Jimmy Carter Was the Last President to Treat Us Like Grownups | Opinion

Early into his presidency, on Feb. 2, 1977, Jimmy Carter addressed the nation wearing a cardigan sweater beside a crackling fire. With an energy shortage looming, he called on his fellow Americans to turn their thermostats down to 55 at night and to reflect upon their consumption: "If we all cooperate and make modest sacrifices, if we learn to live thriftily and remember the importance of helping our neighbors, then we can find ways to adjust." He used the word "sacrifices."

As New York City heads out of another record-warm February, with five days in the 60s, Carter's prescience is only slightly less stunning than our continued ability to ignore it. Back then, nearly 50 years ago, with roughly half the global population, he said, "We must face the fact that the energy shortage is permanent. There is no way we can solve it quickly."

Less than two weeks before this speech, I was standing on a cold, windy streetcorner in Washington, D.C., taking refuge by my father's knees on inauguration day. I could not then appreciate how Carter would ask his fellow citizens to summon their introspection: "We have learned that 'more' is not necessarily 'better.'" But I could feel the swell of collective unity, the sun shining through the crisp, clear air on all of us brightly. "Let no one confuse our idealism with weakness," he said.

The Carter Presidential Library
A giant bust of former President Jimmy Carter stands at the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum on Feb. 23, in Atlanta, Georgia. Win McNamee/Getty Images

As his soul moves beyond that ranch house in Plains, Georgia—where he has entered hospice care—to the place reserved for a president turned Sunday school teacher, we are also fighting the death of his spirit. He stretched the American psyche, calling on us to think of ourselves as members of a national community. He grew the National Park system, created the Department of Education, strengthened the Social Security system, and appointed record numbers of women, Black people, and Latinos to government jobs. He put solar panels on the roof of the White House; months later, a few of my neighbors had put them up as well.

Even so, the 30-second soundbite of his presidency will feature energy and hostage crises, inflation, and recession. But he thought of Americans as capable of more than soundbite-levels of thinking. He didn't just identify a problem; he asked for us to participate in its response.

On July 5, 1979, truckers and residents of the usually quiet Levittown, Pennsylvania, set bonfires to protest the inflated cost and scarcity of gas, complicated by unrest in the Middle East. Carter diagnosed that the nation was ailing from a wounded heart—more than just an energy crisis, but a crisis of spirit. Ten days after the riot, he looked at us through the TV camera: "Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns." He said that it was "fragmentation and self-interest" that prevented Americans from tackling the energy crisis. This has come to be called the "Malaise Speech." But Carter did not make it to simply lay a sickness upon the American table; he was asking us to do something about it, to bear responsibility.

Did Americans secretly want to hear that material goods "cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose"? Were they, by that point, tired of staring blankly into the pull tabs of their Coors? Perhaps. The speech worked. Carter received an 11-point bump in his poll numbers, my neighbors boasted about their solar panels, and we heard of people trading in their cars for mopeds.

It didn't stick. In The Age of Reagan, Sean Willentz recalls the "loser" president "abdicating his role as leader and blaming the people themselves for their own afflictions." So, rather than finding sweaters to wear in the house, and heading out to the compost bin, we sat back down and turned to words that sounded an awful lot easier. "I find no national malaise," Reagan said when he announced his candidacy. And soon enough, he took down the White House solar panels and led people to stand where they could see that America stood like a "shining city on a hill."

How would Carter contend with American exceptionalism today? How might he summon our reflective energies toward consumption and waste, flooding and drought, sea level rise and screen time, obesity and pharmaceuticals? Would he prevail upon our common humanity to do what we had to do and sometimes to do it better than we thought we could? And would we be willing to slow down and think about what really matters in our lives?

President Carter made the unforgivable error of treating the American people like adults. Will any president ever do it again?

Tim Donahue teaches English at The Ethical Culture Fieldston School in The Bronx. He writes about climate change and education.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.