there to show how the trends of the day (Studio 54) and expressions of political reality at the street level (energy crisis riots and gas line violence) required a political response. But that response, in large part, was a speech that departed from traditional American political norms and instead mined another distinctly American vernacular.

In another excellent moment, Mattson traces the evolution of the Moral Majority, Mattson demonstrates how the "New Right," often credited with conservative political accountability, is really the partisan creature its opponents (rightly) believe it to be.

There is another tradition, less radical, partisan or strident, that the malaise speech embodies.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By ewomack VINE VOICE on December 24, 2009
Format: Hardcover
We aren't past the malaise yet. Many of the national maladies outlined by Jimmy Carter in his July 15, 1979 "Crisis of Confidence" speech continue to ring true today. We still "worship self-indulgence and consumption." Most people still feel disassociated, even alienated, from politics or from a sense of civic pride. In the ensuing Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and now Obama years that alienation hasn't seemed to wane an iota. Not only that, energy and other crises that could undermine our civilization loom but many people, like many back in 1979, don't seem to believe them or dismiss them as hoaxes. Worst of all, the United States has become a deeply and dangerously polarized nation. Each "side" has developed a crisis of confidence in the "other side." Thirty years ago Carter spoke to the American people directly. He asked and expected things from them. Leaders rarely speak like that now. Unfortunately, Carter spoke from within a flagging presidency. In retrospect, given the intervening Iran Hostage crisis and his 1980 slaughter at the polls, Carter's message seems to suffer from a crisis of confidence in itself. And though it did in effect help open the door for Reagan to waltz into power, it remains an impressive gem of a speech. There's simply nothing like it in Presidential history. This short and highly readable book provides a biography of that speech. From its origins in the mind of Pat Caddell, a DNC pollster, to the havoc it wreaked in the cabinet (Carter supposedly had to take VP Mondale for a walk to keep him from having a nervous breakdown), to its unfulfilled potential, the book tells an inspiring, bittersweet and sometimes heartbreaking tale of a speech that would both make and break President Jimmy Carter.

The book starts in April 1979.
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