Arthur Milnes: Carter presidency looks better with time

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Arthur Milnes, a fellow of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, is the editor of "In Roosevelt's Bright Shadow," a collection of U.S. presidential addresses in and about Canada, published by McGill-Queen's University Press.]

The most exciting facet of American political history is the fact the subject area never remains static. Unlike what is often the case in Canada, common assumptions about leaders are constantly challenged by younger generations of historians and journalists as time goes on.

I was reminded of this only recently while on a trip through upper New York state on my way to our annual camping trip to Vermont. As always, I made sure I picked up a copy of the Watertown Daily Times (WDT) - the best small-town daily newspaper in America. I was lucky as I happened to be near Ogdensburg on a Sunday, meaning the edition of the WDT I picked up was larger than usual.

Turning to the Sunday supplement, my eyes were immediately drawn to an article about Professor Kevin Mattson of Ohio University's new book examining President Jimmy Carter's so-called "Malaise speech" that the 39th president gave 30 years ago this summer. "What the Heck are you Up to Mr. President? Jimmy Carter, America's 'Malaise,' and the Speech that Should Have Changed the Country," was yet another example - and a very well-researched and -written one at that - of what has often been missing from Canadian political historiography in recent decades: reappraisal and the brave willingness to challenge prevailing views of a past leader rendered by tenured historians.

(It took more than 50 years after the publication of historian Donald Creighton's two-volume study of our founding prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, for a journalist, not a historian, Richard Gwyn, to re-examine Macdonald. The last full-length study of Sir Wilfrid Laurier was published in the 1960s and a nine-year majority prime minister, Louis St. Laurent, has never in fact had a full-length academic biography produced! Canadian historians have much to learn from their American colleagues.)

When Carter's "Malaise speech" is considered from 2009's vantage point - when global warming, environmental degradation and concerns about energy - are at the top of the Western world's agenda, it is hard not to conclude that Carter, who was defeated after one term in office, was in fact a visionary leader. North Americans didn't follow his plea to turn down thermostats, choose conversation over consumption and opt for public transit over gas-guzzlers.

And look where we are today.

"I ask Congress to give me authority for mandatory conservation and for standby gasoline rationing," Carter said from the Oval Office on July 15, 1979. "To further conserve energy, I'm proposing tonight an extra $10 billion over the next decade to strengthen our public transportation systems. And I'm asking you for your good and for your nation's security to take no unnecessary trips, to use carpools or public transportation whenever you can, to park your car one extra day per week, to obey the speed limit, and to set your thermostats to save fuel. Every act of energy conservation like this is more than just common sense - I tell you it is an act of patriotism."

"Just as a similar synthetic rubber corporation helped us win World War II, so will we mobilize American determination and ability to win the energy war," Carter had said. "Moreover, I will soon submit legislation to Congress calling for the creation of the nation's first solar bank, which will help us achieve the crucial goal of 20 percent of our energy coming from solar power by the year 2000."

According to one source consulted via Google, the United States now produces 0.1 percent of its electricity generation from solar power.

Professor Mattson, who was only 13 years old (as was I) when Carter gave the speech so maligned by the politicos and experts before him, concludes: "Looking back at the speech helps us understand what we became after we turned the corner in 1979, and it reminds us of what we forgot when we put Carter's words of warning behind us."

It is often said today that Jimmy Carter is the "best ex-president" the United States has ever had. Mattson's book, however, following in the footsteps of others (see Douglas Brinkley's "The Unfinished Presidency") is part of a growing body of literature making an excellent case that the Carter presidency looks better and better as the years go on. His post-White House leadership of the Carter Center (with Rosalynn Carter) and his constant quest for peace and justice in the world are but a continuation of the work he began as president.

Contrary to popular belief, there is a good chance that Carter returned home to tiny Plains, Ga., in January of 1981 - like Harry Truman did to Independence, Mo., in his own time - quietly confident of history's verdict.

James Earl Carter was not interviewed for Mattson's book and the author doesn't tell us if he tried to secure a discussion with the former president.

Regardless, Mattson didn't need to have one. The 39th president's actions in office - and ever since — speak for themselves.

That's what history will say.

Jimmy Carter the loser in 1980? Think again.

comments powered by Disqus