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Book cover of 'What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?': Jimmy Carter, America's 'Malaise,' and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country

'What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?': Jimmy Carter, America's 'Malaise,' and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country

by Kevin Mattson

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Pages: 272
Hardcover
ISBN: 9781596915213






Available to Buy

Overview of 'What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?': Jimmy Carter, America's 'Malaise,' and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country

In 1979, in an effort to right our national malaise, Jimmy Carter delivered a speech that risked his reputation and the future of the Democratic Party, changing the course of American politics for the next twenty-five years.

At a critical moment in Jimmy Carter’s presidency, he gave a speech that should have changed the country. Instead it led to his downfall and ushered in the rise of the conservative movement in America. In “What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?” Kevin Mattson gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the weeks leading up to Carter’s “malaise” speech, a period of great upheaval in the United States: the energy crisis had resulted in mile-long gas lines, inciting suburban riots and violence; the country’s morale was low and Carter’s ratings were even lower. The administration, wracked by its own crises, was in constant turmoil and conflict. What came of their great internal struggle, which Mattson conveys with the excitement of a political thriller, was a speech that deserves a place alongside L incoln’s Gettysburg Address or FDR’s First Inaugural. Prominent politicians on both sides of the aisle play important roles, including Carter, Vice President Walter Mondale, speechwriter Hendrik Hertzberg, Ronald Reagan, and Ted Kennedy. Like the best of narrative political writing, Mattson provides great insight into the workings of the Carter White House and the moral crisis that ushered in a new, conservative America.

Synopsis of 'What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?': Jimmy Carter, America's 'Malaise,' and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country

In 1979, in an effort to right our national malaise, Jimmy Carter delivered a speech that risked his reputation and the future of the Democratic Party, changing the course of American politics for the next twenty-five years.

At a critical moment in Jimmy Carter’s presidency, he gave a speech that should have changed the country. Instead it led to his downfall and ushered in the rise of the conservative movement in America. In “What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?” Kevin Mattson gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the weeks leading up to Carter’s “malaise” speech, a period of great upheaval in the United States: the energy crisis had resulted in mile-long gas lines, inciting suburban riots and violence; the country’s morale was low and Carter’s ratings were even lower. The administration, wracked by its own crises, was in constant turmoil and conflict. What came of their great internal struggle, which Mattson conveys with the excitement of a political thriller, was a speech that deserves a place alongside L incoln’s Gettysburg Address or FDR’s First Inaugural. Prominent politicians on both sides of the aisle play important roles, including Carter, Vice President Walter Mondale, speechwriter Hendrik Hertzberg, Ronald Reagan, and Ted Kennedy. Like the best of narrative political writing, Mattson provides great insight into the workings of the Carter White House and the moral crisis that ushered in a new, conservative America.

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.

About the Author, Kevin Mattson

Kevin Mattson is the Connor S tudy Professor of Contemporary History at Ohio University. He's the author of Rebels All!, When America Was Great, Upton Sinclair and the Other American Century, and Intellectuals in Action. He writes for the American Prospect, Dissent, the Nation, the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post Book World, and many others.

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Editorials

From the Publisher

"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

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.

Library Journal

Mattson (contemporary history, Ohio Univ.; Rebels All!) revisits the 1970s, the Carter presidency, and the major television address that has come to symbolize Carter's term in office—the "malaise" speech of July 15, 1979. In terms of content and delivery, it was an effective performance. The author reminds us that Carter never uttered the word malaise in his address and that his popularity actually rose after delivering it. Moreover, Mattson argues that the content of the speech still resonates with ongoing concerns over consumer wants, the nation's dependence on oil, and a loss of trust in government. Unfortunately, after delivering this key speech, Carter undermined it by an unexpected mass purge of his cabinet. Carter's image became that of the amateur blunderer, allowing Ronald Reagan, a smiling and friendly grandfather on a horse, to ride into Washington to lead the nation. VERDICT With background to the speech that is itself fascinating to read, this book becomes a page-turner for those interested in the decadent disco decade, Jimmy Carter himself, and the modern presidency.—William D. Pederson, Louisiana State Univ., Shreveport


—William D. Pederson

Kirkus Reviews

Mattson (Contemporary History/Ohio Univ.; Rebels All!: A Short History of the Conservative Mind in Postwar America, 2008, etc.) presents a bright snapshot of a nation in flux. The election of squeaky-clean Jimmy Carter in 1976 was in part a reflection of America's desire to shed the overwhelming feelings of distrust and negativity that surrounded Watergate and Vietnam. In his inaugural address, the president humbly asserted that even if we couldn't solve all of the country's problems, at least, "in a spirit of individual sacrifice for the common good, we must simply do our best." But by 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-delivered on national television on the evening of July 15-that would both galvanize and deeply cleave the country. Mattson, who takes his title from a July 5 headline in the New York Post, sifts through the varied media coverage of the event to isolate this crucial moment in America's recognition of itself. In Carter's speech-largely engineered by speechwriter Hendrik Hertzberg-the president warned about a moral crisis affecting the United States, acknowledging the "wounds" of the past and the loss of faith in public institutions. He also enumerated action for the energy crisis and how the country could work together to pull out of it. Yet despite the outpouring of support for the speech, the forces of the GOP's Moral Majority-especially RonaldReagan-were gathering strength against Carter. Mattson fully renders the motley array of Carter's "Georgia Mafia," along with countless details of this turbulent era in American history. A galloping history full of interesting characters and significant moments. Author appearances in New York, Washington, D.C., Ohio

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